Hilary Mantel (1952-2022)

Mona Simpson wrote in the Paris Review, ISSUE 212, SPRING 2015:

“Hilary Mantel was born Hilary Thompson in Hadfield, Derbyshire, a mill town fifteen miles east of Manchester. Her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, chronicles a grim childhood in a working-class Irish Catholic family: “From about the age of four I had begun to believe I had done something wrong.” When she was seven, her mother’s lover, Jack Mantel, moved in with the Thompsons. “The children at school question me about our living ­arrangements, who sleeps in what bed. I don’t ­understand why they want to know but I don’t tell them anything. I hate going to school. Often I am ill.” Four years later, Jack Mantel and Hilary’s mother moved the family to Cheshire, after which Hilary never saw her father again. To quote once more from Giving Up the Ghost: “The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me.”
Mantel graduated from the University of Sheffield, with a B.A. in ­jurisprudence. During her university years, she was a socialist. She worked in a geriatric hospital and in a department store. In 1972, she married Gerald McEwen, a geologist, and soon after, the couple moved to Botswana for five years, where Mantel wrote the book that became A Place of Greater Safety. The couple divorced in 1980, but in 1982 they married again, in front of a registrar, who wished them better luck this time.

All her life, Mantel has suffered from a painful, debilitating illness, which was first misdiagnosed and treated with antipsychotic drugs. In Botswana, through reading medical textbooks, she identified and diagnosed her own disease, a severe form of endometriosis. Since then, Mantel has written a great deal about the female body, her own and ­others’. An essay that begins with a consideration of Kate Middleton’s wardrobe and moves on to a discussion of the royal body generated so much controversy that (as she told the New Statesman) “if the pressmen saw any fat woman of a certain age walking along the street, they ran after her shouting, ‘Are you Hilary?’ ”

Mantel’s early novels—Wolf Hall was her tenth novel, her twelfth book—reflect the grimness she describes from her childhood and share a bleak, dark humor. The two completed books of the projected Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, are not without darkness, but considering their subject­—the bloody rise and fall of Henry VIII’s chief minister—they are remarkably vivid on the pleasures of work, home, and ­ordinary happiness. Both were awarded the Man Booker Prize, making Mantel the first woman to win the prize twice. This winter, a stage adaptation, Wolf Hall, Parts One & Two, enjoyed a sell-out run in London; a Wolf Hall ­miniseries aired at the same time on the BBC. In February, Mantel was made a dame…”

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