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Hilary Mantel: Bringing ghosts to life

Print edition : Sep 24, 2022 T+T-

Hilary Mantel: Bringing ghosts to life

Hilary Mantel.

Hilary Mantel. | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Mantel became the first British writer, and first woman, to win the prestigious Booker Prize twice.

Hilary Mantel, whose death was announced on September 23, communed with ghosts throughout her life: the ghosts from history that stalked her fiction, the ghosts of her Irish Catholic ancestors, and the ghosts of her unborn children.

The British author’s accomplishments, however, were very real. There were midnight queues outside bookshops for her last novel, the conclusion to her trilogy about the tumultuous life of Thomas Cromwell, the scheming chief minister to King Henry VIII.

Mantel, who was 70, became the first British writer, and the first woman, to win the prestigious Booker Prize twice with the first two novels in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The third, The Mirror & the Light, was tipped by many critics to make an unprecedented treble but missed out. Mantel took the judges’ snub in good grace.

“I think a book is born into a cultural moment and any book is carried on the cultural tide, so we just have to acknowledge that,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2020.

Mantel died “suddenly yet peacefully” surrounded by close family and friends, publisher HarperCollins said on September 23.

The publisher said Mantel was “one of the greatest English novelists of this century”. “Her beloved works are considered modern classics. She will be greatly missed,” it said in a statement.

Nicholas Pearson, Mantel’s longtime editor, said her death was “devastating”. “Only last month I sat with her on a sunny afternoon in Devon, while she talked excitedly about the new novel she had embarked on,” he said. “That we won’t have the pleasure of any more of her words is unbearable. What we do have is a body of work that will be read for generations.”

Swimming against the tide

Mantel herself swam against the tide since publishing her first novel in 1985, Every Day Is Mother’s Day, a darkly comic story about a mentally disabled girl and her terrifying mother, who communes with the undead. It drew on Mantel’s post-university stint as a social worker but was not the first novel she had written.

That manuscript was drafted in the 1970s but only emerged in 1992 as A Place of Greater Safety, set in the years leading up to the French Revolution of 1789, and its blood-soaked aftermath.

Much of her literary oeuvre dwelt on the historical or the supernatural. But Mantel did not shy away from attacking contemporary issues, including the British royalty and former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.

Interviewed by Italian newspaper La Repubblica in September 2021, Mantel said she planned to take up Irish citizenship, “to become a European again” after Brexit.

‘Female, northern and poor’

Born as Hilary Thompson into a family of Irish descent, Mantel grew up in the austere 1950s bearing the three disadvantages of being “female, northern and poor”, as recounted in her 2003 memoir Giving Up the Ghost. The book describes a girl of otherworldly imagination growing up in a Derbyshire mill village and schooled by doctrinaire Catholic nuns.

The writer described losing her own faith by the age of 11, when she saw her father for the last time. By then, her mother’s lover had been sharing the family home for four years, along with her father. Mantel was the surname of the new “stepfather”, although he and her mother never married.

Hilary Mantel went on to study law at the London School of Economics but transferred in 1971 to Sheffield University to be nearer her fiance Gerald McEwen, who was studying geology in the limestone-rich region. In her memoir, she recalled that one of her tutors at Sheffield “was a bored local solicitor who made it plain that he didn’t think women had any place in his classroom”.

Misogyny was evident towards the end of her studies when Mantel developed crippling pains in her abdomen and legs. Doctors dismissed her as “hysterical, neurotic, difficult”, and placed her on mind-altering drugs.

Global following

Years later, by now living in Botswana where McEwen had swapped limestone for diamond exploration, Mantel found her symptoms laid out in a medical textbook and was finally able to get doctors to take the condition seriously.

In London, over Christmas 1979, Mantel had surgery for endometriosis, a disorder in the blood cells of the uterus. The procedure left her infertile and hormone treatment led to rapid weight gain, twin traumas she describes in harrowing detail in the memoir.

She imagines life with the daughter she would never have, named Catriona, the most heart-rending ghost of the many spectres that populate her 12 novels.

Mantel and McEwen divorced in 1980 but remarried two years later and relocated to Saudi Arabia for his geology work. A later short story evoked a miserable time, as an expatriate wife enduring cloistered life in the conservative Islamic state.

Liberated from that experience, she wrote in her memoir of being on a quest to unearth the truth “in the accumulation of dusty and broken facts, in the cellars and sewers of the human mind”.

Literary superstardom

Mantel’s quest continued, with the accumulation of tangible awards and a global readership. Her books about Thomas Cromwell (the Wolf Hall Trilogy) turned her into a literary superstar and have so far been translated into 41 languages, with sales of more than five million. She turned the shadowy Tudor political fixer into a compelling, complex literary hero, by turns thoughtful and thuggish.

A self-made man who rose from poverty to power, Cromwell was an architect of the Reformation who helped King Henry VIII realise his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn — and later, to be rid of Boleyn so he could marry Jane Seymour, the third of what would be Henry’s six wives.

The Vatican’s refusal to annul Henry’s first marriage led the monarch to reject the authority of the pope and install himself as head of the Church of England.

The dramatic period saw England transformed from a Roman Catholic to a Protestant nation, from a medieval kingdom to an emerging modern state, and it has inspired countless books, films, and television series, from A Man for All Seasons to The Tudors. But Mantel managed to make the well-known story exciting and suspenseful.

“I’m very keen on the idea that a historical novel should be written pointing forward,” she said in a 2009 interview. “Remember that the people you are following didn’t know the end of their own story. So they were going forward day by day, pushed and jostled by circumstances, doing the best they could, but walking in the dark, essentially.”

Queen Elizabeth II made Mantel a dame, the female equivalent of a knight, in 2014.

She is survived by her husband, Gerald McEwen.