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Hilary Mantel

There's something mesmerising about reading historical fiction. Immersive tales of rebellion, deceit, treachery and turmoil can sweep you away to another world in the distant past. But what if the past didn't feel so distant? Hilary Mantel certainly asks this question throughout her works. 

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Hilary Mantel

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There's something mesmerising about reading historical fiction. Immersive tales of rebellion, deceit, treachery and turmoil can sweep you away to another world in the distant past. But what if the past didn't feel so distant? Hilary Mantel certainly asks this question throughout her works.

Rather than reducing history to a collection of facts, Mantel challenges our expectations and uproots what we think we know. Her present-tense, character-oriented narratives offer insight into the possible thoughts, feelings and emotions of historical figures in response to the significant events they lived through. In this way, she humanises her characters, dragging them from the past to the present. Their stories can then be reframed and viewed with consideration for the common nature that all humans, from ancient history to the modern day, share in unison. This is Hilary Mantel's secret. She treats history not as a relic designed to be viewed at arm's length but as an ever-changing reflection of our world today.

Hilary Mantel: biography

Dame Hilary Mary Mantel (1952-2022) was born on 6 July 1952. She was an English writer famous for creating historical fiction. She has also published several short stories and an award-winning memoir.

Early life

Hilary Mary Thompson was born in Derbyshire, England, into a working-class Irish-English family. She grew up as the eldest child in a devoutly Roman Catholic household, attending the St Charles Roman Catholic Primary School.

Mantel began her university studies at the London School of Economics, where she studied law. After transferring to the University of Sheffield, Mantel graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor of Jurisprudence. Following her studies, she began work in a geriatric hospital and also spent time as a sales assistant.

Mantel met her husband, geologist Gerald McEwen, in 1973. She relocated to Botswana with him in 1977, where they lived for five years, before moving to Saudi Arabia for another four years. Throughout her twenties, Mantel suffered from a crippling illness which she later discovered was endometriosis. The effects of the disease, combined with the isolation she felt in Saudi Arabia, made Mantel state that leaving the country was the best day of her life.

Early writing

Her discontent in Saudi Arabia also led Mantel to pursue writing. It was there that she authored her first novel, Every Day Is Mother's Day (1985). This dark comedy, along with its sequel, Vacant Possession (1986), drew on Mantel's experiences as a social worker and established her talent for creating vibrant characters and offering scathing social criticism.

In 1987, following her return to England, Mantel was employed as a film critic for the Spectator and a reviewer for numerous magazines. Mantel's experiences in Saudi Arabia provided the basis for her third novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988), a political story centred on a woman's experience moving to Saudi Arabia to live with her husband.

Literary career

In 1989, Mantel penned Fludd, a historical fiction novel set in 1950s England. This novel, alongside A Place of Greater Safety (1992), a fictional account of the French Revolution, gave Mantel a reputation for creating vivid, exciting historical fiction. Both novels were critically acclaimed and received numerous awards.

Throughout the 1990s, Mantel continued her impressive streak of novels, publishing A Change of Climate (1994), An Experiment in Love (1996), and The Giant, O'Brien (1998). She also published numerous short stories before taking a break from fiction writing and publishing her autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir, in 2003.

In 2009, Mantel published Wolf Hall, the first in a trilogy of novels that would take her reputation as a writer of historical fiction to new heights. Together with sequels Bring Up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (2020), Mantel tracks the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, the King's confidential adviser, as he navigates the challenges of Henry VIII's Tudor courts. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies won consecutive Booker Prizes, making Mantel only the fourth person in history to win more than once.

Mantel published over a dozen critically acclaimed novels, some of which have been adapted into theatre and television. Her works received numerous awards, including the Sunday Express Book of the Year, the Booker Prize, the Costa Book of the Year, and the Walter Scott Prize in 2014. She was awarded a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to literature in 2014.

Hilary Mantel: family

Mantel was born to Margaret and Henry Thompson, Roman Catholic parents who were born in England but were of Irish descent. Mantel described the challenges of growing up in a religious household in her autobiography Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir (2003). She stated that religion made her extremely introspective and harsh on herself and that despite losing her faith at age 12, she continued to suffer from feelings of guilt throughout her life.

At 11 years old, Mantel lost contact with her father due to her parent's separation. Hilary and her mother, Margaret, relocated to Cheshire with Jack Mantel (1932-1995), Margaret's new lover. Here, Jack became an unofficial father figure to Hilary, which led Mantel to change her surname to his legally.

