Hilary Mantel, acclaimed British author of Wolf Hall saga, died aged 70

Hilary Mantel, the Booker Prize-winning author who turned Tudor power politics into page-turning fiction in the acclaimed Wolf Hall trilogy of historical novels, has died, her publisher said Friday. she was 70

Mantel died “suddenly yet peacefully” on Thursday while surrounded by close family and friends, publisher HarperCollins said.

Mantel is credited with reenergizing historical fiction with Wolf Hall and two sequels about the 16th-century English powerbroker Thomas Cromwell, right-hand man to King Henry VIII.

Hilary Mantel, the Booker Prize-winning author of the acclaimed Wolf Hall saga of historical novels, has died (AP Photo/ Alastair Grant)

The publisher said Mantel was “one of the greatest English novelists of this century.”

“Her beloved works are considered modern classics. She will be greatly missed,” it said in a statement.

Mantel won the prestigious Booker Prize twice, for Wolf Hall in 2009 and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. Both were adapted for the stage and television.

The trilogy’s final installation, The Mirror and the Lightwhich was published in 2020.

Nicholas Pearson, Mantel’s longtime editor, said her death was “devastating.”

Hilary Mantel, winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, poses with a copy of her book 'Bring up the Bodies', shortly after the award ceremony in central London, on October 16, 2012.
Mantel is credited with re-energizing historical fiction with Wolf Hall and two sequels about the 16th-century English powerbroker Thomas Cromwell (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

“Only last month I sat with her on a sunny afternoon in Devon, while she talked excitedly about the new novel she had embarked on,” he said.

“That we won’t have the pleasure of any more of her words is unbearable. What we do have is a body of work that will be read for generations.”

Before Wolf HallMantel was the critically acclaimed but modestly selling author of novels on subjects ranging from the French Revolution (A Place of Greater Safety) to the life of a psychic medium (BeyondBlack).

She also wrote a memoir, Giving Up the Ghostthat chronicled years of ill-health, including undiagnosed endometriosis that left her infertile.

She once said the years of illness wrecked her dream of becoming a lawyer but made her a writer.

From left, authors, Malaysian Tan Twan Eng, Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel, Will Self, holding his book, top, Alison Moore and Jeet Thayil, from India, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, hold copies of their books during a photo call at the Royal Festival Hall, in London, on October 15, 2012
From left, authors, Malaysian Tan Twan Eng, Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel, Will Self, holding his book, top, Alison Moore and Jeet Thayil, from India, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, hold copies of their books during a photo call at the Royal Festival Hall, in London, on October 15, 2012 (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Mantel’s literary agent, Bill Hamilton, said the author had dealt “stoically” with chronic health problems.

“We will miss her immeasurably, but as a shining light for writers and readers she leaves an extraordinary legacy,” he said.

Born in Derbyshire in central England in 1952, Mantel attended a convent school, then studied at the London School of Economics and Sheffield University. She worked as a social worker at a geriatric hospital, an experience she drew on for her first two novels, Every Day Is Mother’s Daypublished in 1985, and Vacant Possessionwhich followed the next year.

In the 1970s and 1980s she lived in Botswana and Saudi Arabia with her husband, Gerald McEwen, a geologist.

Mantel had been a published novelist for almost 25 years when her first book about Cromwell turned her into a literary superstar. She turned the shadowy Tudor political fixer into a compelling, complex literary hero, by turns thoughtful and thuggish.

Author and winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award for 2012 Hilary Mantel poses for photographers at the Costa Book awards ceremony in London, on January 29, 2013.
Author and winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award for 2012 Hilary Mantel poses for photographers at the Costa Book awards ceremony in London, on January 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

A self-made man who rose from poverty to power, Cromwell was an architect of the Reformation who helped King Henry VIII realize his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn — and later, to be rid of Boleyn so he could marry Jane Seymour, the third of what would be Henry’s six wives.

The Vatican’s refusal to annul Henry’s first marriage led the monarch to reject the authority of the pope and install himself as head of the Church of England.

The dramatic period saw England transformed from a Roman Catholic to a Protestant nation, from medieval kingdom to emerging modern state, and it has inspired countless books, films and television series, from A Man for All Seasons to The Tudors.

But Mantel managed to make the well-known story exciting and suspenseful.

“I’m very keen on the idea that a historical novel should be written pointing forward,” she told The Associated Press in 2009.

“Remember that the people you are following didn’t know the end of their own story. So they were going forward day by day, pushed and jostled by circumstances, doing the best they could, but walking in the dark, essentially.”

Mantel also turned a sharp eye to Britain’s modern-day royalty. A 2013 lecture in which she described the former Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William, as a “shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own” drew the ire of the British tabloid press.

Mantel said she wasn’t talking about the duchess herself but rather describing a view of Kate constructed by the press and public opinion. The author nonetheless received criticism from then-Prime Minister David Cameron, among others.

Right-wing commentators also took issue with a short story entitled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, which imagined an attack on the Conservative leader. It was published in 2014, the same year Queen Elizabeth II made Mantel a dame, the female equivalent of a knight.

Coat remained politically outspoken. An opponent of Brexit, she said in 2021 that she hoped to gain Irish citizenship and become “a European again.”

Mantel is survived by her husband.

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