For many readers, the portal into Hilary Mantel’s work was “Wolf Hall” (2009), the first volume of an astonishing trilogy about the 16th-century fixer and enforcer Thomas Cromwell, who rose to power and then fell from grace in the court of King Henry VIII.
At first, the prose is disorienting. You’re plunged headlong into a far-off past that feels almost viscerally real, but your perspective is confused. (Mantel’s device in this book of using “he” in place of “Cromwell” through most of the present-tense narration, as a way to thrust the reader directly into the story, adds to this initial uncertainty.) Here is the teenage Cromwell, fleeing home after being savagely beaten by his brutal father; here he is as an adult, networking, plotting and maneuvering his way through political and palace intrigues.
Maybe you didn’t think you liked historical novels. But as you keep reading, you find that you’re hooked. The beauty of Mantel’s prose, her sly, unexpected use of language, the emotional resonance braided into the narrative — all these propel you along. It’s not just that the story — you know its bare bones, but it’s never been told like this before — is irresistible, it’s also that Mantel has an almost preternatural ability to make her hero both specific and universal. Dead for more than 400 years, reduced to caricature as a thug and a brute in the famous Holbein portrait that hangs in the Frick Museum, Cromwell here feels shimmeringly alive, full of pathos.
But there was so much more to Mantel than the Cromwell trilogy. There were nine other novels, demonstrating her ability to write in a range of styles about various subjects and in various time periods. There was a knockout memoir, “Giving Up the Ghost.” Her essay for The London Review of Books about the former Kate Middleton, then the Duchess of Cambridge, was a stiletto-bladed corrective to the banal platitudes that usually surround the well-worn subject of the women who marry into the royal family.
“Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character,” she wrote. “She appears precision-made, machine-made.”
Mantel was unsentimental, forthright, unafraid of stating her sometimes fierce views. Her story collection “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” — its title story was the result of a painkiller-induced fantasy Mantel once had in the hospital — caused a literary maelstrom. Lord Tebbit, a former cabinet minister, called it “a sick book from a sick mind”; there were calls for a police investigation. (For her part, Mantel said she was “bemused” at the suggestion that “the police should interest themselves in the case of a fictional assassination of a person who was already dead.”)
Deeply intellectual in her thinking, Mantel was also candid about her personal struggles — with poverty, with early professional setbacks, with how people perceived her, with endometriosis and chronic, debilitating pain — and rigorous in her self-appraisal. Though the themes of women suffering from pain, isolation and domestic weariness recur in her fiction, she didn’t make her own history the focus of her persona; she was not one to seek pity.
But it is impossible to read about her life without feeling deep sympathy for her and astonishment for the breadth of her literary accomplishments.
It was a shock to see her speak in person and realize how funny she was. When she won the Booker Prize in 2009, for “Wolf Hall,” she joked that she would spend the 50,000-pound prize on “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.” Accepting the prize again in 2012, for “Bring Up the Bodies,” the second book in the trilogy, she said: “You wait 20 years for a Booker Prize and then two come along at once.”
For me, her books show that great literature, the kind that marries meticulous craft and deep understanding of human nature, can require work on the part of the reader. Mantel never spoon-feeds us, never makes it particularly easy. She brings great precision to her writing, as opaque as it sometimes feels, and asks the same of us in our reading.
It seems shocking that she is dead. As her agent, Bill Hamilton, said upon the news of her death: “She had so many great novels ahead of her.” There is a lot more to read, and reread. But for now I am thinking of the poignant ending of “The Mirror and the Light,” the final book in the Cromwell trilogy. Having helped effect the deaths of so many of Henry’s enemies, Cromwell finds that he is to meet the same fate. In Mantel’s capable hands, this inevitable historical fact feels like a terrible shock.
“He has vanished,” she writes. “He is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall.”
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