Hilary Mantel, Prize-Winning Author Known for ‘Wolf Hall,’ Dies at 70

Date: 2022-09-23T10:51:21.000Z

Location: www.nytimes.com

Hilary Mantel, one of Britain’s most decorated novelists, whose trilogy of books on the life of Thomas Cromwell — “Wolf Hall,” “Bring Up the Bodies” and “The Mirror and the Light” — received both critical acclaim and commercial success, landing on best-seller lists around the world, died on Thursday at a hospital in Exeter, England. She was 70.

Her death, after she had suffered a stroke on Monday and endured chronic pain for much of her life, was confirmed by Bill Hamilton, her longtime literary agent.

“She had so many great novels ahead of her,” he said, adding, “It’s just an enormous loss to literature.”

Ms. Mantel, the author of 17 books, twice won Britain’s Booker Prize, for “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” both of which sold millions of copies. She was longlisted for the same prize, for “The Mirror and the Light,” in 2020. The novels led to popular stage and screen adaptations.

But it was a long and arduous road to reach those heights, beginning with a tough childhood. “I was unsuited to being a child,” Ms. Mantel wrote in a 2003 memoir, “Giving Up the Ghost.” She endured numerous health problems, leading one doctor to call her “Little Miss Neverwell.” The doctor was the first of many to fail to properly treat her.

Her illnesses later proved so debilitating that she could not hold down regular jobs, steering her to writing. But even then it was a writer’s life of fits and starts. Mainstream success did not come to her until she was well into her 50s.

Her Cromwell books were the turning point. Enraptured critics said she had presented the historical novel as high literature, portraying her subjects not as cardboard characters from centuries past but as real people of contradictions and psychological complexity, relatable in any age. And readers were carried along by her storytelling power.

The critic Parul Sehgal wrote in a 2020 review of “The Mirror and the Light” in The New York Times that Ms. Mantel’s writing envelops the reader “in the sweep of a story rich with conquest, conspiracy and mazy human psychology.” Ms. Mantel was not just a writer of historical fiction, Ms. Sehgal said, but an expert in showing “what power reveals and conceals in human character.”

Ms. Mantel was born Hilary Mary Thompson on July 6, 1952, to Henry and Margaret Thompson in Glossop, a village in Derbyshire, and grew up in an Irish Catholic family. Her mother was a school secretary. After her mother left her husband and moved the family in with Jack Mantel, an engineer, Ms. Mantel took her stepfather’s surname.

At 18, she moved to London to study law at the London School of Economics, but she could not afford to finish her training. After marrying Gerald McEwen, a geologist, she became a teacher and started writing on the side.

Hilary Mantel’s Most Influential Work

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‘Wolf Hall’ (2009). This fictional portrait of Henry VIII’s scheming aide Thomas Cromwell — the first volume of Mantel’s celebrated trilogy — won the Booker Prize in 2009. “‘Wolf Hall’ has epic scale but lyric texture. Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike,” Christopher Benfey wrote in his review for The Times.

In her 20s, Ms. Mantel was diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition in which tissue similar to that lining the womb grows elsewhere. Around that time, a doctor ordered her to stop writing. Her response, described in her memoir, was typically forthright: “I said to myself, ‘If I think of another story, I will write it.’”

At 27, having had the endometriosis diagnosis confirmed, she had surgery to remove her uterus and ovaries, although that did not stop the pain. The complications from her illness made a normal day job impossible, she said.

“It narrowed my options in life,” she said, “and it narrowed them to writing.”

The couple went to live in Botswana and Saudi Arabia, an experience that Ms. Mantel later drew on in her novel “Eight Months on Ghazzah Street,” about a British woman living in Jeddah.

She finished her first novel, “A Place of Greater Safety,” set in the French Revolution, in 1979. It was initially rejected by publishers — she was unknown, and the book, a historical novel, was over 700 pages long. But her second book, a contemporary novel published in 1985, became a critical success, and over the next decades she developed a following.

Yet Ms. Mantel did not achieve mainstream recognition until 2009, with “Wolf Hall,” the first in her trilogy about Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rose to become one of Henry VIII’s most trusted assistants. That novel began with a shocking scene: a teenage Cromwell lying in a pool of his own vomit, having been beaten by his father. Cromwell soon decides to make a different life for himself and embarks on a path toward power.

Janet Maslin, in a review for The Times, called it an “arch, elegant, richly detailed biographical novel.”

