|Born||Hilary Mary Thompson|
6 July 1952
Glossop, Derbyshire, England
|Occupation||Novelist, short story writer, essayist and critic|
|Notable awards||Booker Prize |
Walter Scott Prize
Costa Novel Prize
(m. 1973; div. 1981)
She has twice been awarded the Booker Prize, the first time for the 2009 novel Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the court of Henry VIII, and secondly for the 2012 novel Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment of the Cromwell trilogy. Mantel was the first woman to receive the award twice, following in the footsteps of J. M. Coetzee, Peter Carey and J. G. Farrell (who posthumously won the Lost Man Booker Prize). The third instalment of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, was released on 5 March 2020 in the UK and the following July was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.
Hilary Mary Thompson was born in Glossop, Derbyshire, the eldest of three children, and raised as a Catholic in the mill village of Hadfield where she attended St Charles Roman Catholic primary school. Her parents, Margaret (née Foster) and Henry Thompson, were both of Irish descent but born in England. Her parents separated and she did not see her father after the age of eleven. The family, without her father but with Jack Mantel (1932-1995) who by now had moved in with them, relocated to Romiley, Cheshire, and Jack became her unofficial stepfather. At this point she took her de facto stepfather's surname legally.
She explored her family background, the mainspring of much of her fiction, in her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Although she lost her religious faith at age 12, she says it left a permanent mark on her:
[the] real cliché, the sense of guilt. You grow up believing that you're wrong and bad. And for me, because I took what I was told really seriously, it bred a very intense habit of introspection and self-examination and a terrible severity with myself. So that nothing was ever good enough. It's like installing a policeman, and one moreover who keeps changing the law.
She attended Harrytown Convent school in Romiley, Cheshire. In 1970, she began her studies at the London School of Economics to read law. She transferred to the University of Sheffield and graduated as Bachelor of Jurisprudence in 1973. During her university years, she was a socialist.
After university, Mantel worked in the social work department of a geriatric hospital and then as a sales assistant in a department store.
In 1973, she married Gerald McEwen, a geologist. In 1974, she began writing a novel about the French Revolution, which was published in 1992 as A Place of Greater Safety. In 1977, Mantel moved to Botswana with her husband where they lived for the next five years. Later, they spent four years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She published a memoir of this period in the London Review of Books. She later said that leaving Jeddah felt like "the happiest day of [her] life".
Mantel's first novel, Every Day is Mother's Day, was published in 1985, and its sequel, Vacant Possession, a year later. After returning to England, she became the film critic of The Spectator, a position she held from 1987 to 1991, and a reviewer for a number of papers and magazines in Britain and the United States. Her novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988), which drew on her life in Saudi Arabia, uses a threatening clash of values between the neighbours in a city apartment block to explore the tensions between Islamic culture and the liberal West. Her Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize-winning novel Fludd is set in 1956 in a fictitious northern village called Fetherhoughton, centering on a Roman Catholic church and a convent. A mysterious stranger brings about transformations in the lives of those around him.
A Place of Greater Safety (1992) won the Sunday Express Book of the Year award, for which her two previous books had been shortlisted. A long and historically accurate novel, it traces the career of three French revolutionaries, Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins, from childhood to their early deaths during the Reign of Terror of 1794.
A Change of Climate (1994), set in rural Norfolk, explores the lives of Ralph and Anna Eldred, as they raise their four children and devote their lives to charity. It includes chapters about their early married life as missionaries in South Africa, when they were imprisoned and deported to Bechuanaland, and the tragedy that occurred there.
An Experiment in Love (1996), which won the Hawthornden Prize, takes place over two university terms in 1970. It follows the progress of three girls - two friends and one enemy - as they leave home and attend university in London. Margaret Thatcher makes a cameo appearance in this novel, which explores women's appetites and ambitions, and suggests how they are often thwarted. Though Mantel has used material from her own life, it is not an autobiographical novel.
