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…”