Reading Hilary Mantel for the first time made you sit up and realize: She wasn’t like everyone else.
Mantel, who died at the age of 70, was one of those authors that fans who discovered her early books in the ’80s (which she dug her own life for, like Every day is Mother’s Day, Fludd and Eight months on Ghazzah Street) hugged her to herself.
She had an unmatched ability to draw you in, create an atmosphere and – always – have an air of something sinister, supernatural, inexplicable, be it the medium accompanied by demons around the M25 Beyond Blackor Thomas Cromwell looking in at his dead wife Wolf Hall.
And there it is, the book that changed everything for her. Wolf Hall made us rethink not only the Tudors, but how books work. Your protagonist was Thomas Cromwell, and he’s there on almost every page, and we’re in his head the whole time. The book is full of moves from historical present to past tense, it has sliding tense schemes, the reader had to learn that whenever ‘he’ was mentioned Cromwell was meant – and we had to learn that Sir Thomas More wasn’t quite the saint and Hero, we thought. But the book carried you away and carried you away.
When you read a historical novel, questions usually remain unanswered – yes, but was that really the case? Is that true? Which bits are compound? What are the facts?
The greatest tribute to Hilary Mantel is that you have to believe her completely and force yourself to remember that she invented some of it — and that Thomas Cromwell may not have been as nice as she makes him out to be (although she never did restrains his recklessness).
I know I’m not alone in this experience: I remember stopping reading Wolf Hall and to walk around London, seeing it all Tudor eyes, looking at things the way Thomas Cromwell did, seeing the world the way he did – and not being able to pick up another book for days.
Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch says he recognizes her version of Cromwell as the man about whom he wrote a scholarly biography. You could tell she was happy with that – but if the academics had argued with her, she would have gone with her own instincts. Honors and acclaim and accolades (two Booker awards) rolled in, the plays and the television series – and again one got the impression that she was happy to accept but knew her own worth.
Could she do it again with Bring up the bodies (2012)? We held our collective breaths – and the first line was “His children fall from the sky”. We were in their safe hands again. the third book The mirror and the light (2020), was much longer and there was some resistance, claims she got lost. Not for the true believers she didn’t have. It was a satisfying, melancholic conclusion to the trilogy.
Mantel had created characters more real than your neighbors – “The wives of England, they all keep secret books about who they will have next if they have poisoned their husbands. and you [Thomas Cromwell] are at the top of everyone’s list.” Well Yes indeed. She shed new light on Anne Boleyn when we thought we knew everything and on Jane Seymour, whom none of us know anything about.
She created atmosphere, total conviction, realism. But also perfect sentences: “The months rush from you like a flood of autumn leaves, curling and flitting toward winter; Summer is over” in Bring up the bodies.
And joke: “He went to his armorer for a fitting and still wears various parts… making him look like an iron pot jiggling to the point of boiling.” (Wolf Hall)
in the The mirror and the light: “High in the tree, the cat is a soft figure visible only to the trained eye: limbs dangling, it is perfectly one with the branch it rests on. Lush words to describe an incident of little importance.
She was an unusual and fascinating personality: she had serious health problems, she had strong left-wing political views (which sometimes got her into trouble), and she gave odd interviews. I went to a lecture of hers once – in 2014, between the 2nd and 3rd books – and she appeared sweet and demure on stage and talked (in her slightly odd voice) about the books and told us that Thomas Cromwell was sitting the Table with her when she wrote.
That’s how she knew how he would think, that’s how she got it right. Nobody moved, it felt like nobody was breathing: she was confident and carried us all with her. She was also slightly scary: you wouldn’t want to be the person to ask her a stupid question.
Just before the end The mirror and the lightshe makes Thomas Cromwell think: “that moment was worth the rest of his life.” Spoilers: he will be executed shortly afterwards. Surely she put that line in to make us feel better about the death of a man none of us knew, perhaps not so admirable, who died 400 years ago. She made us think we knew him and we loved him and we loved her for creating him.
We all wanted her to write something else, about a different Tudor or anything else she wanted, but we still half suspected she never would.
But the three Tudor books are her legacy, works to be read as long as people are curious about the past or people or how history works or moral frameworks. The best books of the century.