Sep 23, 2022
The literary world mourns the loss of the incomparable English writer, Hilary Mantel, today. She rose to international fame with her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell (King Henry VIII’s chief minister), starting with Wolf Hall in 2009.
Writing this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t read a lot of books about royalty, I have to say that the end of Wolf Hall (spoiler alert: Anne Boleyn loses her head, in case you didn’t know) honestly filled me with such deep sorrow. That was part of Hilary Mantel’s gift. She had this ability to get deep within the minds of her subjects, capturing the essence of a voice in a way that somehow profoundly intertwined a character with you as you read. And really, she wasn’t writing about royalty in the way that other historical fiction authors had in the past: she was writing about the people behind the figureheads, the power struggles, the calculations of history, grief, love, anger, revenge – all themes that resonate throughout the ages. She wrote with feeling, but also with a precision, clarity, and wit that was unparalleled.
Hilary Mantel was also, as a person, as a woman, quite a force of nature herself. An inspiration to late bloomers (she didn’t write her first book until she was in her 30s, and rose to prominence in her 50s), she had a fascinating background in law, and travelled extensively with her husband. She spoke openly about her struggles with endometriosis (initially diagnosed as a psychiatric illness) and infertility, clapping back at those who dismissively suggested that her childlessness made her a better writer by saying “Sometimes people try to persuade me that it has meant that I could keep the world at bay. But I’d rather cope with the world than cope with pain, and the uncertainty that goes with it.” She didn’t mince words about society’s obsession with modern-day English royals, either, reminding us that “cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty.”
For those who wish to explore her writing further, we obviously recommend Wolf Hall, but you might also enjoy her early novel, Fludd (significantly shorter than her Tudor trilogy) or Mantel Pieces, a collection of her contributions to the London Review of Books over the years.
Below is a list of other books you may enjoy that explore similar themes and have a similar writing style to Mantel’s works.
We leave you with one of (in our opinion) the best quotes from Ms. Mantel, and a fitting end to this post:
“The word 'however' is like an imp coiled beneath your chair. It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen, and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margin. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.”
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies