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Remembering Hilary Mantel

Honouring a British Literary Powerhouse

On September 22nd, 2022, Dame Hilary Mantel died aged 70, yet her astonishing literary works remain to haunt us. Her publisher, HarperCollins, has stated that she passed “suddenly yet peacefully,” after suffering a stroke, surrounded by family and friends. Born in Derbyshire, 1952, Mantel rose to critical-acclaim with her 2009 historical fiction work, Wolf Hall. However, the author’s literary career spanned several decades and encompassed 12 novels, two collections of short stories, and one memoir, as well as many journalistic pieces.

Upon receiving my article topic a couple of weeks ago, embarrassingly, my heart sank. I had never read Hilary Mantel; I didn’t know a thing about the writer, except that the news of her death had come the day of my pitch meeting. Whilst researching my piece, I asked friends, work colleagues, and even a Union bouncer, have you read Hilary Mantel? Do you know Wolf Hall? I was met with furrowed brows, shaking heads, and some concerned glares — I only wanted your government and student ID. At a party, one drunk friend gave me their dad’s email address. Their father is apparently Mantel’s biggest fan. During my ritual weekly phone call with my parents, I happened to mention her. Oh! Of course they had read her, she’s wonderful. It seemed her work was reserved for the old fogeys among us. So I checked out all the books of hers I could find at the Main Library and oh christ, my mind was blown.

The prose of Hilary Mantel is something of extreme intelligence, elegance, and shrewdness. Her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day (1985), follows the gothically comic story of Evelyn who is under the assumption that her house is being haunted by evil ghosts. With sentences like “the scarlet line of lipstick above her top lip contorted independently of the mouth,” Mantel proves her talent for implanting her unique grotesquerie into the mundane. Furthermore, the novel is partially inspired by Mantel’s first-hand experience in the social work department of a geriatric hospital. Indeed, the author draws on her own life for inspiration in much of her writing.

An Experiment in Love (1996) looks at the all familiar teething troubles of student life and the struggle to reconcile your foreign childhood with your strange adulthood. Mirroring Mantel’s young adult life reading law at the London School of Economics and subsequently transferring to the University of Sheffield where she graduated in Jurisprudence, the novel follows a naive undergraduate, Carmel, at a London University in the 1970s. Like in Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, Cat’s Eye, Mantel explores the lingering shadow of childhood bullying; the reader encounters the bitchy wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing, Karina, Carmel’s childhood friend, who stalks her to the same university and slinks herself into Carmel’s corridor at her hall of residence. As put by John Mullan of the Guardian, “almost every Mantel novel has a killing in it, and this is no exception.”

In her memoir Giving up the Ghost, Mantel’s literary voice lights up the page with an omniscient sensibility. Mantel comes across as incredibly wise and tragically self-critical as she laments upon the death of her step-father, her chronic illness, and her complicated childhood and family history. Winner of the 2003 MIND “Book of the Year” award, Giving up the Ghost is appropriately haunted, a mixture of dark comedy and sage advice on writing. Mantel suggests:

“Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don’t think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips, and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage!”

However, it is her historical fiction that Mantel is internationally celebrated for. Her 2009 masterpiece Wolf Hall follows Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of Henry VIII (some background for those of you who are not my drunk friend’s dad). The novel won the Booker Prize, as did its 2012 sequel, Bring up the Bodies. Moreover, Mantel’s third instalment, The Mirror & the Light (2020), was longlisted for the prize. In proof of Wolf Hall’s widespread success, the novel and its sequel were adapted for the stage in 2013 by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Additionally, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies fuelled a 2015 BBC television series, lauded by one critic, upon release, as “without doubt, some of the most impressive British TV drama in years.”

As much as I would like to stress that Mantel is wholly unique in her literary workings, I cannot help but compare her style to the fatalist candour of Sylvia Plath or the acerbic wit of Margaret Atwood. Forgive me, for she rests in good company.

Finally, I urge you, forget the Union, forget your government and student ID and hole up with any one of Mantel’s brilliant works. Discover her literary razor sharpness, her deliciously dark humour, greet her and remember her. I certainly will.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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