Hilary Mantle Was One of the Great Voices of Historical Fiction—and More IG News

IG News Updates,

Dame Hilary Mantle was a writer of immense skill and originality, and her death represents an irreparable loss to British literature. He will be remembered primarily for his trilogy on the life of Tudor politician Thomas Cromwell.

The grace and vigor of these gripping novels changed our understanding of what historical fiction can do. They were extraordinarily successful. Wolf Hall (2009) and Bringing Up the Bodies (2012) both won the Booker Prize (she was the first woman to win the award more than once), and The Mirror and the Light (2020) were placed on the long list. I was a member of the jury that awarded the Booker Prize for bringing out the bodies, and we were unanimous about the fantastic quality of that novel.

Adaptations for both television and the stage followed, and it is a tribute to the power of Mantle’s exploration of the ambiguities surrounding Cromwell’s dramatic life that these volumes brought many enthusiastic new readers to his novels. She became a literary star relatively late in her life.

The popularity of Mantel’s trilogy should not diminish the remarkable extent of his achievement. His dealings with Thomas Cromwell brought massive readers, but the achievement of his earlier novels had already achieved significant recognition.

life of a writer

Mantle graduated from LSE and the University of Sheffield, and married Gerald McEwan, a geologist, in 1972 (they divorced in 1981, and remarried in 1982). A short spell of employment as a social worker was behind her first published novel, the dark comic Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985), and its sequel Vacant Position (1986).

More security.

A major historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety (completed in 1979 but not published until 1992) is a particularly innovative interpretation of the French Revolution. Here, as in all of Mantel’s writings, a visionary understanding of the vast breadth of history and politics was intertwined with the intrinsic characteristics of personal experience.

Mantle had a lyrical sense of the world’s irreverent strangeness, with vivid moments of beauty and danger, but this was never removed from his understanding of the moral imperatives of our shared responsibilities. She has never been a neutral observer of the ups and downs of history.

Mantle spent extended periods of her life overseas – particularly in Botswana and Saudi Arabia – and she was always alert to a world beyond Britain. Eight Months on Ghazah Street (1988) is a tense account of misunderstandings between Westerners and Saudis living in Jeddah. A Change of Climate (1994) is based on his life in Botswana and the painful social divisions he witnessed in southern Africa.

book cover
Bloated up.

Mantel had an unusually broad and well-informed understanding of social and cultural politics, but he never lost interest in life that could be perceived as mediocrity. Fludd (1989), describes a quasi-supernatural stranger whose arrival turns a hopeless Catholic community upside down. It is never clear who Fludd is, or where he came from, or whether he is an agent of good or evil.

The Giant, O’Brien (1998), based on Irish legend Charles Byrne and Scottish surgeon John Hunter, is a terrifying reflection on Mantle’s own Irish roots. Irish Catholicism legacies also shadow An Experiment in Love (1995), a novel that looks back on the lives of Mantle’s post-war generation of girls – eager to take advantage of new opportunities for education, but Still haunted by the odds of the past.

a rich heritage

The feeling that another world exists, that its presence twinkles just before our everyday vision, is the basis of all the work of the mantle. Beyond Black (2005) is a disturbing and wonderfully entertaining account of the life of a medium, who may or may not be a fraud.

book cover
The ghost is giving

Giving the Ghost (2003), a grim memoir, repeatedly returns to the ghosts that haunted her in her early years—family ghosts, ghosts of unborn children, ghosts of life that could have taken a different shape. Learning to Talk (2003), published the same year, is a collection of short stories based on the same theme.

These stories are autobiographical memories of Mantle’s childhood in Glossop, as he begins to remove himself from the divided world of his family. Here too, it is the sharply observed description that pauses—Miss Webster, for example, the eloquent teacher, with her careful accent—”indefinitely decent, Manchester with icing”.

Recent short stories have been openly political and sometimes controversial—notably the murder of Margaret Thatcher, the provocatively titled story in a collection published in 2014.

This bright stream of writing has now come to an end. It’s nice to know that Hilary Mantle has experienced and enjoyed all the success she’s earned so richly, and that we’re left with so much rich writing to write and see again. But the feeling of immediate loss is painful. She was a unique and generous talent, and she will be greatly missed.


Most Popular