Hilary Mantel started writing historical fiction in 1977 on the jacaranda-shaded verandah of a detached bungalow in Lobatse, Botswana, just over the border from apartheid South Africa. Across the road was a boarding school where, when not crippled by an illness no doctor had been able to diagnose, she taught Shakespeare to pupils who had never seen a play. In the evenings, she wrote.
She was 25, and had been married for three years to Gerald McEwen, whom she had met at 16 and who was working as a geologist mapping Botswana for diamonds, copper and water.
But for her first novel, Mantel didn’t want to write about anything remotely to do with her own life.
So there would be no fictionalised version of her strange, unhappy childhood in the north Derbyshire mill town of Hadfield, where her father slept in the spare room of their terrace house for four years after her mother’s lover, Jack Mantel, moved in.
Nothing, either, about the mystery illness which had plagued her since she was 19 and which doctors misdiagnosed, first as mental illness, then as cancer, then as imaginary. (She subsequently correctly worked out that she had endometriosis and in 1979 underwent emergency surgery to remove her womb, ovaries and part of her bowel, though she remained in chronic pain.)
Nor would there be anything about the law, which she had studied at university in London and Sheffield when she still dreamt of being a barrister, or being a social worker, or working in a posh department store like the one in Manchester in which she sold dresses.
History, though, was a different matter. At convent school, Mantel’s history teacher encouraged her intellectual curiosity about a subject that had always engaged her, emphasising its interlocking complexities. For O Level, Mantel studied the French Revolution, the subject of the novel she wrote in Africa.
At the Borders Book Festival held at Abbotsford last November, she talked briefly about it. Asked how historical novels had changed over her lifetime, she cited her experience of publishing A Place of Greater Safety.
Before she and Gerald went to Botswana, she had already spent three years in England researching what she hoped would be the first in-depth novel about the French Revolution.
Yet when she submitted it for publication in 1979, not a single publisher wanted to know. It remained unpublished until 1992.
The contrast between 1979 and now – the 2015 damehood, the first British double Booker winner with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (2009 and 2012), the first winner of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction (2010), the successful TV and stage adaptations of the Wolf Hall books, the towering critical and popular reputations – could hardly be greater. But Mantel hadn’t changed: it was our taste for historical fiction that had deepened – and she was one of the main reasons it had done so.
Take that scene in Wolf Hall when England’s King Henry VIII is so badly hurt in a jousting accident that for a while he is thought to have died. Most readers know that he didn’t actually die then, but such is Mantel’s skill that she makes us forget this. We feel the sudden, dangerous lurch of politics in axe-sharp detail. Who is Thomas Cromwell to turn to now, when the wrong choice can cost him his head?
That ability to make the past every bit as edgy and unpredictable as the present, staying true to historical fact without snowing her readers with over-researched details, was one of Mantel’s great skills. But it went beyond that
Take the aftermath of that jousting accident. When the Duke of Norfolk bursts into Ann Boleyn’s chambers to tell her – wrongly, as it turns out – that the king has died, and when the shock leads to her miscarriage just a week after Catherine of Aragon’s death, this is how the tale gets told: “The old queen has reached out and shaken Ann’s child free, so that it is brought untimely into the world and no bigger than a rat.” This isn’t the cosy Sunday night TV costume drama version of Tudor history but something far more visceral and compelling.
Although Mantel redefined what historical fiction could do, she didn’t confine herself to it, and her back catalogue is enormously varied, ranging from her memoir Giving up the Ghost, in which she described seeing the Devil when she was seven, to Eight Months on Ghazza Street, based on the four years she spent in Saudi Arabia with Gerald, whom she had divorced in 1981 but remarried the following year.
According to her longtime editor Mantel was working on a novel when she died, while her agent has said that she was working on at least one play. While that is an incalculable loss, she herself – resilient, friendly, wise, thoughtful, endlessly supportive of new writers – is an even bigger one.
Interviewed in the Guardian last year, Mantel said: “Finishing the Cromwell trilogy is a real landmark. There are lots of possibilities but my health isn’t getting any better. I would love to do more work in theatre though it depends on my physical stamina. But if it turns out I’ve left it too late, there’s nothing to regret.”
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