The genius who skewered a Tudor king, then turned her pen on modern royals: RICHARD KAY pays tribute to Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel as she dies aged 70
Hers was a tale of two entwined lives. One was the brilliant novelist who turned rejection of her first manuscript into single-minded ambition to write, and whose legacy to the world is a string of best-selling books that will be read for generations to come.
The other was a woman who could, at times, be critical of the country that recognised her genius by showering honours and accolades upon her — most notably with her views on Brexit.
Both lives belonged to Dame Hilary Mantel, the double Booker Prize-winning author of the Wolf Hall trilogy whose sudden death at the age of 70 after suffering a stroke was announced yesterday.
The tributes to her following this unexpected loss were generous and fulsome.
Publisher HarperCollins described her as ‘one of the greatest English novelists of this century’, while her agent Bill Hamilton said it had been the ‘greatest privilege’ to work with the writer. ‘Her wit, stylistic daring, creative ambition and phenomenal historical insight mark her out as one of the greatest novelists of our time,’ he added.
Others hailed her ‘incredible literary legacy’. The Harry Potter author JK Rowling tweeted simply: ‘We’ve lost a genius.’
The sudden death of Dame Hilary Mantel (pictured holding her DBE medal for services to literature) at the age of 70 was announced yesterday
She was certainly a writer of supreme skill and flair. Dame Hilary was the first female author to receive the Man Booker Prize twice — for Wolf Hall in 2009 and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. The concluding volume, The Mirror And The Light, was published to huge critical acclaim in 2020. Although longlisted for the Booker, it failed to win.
The books, though, were a publishing sensation, selling more than five million copies worldwide and translated into 41 languages.
Readers were gripped by the turbulent and duplicitous world she introduced of King Henry VIII’s court and the fictionalised account of the rise and fall of his henchman, Thomas Cromwell.
And there was surely no greater compliment when, in 2015, a new biography of Prince Charles likened the then heir to the throne’s household to the ‘treacherous and opportunistic world’ depicted by Mantel in Wolf Hall.
Yet for all her erudition and undoubted cleverness she was unexpectedly blunt for someone who was made a CBE in 2006 and created a dame for her services to literature in 2014.
This was especially so in her analysis of post-Brexit Britain. In an interview with the liberal Italian newspaper La Repubblica last year, she railed against what she called the ‘ugly face of contemporary England’.
Indeed, she revealed that she was seeking Irish citizenship to become a ‘European again’ and because she felt ashamed at the way refugees and migrants were treated in the UK.
Inevitably, perhaps, as someone who voted Remain, she was no fan of Brexiteers, whom she labelled ‘smaller people — callow opportunists, insincere and devious and often ridiculous’.
In total, Mantel published 17 acclaimed books. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies were adapted by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a process in which the author was very involved. While in 2015, both books were the subject of a six-part BBC TV drama titled Wolf Hall, starring Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy (pictured)
She also questioned whether the Union of the UK had a long-term future ‘in its present form’.
Unsurprisingly, Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon was among the first to pay tribute, tweeting: ‘It is impossible to overstate the significance of the literary legacy Hilary Mantel leaves behind. Her brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy was the crowning achievement in an outstanding body of work. Rest in peace.’
Despite the fact that her most successful books were rooted in the upheavals of monarchy, she was puzzled by the popularity of the House of Windsor. It was a theme she often returned to.
In 2013 she found herself under fire after describing the then Duchess of Cambridge as a ‘shop-window mannequin with no personality of her own’ whose only purpose was to breed. Kate, she said, ‘appeared to have been built by craftsmen, with a plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished’.
Even Prime Minister David Cameron, who rarely strayed into cultural debates, was provoked into rebuking the novelist for her comments.
Although Mantel admitted she was taken aback by the ferocity of criticism that descended on her, she said her essay on Kate had been misconstrued and that she had nothing but respect for members of the Royal Family.
Her views on Margaret Thatcher were less nuanced. A year after the Iron Lady’s death, Mantel announced she was writing a book of short stories entitled The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher.
‘When I think of her, I can still feel that boiling detestation,’ she wrote at the time. Calling her an anti-feminist ‘psychological transvestite’, Dame Hilary, a one-time member of the Young Communist League, said the former Tory PM had done ‘long-standing damage in many areas of national life’.
In 2013 she found herself under fire after describing the then Duchess of Cambridge (pictured at her wedding in 2011) as a ‘shop-window mannequin with no personality of her own’ whose only purpose was to breed
Yet for the majority of the Thatcher era, the author was not even in the country. For most of the late 1970s and 1980s, Dame Hilary lived in Africa and the Middle East and did not return until 1986, after the Falklands War and miners’ strike.
The idea for the book, she said, had come while she was high on morphine after receiving treatment for endometriosis from which she suffered for many years. By the time she had been correctly diagnosed the condition was so advanced her reproductive organs had to be removed. She was 27 and unable to have children.
Mantel was born in the Derbyshire town of Glossop, the eldest of three, and her childhood was not just hard but unusual. At seven she claimed to have witnessed a supernatural presence at the bottom of the family garden. ‘There was nothing to see and nothing to hear and yet, to this day, I could take you to the spot and show you where it materialised,’ she told the Daily Mail in 2005.
This was not the only odd going-on in Dame Hilary’s home. Her parents took in a lodger called Jack who took her father’s place in the marital bed.
Of her father she said: ‘He sort of faded out, slowly disappeared, really.’
Hilary took the lodger’s name of Mantel and at 18 won a place to study law at the London School of Economics. She left after a year because her parents failed to contribute towards her grant. She moved to Sheffield University to resume her studies before going on to become a social-work assistant in a geriatric hospital.
Dame Hilary was the first female author to receive the Man Booker Prize twice — for Wolf Hall in 2009 and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies in 2012
It was at Sheffield that she met geology student Gerald McEwen and they married in 1972. Nine years later they divorced, only to remarry the following year. After their expat life overseas, they returned to the UK, eventually settling on the Devon coast at Budleigh Salterton.
After working as a teacher and for a while selling frocks, she was determined to make writing her career.
She became film critic for The Spectator magazine and was a regular newspaper book reviewer. Her first novel, however, was not an overnight success. In 1974 her 35,000-word manuscript about the French Revolution called A Place Of Greater Safety was sent back to her unread. When it was eventually published in 1992 it won a literary award — one of scores she was to receive.
In total, Mantel published 17 acclaimed books. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies were adapted by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a process in which the author was very involved. While in 2015, both books were the subject of a six-part BBC TV drama titled Wolf Hall, starring Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy.
In 2021 The Mirror And The Light was staged in London’s Gielgud Theatre, adapted by Mantel herself and the actor Ben Miles, who starred in the show, too.
Last night Miles said: ‘I feel so honoured to have known her and to have contributed in a small way to the work of one of the greatest writers of our time.
‘I shall dearly miss her kindness, her humour and her gentle tenacity. The indisputable genius of her words remains as some small consolation to this tragic loss.’