Mantel lived with her husband, Gerald McEwen, who she married in 1973. The couple divorced in 1981 but remarried in 1982 and remained together until Mantel's death in 2022.

Hilary Mantel: novels

Most of Mantel's novels are based on actual historical events. Her works of historical fiction are consistently ranked among the best in the world, owing in part to her meticulous research process. For example, when writing Wolf Hall, Mantel was diligent in ensuring that her characters' locations at a given time were accurate compared to the historical figures they were based on.

However, Mantel's work is still fiction, with many praising her work for its beautiful prose and evocative characterisation. Mantel has also mastered the art of depicting history authentically while challenging our knowledge and beliefs about the past. In Wolf Hall, she subverts the common perspective that Thomas Cromwell was cold and ruthless, instead presenting him as merciful, sympathetic and a product of the environment he navigates. Mantel embraces the contradictions that make history complex and resists the urge to rely on the most popular interpretation to guide her narratives.

Mantel's work is also highly regarded for its urgency. Whereas it's traditional to write a historical novel in the past tense, Mantel positions herself firmly in the present. She immerses herself in the characters she creates and attempts to see the world through their eyes, without the benefit of hindsight.

Mantel attributes her Catholic upbringing to the religious themes present in her later novels. She claims that the Biblical language featured in Wolf Hall is not that far removed from texts she read in church as a child.

Hilary Mantel: trilogy

Mantel's most famous and critically acclaimed novels are her trilogy of works, known as the 'Thomas Cromwell collection'. It includes the novels Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012), and The Mirror and the Light (2020).

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) was an English lawyer who ascended through the political ranks to become Henry VIII's (1491-1547) chief minister and adviser between 1534 and 1540.

Hilary Mantel, a painting of Thomas Cromwell in dark clothing and a hat in front of a table, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Thomas Cromwell, a key figure in Wolf Hall.

Mantel provides an authentic window into Tudor England (1485-1603) from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. She strives to view the world through his eyes, depicting how the treacherous political landscape he navigated would impact his decision-making and problem-solving.

Historical accounts of Tudor England often depict Cromwell as a scheming, deceitful villain. Mantel resisted the urge to allow these accounts of Cromwell to shape her perspective of the character. She instead reframed his actions in the context of his time and attempted to show that he was acting out of loyalty to his King and country and out of the need to keep himself afloat in Henry VIII's volatile, dangerous courts.

The novels detail Cromwell's meteoric rise to power and subsequent dramatic fall from grace resulting in his execution. In the process, Mantel depicts several significant events of Cromwell's life, including the Reformation, the execution of Thomas More, Henry VIII's desperate search for a male heir, and the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn.

Hilary Mantel: books

Here's a table with all of Mantel's books and the year they were released.

BooksRelease Date
Every Day is Mother's Day1985
Vacant Possession1986
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street1988
Fludd1989
A Place of Greater Safety1992
A Change of Climate1994
An Experiment in Love1995
The Giant, O'Brien1998
Giving Up the Ghost2003
Learning to Talk2003
Beyond Black: Fourth Estate2005
Wolf Hall2009
Bring Up the Bodies2012
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher2014
The Mirror and the Light2020

Hilary Mantel - Key takeaways

  • Hilary Mantel (born 6 July 1952) is an English writer famous for creating historical fiction. She has also published several short stories and an award-winning memoir.
  • Her most famous collection is the Thomas Cromwell collection, which includes the novels Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012), and The Mirror and the Light (2020).
  • Two of her most famous novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, won consecutive Booker Prizes, making Mantel only the fourth person in history to win more than one.
  • Mantel's work is acclaimed for offering an authentic portrayal of history whilst also challenging our knowledge and beliefs about the past.
  • Mantel has published over a dozen critically acclaimed novels and has received numerous prestigious awards for her work, including Sunday Express Book of the Year, Costa Book of the Year, and the Walter Scott Prize.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is a British writer. Her work includes historical fiction, personal memoirs and short stories. 

She is 70 years old.

Yes. While she writes fiction, she is most well known for writing historical fiction.

Mantel is not usually considered a feminist author. In the past, she has refrained from writing from a feminist perspective under the belief that it would confine her writing.

She lives in Budleigh Salterton, Devon. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

King Henry VIII executed up to 57000 during his reign, leading to him being referred to by many as the 'Killer King'. Is this true or false?

What genre does Bring Up the Bodies follow?

Who engineered the downfall of Anne Boleyn?

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