Hilary Mantel, prize-winning author of historical fiction, dies at 70

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Hilary Mantel, prize-winning author of historical fiction, dies at 70
Hilary Mantel, prize-winning author of historical fiction, in London, England on Feb. 23, 2020. Mantel, the British author of “Wolf Hall,” “Bring Up the Bodies” and “The Mirror and the Light,” her trilogy based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, died on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 at a hospital in Exeter, England. She was 70. Ellie Smith/The New York Times

by Alex Marshall and Alexandra Alter

NEW YORK, NY.- Hilary Mantel, the British author of “Wolf Hall,” “Bring Up the Bodies” and “The Mirror and the Light,” her trilogy based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, died Thursday at a hospital in Exeter, England. She was 70.

Her death, days after having a stroke Monday, was confirmed by Bill Hamilton, her longtime literary agent. “She had so many great novels ahead of her,” Hamilton said. “It’s just an enormous loss to literature,” he added.

Mantel, the author of 17 books, was one of Britain’s most decorated novelists. She had twice won the Booker Prize, the country’s prestigious literary award, for “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” both of which went on to sell millions of copies. In 2020, she was also longlisted for the same prize for “The Mirror and the Light.”

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

Mantel was born Hilary Mary Thompson on July 6, 1952, to Henry and Margaret Thompson in Glossop, a village in Derbyshire, and she grew up in a busy Irish Catholic family. Her mother, Margaret, was a school secretary, Mantel wrote in “Giving Up the Ghost,” her 2003 memoir. After her mother left her husband and moved the family in with Jack Mantel, an engineer, Mantel took her stepfather’s surname.

It was a tough childhood. “I was unsuited to being a child,” she wrote in her memoir. Mantel suffered health problems, leading a doctor to call her “Little Miss Neverwell,” becoming the first of many doctors to fail to properly treat Mantel, who lived with chronic pain during much of her life.

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

In her 20s, she realized she was suffering from endometriosis, a condition where 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 a 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 Mantel later drew on in her novel “Eight Months on Ghazzah Street,” about a British woman living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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 cult following.

Yet Mantel did not achieve mainstream success until 2009, with “Wolf Hall,” the first in her trilogy of books about Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who ended up becoming 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. Soon, Cromwell 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,” 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, Mantel said she had become fascinated with Cromwell after learning in high school about his role in dissolving Britain’s monasteries. Yet when reading novels about him, she saw 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 into one of the most powerful figures in Britain, only to then 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,” Mantel said in the 2020 interview.

Mantel 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 also 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.

The trilogy was translated into 41 languages and sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, and helped rehabilitate Cromwell’s image by presenting him as a brilliant and revolutionary strategist. “Hilary has reset the historical patterns,” Diarmaid MacCulloch, an Oxford theology professor and author of a Cromwell biography, told the Times in 2020.

Even after she rose to prominence, 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 and 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 Mantel with the title of Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, the equivalent of knighthood.

Mantel is survived by her husband, McEwen, Hamilton said. The couple did not have any children. She is also survived by a younger brother, according to Hamilton.

After completing the Cromwell trilogy, 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.

Her agent, Hamilton, said Mantel was working on at least one play and had various works in different stages of completion, but there is “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 one of her final interviews, published Sept. 10, Mantel was asked if she believed in an afterlife. She did, she told The Financial Times, although she couldn’t imagine how it might work. “However, the universe is not limited by what I can imagine,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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