The British novelist Hilary Mantel, who died on Thursday at age 70, left a wide-ranging and hard-to-classify body of work that encompassed memoir, story collections, contemporary novels and brilliant, querulous literary essays. But she was most celebrated for her work as a historical novelist, covering subjects from the French Revolution to the Protestant Reformation — especially in her Wolf Hall trilogy, about Thomas Cromwell’s role as Henry VIII’s chief fixer and enforcer. Writing with her usual spiky language and rich immediacy of detail, she reinvigorated a genre that had long been ridiculed as “relentlessly uncontemporary and easy to caricature, filled with mothballed characters who wear costumes rather than clothes, use words like ‘Prithee,’” as the novelist Jonathan Lee wrote in a recent essay.
Mantel won the Booker Prize twice — first for “Wolf Hall,” which, as our critic Janet Maslin wrote, “turned the phlegmatic villain Thomas Cromwell into the best-drawn figure and easily mixed 16th-century ambience with timeless bitchery” — and then for its sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies.”
Here is a selection of The New York Times’s coverage of Mantel over the years, along with some of her own writing for the newspaper.
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.
The second installment in the trilogy, this book finds Cromwell coping with Henry VIII’s tumultuous marriage to Anne Boleyn as Jane Seymour rises in the king’s estimation. “The wonder of Ms. Mantel’s retelling is that she makes these events fresh and terrifying all over again,” Janet Maslin wrote in her review.
The “triumphant capstone” to the series, as our former critic Parul Sehgal called it, begins in 1536, with the 50-year-old Cromwell “rich beyond all his imagining and very much alone.” In order to finish the 800-page book, Mantel imposed a “punishing schedule” on herself, Alexandra Alter wrote in a 2020 profile, and afterward decided that “she’s done with historical fiction and plans to focus on writing plays.”
This collection of work from The London Review of Books contains Mantel’s most incendiary essay, “Royal Bodies,” which compared Prince William’s wife, Catherine, to a plastic doll. Fernanda Eberstadt, who reviewed the book for us, wrote that “actually the essay’s most incendiary moment is when Mantel, at a Buckingham Palace reception, finds herself staring at the queen: ‘I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones.’”
Mantel’s seventh novel, and her second to be published in the United States, follows the adult Carmel McBain, who, in a “Proustian time-warp experience,” Margaret Atwood wrote in her review, falls down a rabbit hole of memories of her Catholic childhood and coming-of-age. “This is Carmel’s story,” Atwood wrote, “but it is that of her generation as well: girls at the end of the ’60s, caught between two sets of values, who had the pill but still ironed their boyfriends’ shirts.”
Mantel’s memoir of her “tough childhood and a serious illness,” our reviewer said, “does not reassure. It scalds.” The eldest child of poor Irish Catholic parents living outside Manchester, Mantel suffered fevers and “the crippling tedium and unintelligible torments of a rough Catholic primary school,” and was separated from her father at a young age. When she was 20 doctors diagnosed her chronic pain as “a bad case of female overambition” — a decade later, she discovered it was endometriosis. “Hers are very vital ghosts,” our reviewer wrote. “What she has done is to invite us into their unquiet company.”
First published in Britain in 2003, the same year she published “Giving Up the Ghost,” this collection of stories echoes many of the preoccupations of that memoir, following children and adolescents in midcentury northwest England who are “at odds with their families, neighbors and schools,” our reviewer said, “striving to decipher the unspoken, and often hindered more than helped by cleverness and curiosity. … These stories hold worlds as wide as those of her longest novels.”
In this interview, brimming with marvelous, craggy detail about writing and reading, Mantel told The Times that the best part of working on a book was “the moment, at about the three-quarter point, where you see your way right through to the end: as if lights had flooded an unlit road. But the pleasure is double-edged, because from this point you’re going to work inhuman hours, not caring about your health or your human relationships; you’re just going to head down that road like a charging bull.”
Shortly before “The Mirror and the Light” was published, Mantel spoke with The Times about the “Wolf Hall” trilogy. “Once those voices begin,” said Mantel, who had been fascinated by the life of Thomas Cromwell since she was a child, “it’s like having the radio on in the background for 15 years. It never actually fades.”
What is it like for an author to shepherd her story onto the stage? In 2015, Mantel wrote about, as she put it, starting to “build a theater inside my head.” This is an account of how the “Wolf Hall” novels made it to Stratford-on-Avon, then to Broadway. As she wrote: “Snipped from the record, processed into a novel, recycled into script, sieved through 10 drafts, through 20, they stick because they’re the best words. The dead are speaking to us, hand on our arm.”
In 2012, Mantel contributed a tart, honest and witty essay about working as an English teacher in Botswana in the 1970s. She moved there with her geologist husband when she was 25, and she ended up in a classroom after another instructor failed to materialize. She wrote, “Today, my pupils from 1978 are never out of my thoughts: a boy called Justice, a girl called Tears.”
In this novel, a woman tries to reconstruct her dead mother’s emotional history using a handful of objects — a pink kimono, a notebook with cryptic scribblings. The story begins “warily,” Mantel writes, “as if the business of storytelling might be an infringement of good manners.”
“Barry Unsworth’s latest novel is a sad comedy of cheats and fools,” Mantel wrote, “a story of unbounded beauty and blighted hopes, of multiple and layered betrayals, ‘a regression of falsehoods and deceptions going back through all the generations to the original agreement, God’s pact with Adam.’”
“This is powerful material, and Ms. O’Brien has apparently decided her prose must rise to it. The reader may feel some initial queasiness,” Mantel wrote. Her criticism is scalpel sharp, delivered with a crisp bedside manner.
In 1998, Mantel cut to the chase in the first line of her review of Mary Gordon’s novel, “Spending”: “Sex, art, money: That’s what it’s all about,” she wrote. “So we learn in the neatly chiseled opening sentences of Mary Gordon’s new novel. Add in death and we would have a ferocious quaternity to frame the action.”