Hilary Mantel remembered: “She changed the way we think about history”
Following the death of Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel in September, three experts pay tribute to her literary skill, research and insight – and highlight how she transformed the worlds of history and historical fiction
"She explored the past for herself with a historian’s eye and a storyteller’s sensibility"
Diarmaid MacCulloch, emeritus professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford
Eight years ago, Hilary Mantel and I enjoyably mused in BBC History Magazine on Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and Wolf Hall. Since then, her reputation has gone global; now, with shocking suddenness, we have lost her. Had she never turned to history for inspiration, she would still be remembered as a novelist of supreme artistry. Indeed, I first encountered her through one of her contemporary novels, 2005’s Beyond Black, and enthusiastically joined the fan club.
Today she may be best known for her studies of Thomas Cromwell and his fatally burdensome service to his king – three novels [2009’s Wolf Hall, 2012’s Bring Up the Bodies and 2020’s The Mirror & the Light] later transformed into stage and television events of exceptional quality. Yet still I would not describe her as a historical novelist but, rather, a writer whose keen eye could light up any scene, past or present, with rare clarity. No odds whether it was the flyblown landscape of modern west London towards Heathrow, the blood-spattered streets of revolutionary Paris or the dangerous splendour of the early Tudor court.
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None of Mantel’s places are “real”: they occupy a parallel universe unsettlingly adjacent to the periods that professional academics toil at recreating from primary sources.
She explored the past for herself with a historian’s eye and a storyteller’s sensibility. So often, she can help historians see what lay inside a character; first reading Wolf Hall, I was startled to recognise people whom I had sought along different routes. As I remarked eight years ago, I will always be grateful for her soaring imagination, which reaches parts of the past that historians can’t or shouldn’t.
"Mantel commanded the power to evoke the spirit of a time and place within a matter of a few sentences"
Owen Emmerson, social and cultural historian and assistant curator at Hever Castle, Kent
The sudden death of Booker Prize-winning Hilary Mantel has understandably sent shock waves through the literary and historical world. Although she always proudly identified her art as historical fiction, she was also a colossal figure in the history world in her own right.
Mantel commanded the power to evoke the spirit of a time and place within a matter of just a few precisely crafted sentences. She had the skill to make both the ordinary and extraordinary compelling, paying as much thought to the execrable odours of a tannery endured by the many as she did to the feel of a gown of cloth of gold enjoyed by the few.
But perhaps one of her most salient gifts to the historical world was to remind us that the way in which we classify historical actors today likely differs considerably from how their contemporaries perceived them.
When interviewed in 2015 at Hever Castle, Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, Mantel revealed a profound understanding of, and respect for, the complexity of Anne’s character. However, the rich grounding she had gained, rooted in extensive primary source research, did not dissuade Mantel from crafting a narrow and altogether more unlikeable vision of Boleyn as seen through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes. Mantel’s depiction of Thomas More was no less controversial, upturning the enduring image of the man of conscience crafted by playwright Robert Bolt in his 1960 work A Man for All Seasons.
When the Bishops of Shrewsbury and Plymouth spoke out against the “anti-Catholic” portrayal of More following the Bafta-winning BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall, Mantel fiercely defended her characterisation. “Sadly for the bishops, history isn’t just what you would like it to be,” she quipped.
Mantel was always candid about working beyond the confines of the historical record. Her sphere was the seamless fusion of that which time had saved in the “sieve” with the slippery realm of speculation forbidden to the historian. Never afraid of undermining current interpretations of historical actors, her genius was to allow even the most ardent historical adversaries the space for admiration, however reluctantly given.
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In her writing, humanity could be found in the most inhumane moments. In one of the most haunting scenes in Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell quietly wills Boleyn – moments from being cut down by a French swordsman – to lower her arm as she nervously fumbles with her hair. He may have conjured the most wicked, spurious charges to secure her downfall, but Mantel’s Cromwell respected her enough to wish her a clean end.
"Mantel’s most brilliant intervention was to remind historians, no less than novelists, that our characters did not know how history would turn out"
Suzannah Lipscomb, historian, author and broadcaster and professor emerita at the University of Roehampton
There were great historical novelists before Dame Hilary Mantel, including some – such as Philippa Gregory – who brought the Tudor world to life. Yet historical fiction remained unfairly associated with cod English, a fixation on bonnets and bodices, and a barely disguised hankering for a reactionary past.Mantel changed that, uniquely elevating the genre.
Hers was not history “minced” (as she put it) into fiction, but instead a kind of alchemy, achieved only by combining the research sensibilities (and efforts) of a historian, the literary lyricism of a great writer, and a rare philosopher’s stone – a deeply imaginative and caring engagement with the dead.
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Her knowledge of the primary sources was profound. Phrases from ambassadorial reports and contemporary chronicles animate her texts; she was convinced that lines given on record were tried off record first. She recognised the difference of the past without othering it: she never condescended to describe how clothing laced nor what a jerkin is. Her characterisations were incisive, brutal, transformative.
But Mantel’s most brilliant intervention was to remind historians, no less than novelists, that our characters did not know how history would turn out. In a last note, she wrote: “What makes craft into art is the margin left for contingency, the space made for ambiguity.” She created such space for her characters: the past, in her hands, felt immediate, urgent and uncertain. Reading her, we lived its hopes and horrors, we sensed its complexity and contradictions. Such was the power of this grande dame of fiction: she changed the way in which we think about history.
This content was commissioned for BBC History Magazine