An introduction to the books of Hilary Mantel

HILARY MANTEL was born in the little town of Glossop, in England’s Midlands, and grew up in two places that were even smaller: first Hadfield, Derbyshire, and then Romiley in Cheshire, where her mother had decamped with a lover who became Mantel’s stepfather and whose name she took In her late 20s, Mantel was diagnosed with severe endometriosis, surgery for which put paid to any possibility of her having children. Her illness also, for a while, ended her marriage. She and her husband, Gerald McEwen, who were divorced in 1981, would remarry the following year.

Despite these rocky beginnings, or perhaps because of them, she grew into a writer of huge breadth, writing long historical novels seemingly as easily as her many essays and short stories. Mantel’s physical life may have been circumscribed, but her imagination was not. After her death on September 22nd, those who knew her spoke of her big heart, her “shimmering perceptiveness”, as a writer for the Guardian newspaper put it, and her sly take on the world around her. Best known for “Wolf Hall”, the trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, her interests ranged far beyond Henry VIII and his many wives to take in all manner of humanity, including nuns, mediums and missionaries, as well as royal fashion, exercising control and how to find words that speak of projecting power.

Fludd. By Hilary Mantel. Holt, Henry & Company, Inc; 192 pages; $18. HarperCollins; 208 pages; £8.99

“Fludd”, Mantel’s fourth novel, was published in 1989. It is set in a small English village, not unlike those where she grew up, and features a Roman Catholic church, a convent and a mysterious stranger whose presence leaches into the lives of those he meets. Like many of Mantel’s novels, its beginning is utterly captivating: “On Wednesday the bishop came in person. He was a modern prelate, brisk and plump in his rimless glasses, and he liked nothing better than to tear about the diocese in his big black car.”

A Place of Greater Safety. By Hilary Mantel. Picador; 768 pages; $20.49. HarperCollins; 880 pages; £10.99

In “A Place of Greater Safety” (1992), her novel about three young French revolutionaries brought to an early (and sticky) end during the Reign of Terror of 1794, she honed many of the skills she would need when she came to write about Tudor England: a huge cast of characters, multiple settings, wildly ranging sympathies, and the constant need to balance dramatizing with explanation in order to keep the reader’s attention. The long book passes by in a flash.

Giving Up the Ghost. By Hilary Mantel. Picador; 240 pages; $18.00. HarperCollins; 272 pages; £8.99

In “Giving Up the Ghost”, her memoir published in 2003, Mantel gives voice to some of the many things that made her: homes, toys, gardens, illness, fountain pens and moving house—whether to a nearby village or a remote and forbidden country. Family secrets taught her to distrust convention and to explore longing, the subconscious and the many frailties and oddities that motivate human beings.

Beyond Black. By Hilary Mantel. Picador; 432 pages; $19.00. HarperCollins; 480 pages; £8.99

By the time he wrote “Beyond Black”, a sinister tale about mediums and spirits, Mantel was confident enough to know how to find peace in misery. From an unpromising start, around teatime on what she calls one of the dank days after Christmas on the motorway near Potters Bar, she weaves a hilarious tale about Alison Hart, who makes her living as a medium, and whose outward jollity hides a damaged inner life. What’s not to like in this exploration of suburban terror?

Bring Up the Bodies. By Hilary Mantel. Holt, Henry & Company, Inc; 432 pages; $27.99. HarperCollins; £20

Determined to give face to the many facets of power, Mantel begins her Tudor trilogy (for which she won two Booker prizes) in “Wolf Hall” with the young Thomas Cromwell being kicked in the head by his angry, bellowing father. As Thomas lies on the cobbles and smells the beer and vomit, he feels blood trickle across his face. Before he is 50, Cromwell will have cleaned himself up, rising to the heights of courtly power as Henry VIII’s chief minister. One of his first challenges is to arrange for the king to divorce his Spanish wife and marry the English Anne Boleyn. The circumstances of Anne’s end are known to every British schoolchild. In “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012), the second volume of the trilogy, Mantel brings something refreshingly sharp to the actual heading: “There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.” Mantel said later that she spied the word “exsanguinates” in an article she read in the dentist’s waiting room. “And I thought, ‘Bingo!'”

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