Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel dead at 70

Hilary Mantel, the Booker Prize-winning author of the acclaimed Wolf Hall saga of historical novels, has died. She was 70.

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

Mantel is credited with re-energizing historical fiction with Wolf Hall and two sequels about the 16th-century English powerbroker Thomas Cromwell, right-hand man to King Henry VIII.

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.

LISTEN l Hilary Mantel in conversation with CBC’s Writers & Company:

Writers and Company58:47Hilary Mantel wraps up her blockbuster Tudor trilogy with The Mirror & the Light

The two-time Booker Prize winner talks to Eleanor Wachtel about concluding her chronicle of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII.

Mantel won the Booker Prize twice, for Wolf Hall in 2009 and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. The final installment, The Mirror and the Lightwas published in 2020.

The success of Wolf Hall propelled Mantel from a critically acclaimed but modestly selling novelist into a literary superstar. Before that, she had authored works that included A Place of Greater Safetyset during the French Revolution, and Beyond Blackabout the life of a psychic medium.

“I’m always conscious of untold stories,” she told CBC’s Writers & Company in 2012. “Historical fiction is in many ways a project of recovery, rediscovery, rehabilitation sometimes.”

Mantel turned Cromwell, a shadowy political fixer, into a compelling, complex literary hero. Cromwell was an architect of the Reformation who helped the king realize his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. 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.

‘Wiping the slate clean’

It’s a period of history that has inspired many books, films and television series, from A Man for All Seasons that The Tudors. But Mantel managed to make the well-known story new and exciting.

“The first thing I did then was to get back to the historical record — to try to forget what I’d been reading in biographies — and I began to access a very different story,” she told CBC Radio in 2020. “I saw how historians have rolled along not just prejudices but error, from one generation to the next.

“So I felt as if I were wiping the slate clean and trying to see Cromwell as if for the first time.”

The first two novels of the trilogy were adapted for a BBC series that aired in 2015 starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell, Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy as the king’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Illness affected marriage, career path

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.”

Mantel studied Law at the London School of Economics and Sheffield University and first worked as a social worker. She turned to writing fiction while living in Botswana for five years with her geologist husband Gerald McEwen.

The pair divorced, a split Mantel attributed to her illness and the infertility caused by treatment she received for it, but later remarried.

She would later write the memoir Giving Up the Ghost (2003), which chronicled years of ill-health, including undiagnosed endometriosis. She once said the years of illness wrecked her dream of becoming a lawyer but made her a writer.

Her first novel, Every day is Mother’s Daywas published in 1985. In total she authored 17 books, including non-fiction work.

Politically outspoken

Mantel could be politically outspoken. A 2013 lecture in which she described the former Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William, as a “shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own,” drew the ire of the British tabloid press.

Mantel said she wasn’t talking about the Duchess herself but rather describing a view of Kate constructed by the press and public opinion. The author nevertheless received criticism from then-Prime Minister David Cameron, among others.

Right-wing commentators also took issue with a short story entitled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, which imagined an attack on the Conservative leader. It was published in 2014, the same year Queen Elizabeth II made Mantel a dame, the female equivalent of a knight.

An opponent of Brexit, she said in 2021 that she hoped to gain Irish citizenship and become “a European again.”

Mantel is survived by her husband.

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