Hilary Mantel was mesmerizing. Wolf Hall made us rethink how books work

Reading Hilary Mantel for the first time made you sit up and take notice: she was not like anyone else.

Mantel, who has died at the age of 70, was one of those authors where fans who had discovered her early books in the 80s (for which she had mined her own life, like Every Day is Mother’s Day, Flood and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street) hugged her to themselves.

She had an unmatched ability to involve you, to create an atmosphere and – always – to have a hint of something uncanny, supernatural, unexplained, whether it was the medium accompanied by demons around the M25 in Beyond Blackor Thomas Cromwell glimpsing his dead wife in Wolf Hall.

And there it is, the book that changed everything for her. Wolf Hall made us rethink not just the Tudors, but how books work. Her protagonist was Thomas Cromwell, and he is there on almost every page, and we are inside his head all the time. The book is full of moves from historic present to past tense, it has sliding time schemes, the reader had to learn that whenever “he” was mentioned it meant Cromwell – and we had to learn that Sir Thomas More wasn’t quite the saint and hero we thought. But the book swept you up and raced you along.

Mostly when you read a historical novel you are left with questions – yes but was it really like that? Is that true? Which bits are made up? What are the facts?

The greatest tribute to Hilary Mantel is that you believe her totally, and you have to force yourself to remember that she has invented some of it – and that maybe Thomas Cromwell wasn’t as nice as she makes him (although she never holds back on his ruthlessness).

I know I am not alone in this experience: I remember coming out of reading Wolf Hall and walking round London seeing it entirely with Tudor eyes, considering things the way Thomas Cromwell might, seeing the world as he did – and unable to pick up any other book for days.

Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch says he recognizes her version of Cromwell as the man about whom he wrote a scholarly biography. You sensed that she was happy with that – but if academics had argued with her, she would have backed her own instincts. Honors and acclaim and awards (two Booker Prizes) rolled in, the plays and the TV series – and, again, you got the impression that she accepted with pleasure, but that she knew her own worth.

Hilary Mantel published the final book in her Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Lightin 2020 (Photo: Peter Summers/Getty)

Could she do it again with Bring Up the Bodies (2012)? We held our collective breaths – and the first line was “His children are falling from the sky”. We were back in her safe hands. The third book, The Mirror and the Light (2020), was much longer, and there was some pushback, claims that she had lost her way. Not for the true believers she didn’t. It was a satisfying, melancholy end to the trilogy.

Mantel had created characters more real than your neighbors – “The wives of England, they all keep secret books of whom they are going to have next when they have poisoned their husbands. And you [Thomas Cromwell] are the top of everyone’s list.” Well yes. She shed new light on Anne Boleyn, when we thought we knew everything, and on Jane Seymour, about whom none of us knew anything.

She was creating atmosphere, total conviction, realism. But also perfect sentences:The months run away from you like a flurry of autumn leaves bowling and skittering towards the winter; the summer has gone” in Bring Up the Bodies.

And white:He has been seeing his armorer for a fitting, and is still wearing sundry parts… so that he looks like an iron pot wobbling to the boil”. (Wolf Hall)

In The Mirror and the Light: “High in the tree, the cat is a soft shape visible only to the educated eye: limbs dangling, she is perfectly at one with the branch on which she lies”. Lush words to describe an incident of little importance.

She was an unusual and mesmerizing personality: she had serious health problems, she had strong leftist political views (which sometimes got her into trouble) and she gave strange interviews. I once went to a talk by her – 2014, between the 2nd and 3rd books – and she appeared on stage looking sweet and demure, and talked (in her slightly odd voice) about the books, and told us that Thomas Cromwell was sitting at the table with her when she wrote.

That is how she knew how he would think, that is how she got it right. Nobody moved, it felt that nobody breathed: she was confident, and she carried us all along with her. She was also slightly terrifying: you wouldn’t have wanted to be a person asking her a stupid question.

More on Hilary Mantel

Near the end of The Mirror and the Lightshe has Thomas Cromwell think, “that instant was worth the rest of his life”. Spoiler: he was executed shortly afterwards. Surely, she puts that line in to make us feel better about the death of a man none of us knew, who maybe wasn’t all that admirable, and who died 400 years ago. She made us believe we did know him, and we loved him, and we loved her for creating him.

We all wanted her to write something else, to write about another Tudor, or anything she wanted, but still half-suspected she never would.

But the three Tudor books are her legacy, works that will be read for as long as people have a curiosity about the past, or people, or the way history works, or moral frameworks. The best books of the century.

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