HILARY MANTEL yesterday won the inaugural £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction for her novel about a ruthless Englishman.
Wolf Hall, which charts the brazen life of the Tudor politician Thomas Cromwell and has already won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, was described by the judges as immersive, readable and beautifully crafted.
Due to illness, the author was unable to attend the award ceremony, which took place at Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford home in the Scottish Borders as part of the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival, but
she said: "When I first heard of it I couldn't quite believe it; it is such a startlingly generous and imaginative gesture, an appropriately old-fashioned act of patronage of the arts."
She added: "This has been an interesting year for writers and readers of the historical novel – perhaps a turning point."
The Walter Scott Prize, which is sponsored by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch – distant descendants of Scott – was launched this year with support from EventScotland. The prize's definition of "historical" is when events described take place at least 60 years before publication, and so stand outside personal experience of the author. The definition comes from Scott's subtitle for Waverley: "Tis Sixty Years Since".
The prize's judges, including novelist Allan Massie and The Scotsman books editor David Robinson, said of Wolf Hall: "This is as good as the historical novel gets – immersive, engaging, beautifully crafted, and compulsively readable. Choose any superlative: it will fail this book. Mantel's empathy for, and assimilation of, her world is so seamless and effortless as to be almost disturbing."
A sequel is likely to emerge next year. "Intense involvement in history was what started me writing," said Mantel. "And now, although I hope to go on writing contemporary novels, the challenges and perplexities of historical fiction have become my preoccupation."
The Duke of Buccleuch said yesterday: "Walter Scott was the founding father of the historical novel. Waverley, published in 1814 and completed at Abbotsford, was the first bestseller, the first novel to make novel reading respectable for a mass audience. So the venue for the prize's presentation could not be more appropriate, and it is a wonderful way of reminding the world of the profound importance of this great house and of the man who created it."
Other novels shortlisted for the prize this year included Hodd by Adam Thorpe and Lustrum by Robert Harris.