The death of Dame Hilary Mantel brings an end to one of the most remarkable literary careers of the last half century. Her great historical trilogy, Wolf Hall, earned her two Booker prizes, dominating the cultural landscape of the early 21st century – on page, stage and television – for almost as long as her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, reigned over the political one of the 16th.
She gave readers permission to look afresh at this most overworked period of history: not only at Cromwell himself, who was previously mainly known as the portly subject of a sombre Holbein portrait, but Henry VIII and all of the courtiers who surrounded him. Her scepticism about the saintliness of Sir Thomas More ruffled more than a few feathers.
However, nobody could fault the painstaking research that underpinned her revisionism. As she said in her 2017 Reith lectures: “I would make up a man’s inner torments but not … the colour of his drawing-room wallpaper.” To her fellow writers she gifted the licence to write historical fiction differently: Maggie O’Farrell, author of the award-winning Hamnet, a brilliant reclamation of Shakespeare’s wife, is among the younger novelists who acknowledge her influence.
However, there has always been far more to Mantel than the Tudors. From the mid-1980s she was forging funny and politically mordant novels from such unlikely material as the inadequacies of social services, and the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of organised religion in a north of England backwater. She brought the French Revolution vividly to life in one of her finest novels, A Place of Greater Safety.
She was also at times a fey writer, who considered herself to be haunted by the people she had known and the lives she might have led, had she not been stricken as a young woman by undiagnosed endometriosis. It is this feyness that powered one of her most outstanding novels, Beyond Black. This tale of a medium haunted by a malign circus dwarf was so powerfully sinister that, much to her delight, it had the rare distinction of being both hailed as a work of genius and condemned as “evil”.
In her other life, as an essayist over many years, mainly for the LRB, she drew provocative parallels between establishments past and present, memorably describing Diana, Princess of Wales, as an icon “only loosely based on the young woman born Diana Spencer” and comparing Kate Middleton to Anne Boleyn. That history was a battlefield strewn with the bodies of women was one of her most persistent themes in both fiction and nonfiction.
Most of her essays were written at a time when her novels were a well-kept secret: for years she suffered from a refusal to sit quietly in an easily marketed pigeonhole. For all her enjoyment of her belated success, she remained a glorious original. We shall not see her like again.
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