“Her book’s main characters are scorchingly well rendered,” Ms. Maslin added. “And their sharp-clawed machinations are presented with nonstop verve in a book that can compress a wealth of incisiveness into a very few well-chosen words.”

In a 2020 interview with The Times, Ms. Mantel said she had become fascinated with Cromwell after learning in high school about his role in dissolving Britain’s monasteries on the order of Henry VIII. Yet when reading novels about him, she saw that he was presented as an odious stereotype. “I realized that some imaginative work is due on this man,” she said.

Cromwell became the dominant figure in her trilogy, which followed him as he transformed himself into one of the most powerful figures in Britain, only to lose the king’s favor — and his head. “I’m not going to meet another Thomas Cromwell, if you think how long he’s been around in my consciousness,” Ms. Mantel said in the 2020 interview.

She did not just reawaken readers to Cromwell’s life in her novels; she also helped bring him to the stage in a series of award-winning plays and a BBC TV series. She co-wrote the stage adaptation of the final book in the trilogy, “The Mirror and the Light,” with Ben Miles, the actor who played Cromwell in the production. (Mark Rylance played him in the BBC series.)

The trilogy was translated into 41 languages and sold more than five million copies worldwide. It also helped rehabilitate Cromwell’s image by presenting him as a brilliant and revolutionary strategist.

“Hilary has reset the historical patterns,” Diarmaid MacCulloch, the Oxford theology professor and historian and the author of a Cromwell biography, told The Times in 2020.

Even after she rose to prominence, Ms. Mantel never became a fixture in London’s literary scene. She led a quiet life in Budleigh Salterton, a village on the coast of Devon, where she and her husband mostly kept to themselves as she focused on her writing.

She could be sharp-witted and iconoclastic in her views and didn’t fear stirring controversy with her irreverent attitude toward British politics and royalty. She was attacked by the tabloids for remarks she made during a lecture at the British Museum in 2013, when she compared Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, to “a shop-window mannequin” with no personality. She drew the ire of conservative British politicians over a short story she wrote that imagined a planned assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

Still, despite her skepticism of pomp and the political establishment, she was a national icon. In 2015, Prince Charles anointed Ms. Mantel with the title of Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, the equivalent of knighthood.

The news of her death prompted an outpouring of tributes from cultural and literary institutions like the Royal Shakespeare Company, the bookstores Foyles and Waterstones, the Booker Prize and the London Review of Books, where she was a frequent contributor.

Fellow writers, among them Susan Orlean, Bernardine Evaristo and Laila Lalami, expressed their appreciation for her on social media, as did prominent historians. On Twitter, Simon Schama praised her “incomparable feel for the texture of history,” and Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote that Ms. Mantel had “invented a new language” that changed historical fiction forever.

In an interview, the writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn marveled at the way Ms. Mantel had animated well-trod chapters of history through her sharp psychological insights and lush, evocative prose.

“She developed a way in ‘Wolf Hall’ of making you feel like you’re almost overhearing the thoughts of Thomas Cromwell, rather than flatly describing events,” he said. “It’s very much a psychological novel. She manages to combine a kind of stylistic lushness with an absolutely razor sharp precision in her prose, which don’t always go together.”

The British novelist Sarah Waters said in an interview that she had long admired Ms. Mantel’s versatility and inventiveness, as well as her ability to write incisive historical fiction, essays and memoir.

“She did so many different kinds of things and did them all equally well,” Ms. Waters said. “It was a shamefully long time before she got the recognition that she deserved. From the start, her books were incredibly original and suffused with this incredible intelligence.”

Ms. Mantel is survived by her husband, Mr. McEwen. The couple did not have any children. Her agent, Mr. Hamilton, said she is also survived by a younger brother, Brian Mantel, a management consultant.

After completing the Cromwell trilogy, Ms. Mantel described the process as “absolutely grueling” and said she didn’t feel she had the stamina to undertake another big historical fiction project. Instead, she planned to focus on a new medium — plays.

Mr. Hamilton said that at her death Ms. Mantel was working on at least one play and had various works in different stages of completion, but that there was “no novel or nonfiction book that could ever be published.”

“It’s highly unlikely that anything left incomplete would see the light of day,” he said in an email.

In one of her final interviews, published on Sept. 10 in The Financial Times, Ms. Mantel was asked if she believed in an afterlife. She did, she said, although she couldn’t imagine how it might work. “However,” she added, “the universe is not limited by what I can imagine.”