It was the story of two intertwined lives. One was the brilliant novelist who turned the rejection of her first manuscript into a determined ambition to write, and whose legacy to the world is a series of bestselling books to be read for generations to come.
The other was a woman who could sometimes criticize the country which recognized her genius by bestowing honors and accolades on her, especially with her views on Brexit.
Both lives belonged to Dame Hilary Mantel, the author of the two-time Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall trilogy, whose sudden death at the age of 70 after suffering a stroke was announced yesterday.
The tributes paid to him following this unexpected loss were generous and comprehensive.
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 audacity, creative ambition and phenomenal historical insight make her one of the greatest novelists of our time,” he added.
Others hailed his “incredible literary legacy”. Harry Potter author JK Rowling simply tweeted, “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 final volume, The Mirror And The Light, was published to huge acclaim review in 2020. Although longlisted for the Booker, it failed to win.
The books, however, caused a sensation in publishing, selling over five million copies worldwide and being translated into 41 languages.
Readers were gripped by the turbulent and deceitful world it presented of the court of King Henry VIII and the fictional 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 compared the heir to the throne house to the “treacherous and opportunistic world” portrayed by Mantel in Wolf Hall.
Yet for all her scholarship and undoubted intelligence, she was surprisingly outspoken for someone who was made a CBE in 2006 and made a dame for services to literature in 2014.
This was particularly the case in his 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 was ashamed of the way refugees and migrants were treated in the UK.
Inevitably, perhaps, as someone who voted to Remain, she was no fan of the Brexiteers, whom she described as ‘little people – inexperienced, insincere, devious and often ridiculous opportunists’.
In total, Mantel has 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 heavily involved. While in 2015 the two books were the subject of a six-part BBC television drama titled Wolf Hall, starring Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy (pictured).
She also wondered whether the Union of the United Kingdom 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 importance of the literary legacy left by Hilary Mantel. His brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy was the crowning achievement of an exceptional body of work. Rest in peace.’
Despite the fact that her most successful books were rooted in the upheavals of the monarchy, she was intrigued by the popularity of the House of Windsor. It was a theme she returned to often.
In 2013, she came under fire after she described the then Duchess of Cambridge as a “showcase model with no personality of her own” whose sole purpose was to reproduce. Kate, she said, “seemed to have been built by craftsmen, with a plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and glossy varnished”.
Even Prime Minister David Cameron, who has rarely strayed into cultural debates, was moved to berate the novelist for her comments.
Although Mantel admitted to being surprised by the ferocity of the criticism that fell on her, she said her essay on Kate was misinterpreted and that she had nothing but respect for the royals.
His views on Margaret Thatcher were less nuanced. A year after the death of the Iron Lady, Mantel announced that she was writing a short story book called The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
“When I think of her, I still feel this boiling hatred,” she wrote at the time. Calling her an anti-feminist “psychological transvestite”, Dame Hilary, a former member of the Young Communist League, said the former Tory Prime Minister had caused “long-standing damage in many areas of national life”.
In 2013, she came under fire after she described the then Duchess of Cambridge (pictured at her 2011 wedding) as a ‘showcase model with no personality of her own’ whose sole purpose was to reproduce.
Yet for most of the Thatcher era, the author wasn’t 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 the miners’ strike.
The idea for the book, she said, came to her while on morphine after receiving treatment for the endometriosis she had suffered from for many years. By the time she was correctly diagnosed, the condition was so advanced that her reproductive organs had to be removed. She was 27 and couldn’t have children.
Mantel was born in the town of Glossop, Derbyshire, the eldest of three children, and her childhood was not only difficult but unusual. At seven years old, she claims 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 there and show you where it materialized,” she told the Daily Mail in 2005.
This was not the only strange occurrence in Dame Hilary’s household. His parents took in a tenant named Jack who took his father’s place in the marital bed.
Of her father, she said, “He kind of passed out, slowly faded away, really.”
Hilary took on the tenant name of Mantel and at 18 secured a place to study law at the London School of Economics. She left after a year because her parents had not contributed to her scholarship. She moved to the University of Sheffield to resume her studies before becoming a social worker in a geriatric hospital.
Dame Hilary was the first female author to win the Man Booker Prize twice – for Wolf Hall in 2009 and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies in 2012
It was in Sheffield that she met geology student Gerald McEwen and they married in 1972. Nine years later they were divorced, only to remarry the following year. After their expat life abroad, they returned to the UK, eventually settling on the Devon coast at Budleigh Salterton.
After working as a teacher and for a time as a dress saleswoman, she was determined to make writing her career.
She became a film critic for The Spectator magazine and was a regular reviewer of newspaper books. Her first novel, however, was not an overnight success. In 1974, his 35,000-word manuscript on the French Revolution titled A Place Of Greater Safety was returned to him unread. When it was finally published in 1992, it won a literary prize – one of the scores she was to receive.
In total, Mantel has 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 heavily involved. While in 2015, the two books were the subject of a six-part BBC television drama titled Wolf Hall, starring Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy.
In 2021, The Mirror And The Light was staged at the Gielgud Theater in London, adapted by Mantel herself and actor Ben Miles, who also starred in the show.
Last night Miles said: ‘I feel so honored 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 will miss his kindness, his humor and his gentle tenacity. The indisputable genius of his words remains as a small consolation to this tragic loss.