I was so upset to hear of the death of Hilary Mantel a few weeks ago. She was a writer I had admired for a very long time and one of the few authors whose works I could read more than once, each time finding something new to enjoy. I enjoyed her books not only as a reader but as a writer looking to improve my own craft. She was truly inspirational, intelligent, inventive, bringing characters, history, emotion, and the nuance of politics and power to life with a few strokes of her pen.
I was lucky enough to hear her speak a few years ago, at Austin Friars, Thomas Cromwell’s home in London. Afterwards I queued with my copy of ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ clutched in my hands, nervous and so excited to actually meet Mantel in person. She was kind and gracious, and this photo is something that makes me smile every time I look at it (apologies for the terrible quality!).
‘A Place of Greater Safety’ is my favourite of her books and one that I know Mantel kept in a drawer for a few years before it was published. Set during the French Revolution, the book is a page turning tour de force that is an absolutely astounding achievement. I devoured every page, tears streaming down my face at the end. I’ve read it three times, which for me is incredibly unusual – I never read books more than once!
Of course the ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy consists of three books that are absolute masterpieces. The opening lines of ‘Wolf Hall’ get me every time:
‘So now get up.’
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
What a way to introduce us to Thomas Cromwell.
‘Bring up the Bodies’ manages to be emotional while being a clear-headed account of dreadful politics in which people were pawns and lives mattered only in how much they could add to another person’s power, wealth, or standing. Things haven’t changed that much! The final in the trilogy, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ took a long time to be written and it was a long, long wait to read. Reading it was a strange experience. I couldn’t wait to turn each page but that was bittersweet knowing that each page turned led to the end of the trilogy. There aren’t many authors that can say they have that effect on the reader.
If you’ve never read any Mantel, then I envy you. I heartily recommend that you read these wonderful novels. I’m about to read them for the fourth time. Of course, Mantel wrote other books. ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ is a fabulous collection of short stories. Then there’s ‘Beyond Black’, ‘Fludd’ and a host of other works that aren’t nearly so well-known but just as beautifully written and just as much pleasure to read.
It’s so sad that we will not get to share more of Mantel’s wonderful imagination or amazing skill as a writer. The way the publishing world is going, with its endless book deals for celebrities and politicians and actors, there is less and less room for new talent, and unknown talent, writers out there that have so much to tell and so much to give. Yes, there’s self-publishing, which is fast becoming the best route for those authors without connections, an illustrious film career, a cooking show, or a former royal husband, but it is practically impossible for authors to be able to make a living wage simply through their writing. So it seems very unlikely that we’ll ever get the chance to share the wonderful stories of another writer like Hilary Mantel.
“Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories.”
― Hilary Mantel ‘Wolf Hall’