“Writing,” Hilary Mantle told me in an interview in late 2020, “is the arena of risk.” The author, who has passed away at the age of 70, penned 17 books with style and immense imagination. He had a knack for the intricacies of the human psyche and the intricacies of life and closeness in historical fiction.
His 12th book, Wolf Hall, The first in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, propelled him to undeniable fame. She was in her late fifties when it won her the Booker Prize in 2009. The second Booker will come with his follow-up, bring bodies up, mirror and light, Published in 2020, she got that rare book-world fanfare, making her stand out in queues on the streets.
She was a prolific novelist, short story writer and critic who closely followed her understanding of the craft. She knew the need for practice and routine, while never denying the elusive magic that came her way. As a person, she was decent, generous, sly, honest. He read with interest the contemporary novels of young writers, paying attention to the news cycle.
Mantle was born in Glossop, Derbyshire, and grew up in Hadfield, a small town near Manchester, then Cheshire, where she attended a convent school. She was raised by her mother and stepfather (whose surname she took). She transferred from LSE to the University of Sheffield to study law, where she met her husband, Gerald McEwan (whom she married twice). “The story of my own childhood is a complex sentence I’m always trying to finish, finish and put behind”, she wrote in her 2003 memoir Abandonment of the ghost
In that daring yet playful book, she describes the beginning of a life-long struggle with endometriosis that began as a teenager and remained unchanged until her late twentieth century, when she searched through the textbook. Identify your illness on the page. Her university doctor had referred her to a mental health clinic, convinced that she was imagining her symptoms. When he caught hold of her writing, he decided that her stories were dark proof of insanity and asked her to stop. Mantle has campaigned to raise awareness and research about the disease.
Gerald’s job as a geologist took him to Botswana for five years and Saudi Arabia for four years in the 1970s. He described Saudi Arabia as “an extremely lonely life”. That’s where my mind often goes.” Gerald quit his job to work for Mantle. In 2010, he bought a flat in Buddley Salterton, Devon, where he’s lived and worked ever since, with Mantel every now and then. Day set up Hill in his office, keeping his writing and life neatly separate.
Mantle was president of the literary festival there, and recently auctioned his desk for over £4,000 to provide funding for literacy outreach work. But he had plans to move to Ireland – “Brexit is making me very sad”, he told me in 2020. “I think it would really break my heart to leave here. But there are thoughts that make me uncomfortable in England now.”
A recurring theme in his writings was death, or alternatively, how the dead survive: the vibrancy of the past, what is forgotten and what returns. his 2005 novel beyond black, About a medium named Alison, “How can the dead speak?”
A penetrating and witty critic, he had published pieces in the London Review of Books from 1987. She received Damehood in 2015, but has been vocal about the monarchy. A lecture given at the British Museum in 2013 made the front pages of national newspapers when she described Kate Middleton as a “shop-window mannequin”. The (clever) criticism of the monarchy, and what is expected of women in the public eye, was turned into a personal attack. 20 years in writing, a short story about the fictional murder of Margaret Thatcher also sparked controversy. A kind, intelligent writer, but also a cheeky one, she saw through authority, be it the Catholic Church, the monarchy or the Conservative Party.
Meeting writers can be frustrating, but Mantle was everything you wanted from him. Her first and only agent, Bill Hamilton, said in a statement: “We will miss her dearly, but she leaves an extraordinary legacy as a shining light for writers and readers alike.”
Mantle believed in things beyond our comprehension and was open to possibilities. In a recent Q&A with FT, she was asked if she believed in the afterlife. “Yes”, she said. “I cannot imagine how this could work. However, the universe is not limited to what I can imagine.” Her imagination was vast, yet beyond what she could imagine, she believed, even more.