Her next book, The Giant, O'Brien (1998), is set in the 1780s, and is based on the true story of Charles Byrne (or O'Brien). He came to London to earn money by displaying himself as a freak. His bones hang today in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. The novel treats O'Brien and his antagonist, the Scots surgeon John Hunter, less as characters in history than as mythic protagonists in a dark and violent fairytale, necessary casualties of the Age of Enlightenment. She adapted the book for BBC Radio 4, in a play starring Alex Norton (as Hunter) and Frances Tomelty.
In 2003, Mantel published her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, which won the MIND "Book of the Year" award. That same year she brought out a collection of short stories, Learning To Talk. All the stories deal with childhood and, taken together, the books show how the events of a life are mediated as fiction. Her 2005 novel, Beyond Black, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. Set in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it features a professional medium, Alison Hart, whose calm and jolly exterior conceals grotesque psychic damage. She trails around with her a troupe of "fiends", who are invisible but always on the verge of becoming flesh.
The long novel Wolf Hall, about Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell, was published in 2009 to critical acclaim. The book won that year's Booker Prize and, upon winning the award, Mantel said, "I can tell you at this moment I am happily flying through the air". Judges voted three to two in favour of Wolf Hall for the prize. Mantel was presented with a trophy and a £50,000 cash prize during an evening ceremony at the London Guildhall. The panel of judges, led by the broadcaster James Naughtie, described Wolf Hall as an "extraordinary piece of storytelling". Leading up to the award, the book was backed as the favourite by bookmakers and accounted for 45% of the sales of all the nominated books. It was the first favourite since 2002 to win the award. On receiving the prize, Mantel said that she would spend the prize money on "sex and drugs and rock' n' roll".
The sequel to Wolf Hall, called Bring Up the Bodies, was published in May 2012 to wide acclaim. It won the 2012 Costa Book of the Year and the 2012 Booker Prize; Mantel thus became the first British writer and the first woman to win the Booker Prize more than once. This award also made Mantel the first author to win the award for a sequel. The books were adapted into plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company and were produced as a mini-series by BBC. In 2020 Mantel published the third novel of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, called The Mirror and the Light. The Mirror and the Light was selected for the longlist for the 2020 Booker Prize.
She is also working on a short non-fiction book, titled The Woman Who Died of Robespierre, about the Polish playwright Stanis?awa Przybyszewska. Mantel also writes reviews and essays, mainly for The Guardian, the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. The Culture Show programme on BBC Two broadcast a profile of Mantel on 17 September 2011.
In December 2016, Mantel spoke with Kenyon Review editor David H. Lynn on the KR Podcast about the way historical novels are published, what it is like to live in the world of one character for more than ten years, writing for the stage, and the final book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.
She delivered the 2017 Reith Lectures on BBC Radio Four, talking about the theme of historical fiction. Her final one of these lectures was on the theme of adaptation of historical novels for stage or screen. Mantel's lectures were selected by its producer, Jim Frank, as amongst the best of the long-running series.
During her twenties, Mantel had a debilitating and painful illness. She was initially diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, hospitalised, and treated with antipsychotic drugs, which reportedly produced psychotic symptoms. In consequence, Mantel refrained from seeking help from doctors for some years. Finally, in Botswana and desperate, she consulted a medical textbook and realised she was probably suffering from a severe form of endometriosis, a diagnosis confirmed by doctors in London. The condition and necessary surgery--a surgical menopause at the age of 27--left her unable to have children, and continued to disrupt her life. She later said "you've thought your way through questions of fertility and menopause and what it means to be without children because it all happened catastrophically". This led Mantel in her writing to see the woman's body problematised as a theme, though a shadow rather than what she wrote about constantly. Continued treatment by steroids caused weight gain and radically changed her appearance.
She was patron of, and is a supporter of, the Endometriosis SHE Trust.
In a 2013 speech on media and royal women at the British Museum, Mantel commented on Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, saying in passing that the Duchess was forced to present herself publicly as a personality-free "shop window mannequin" whose sole purpose is to deliver an heir to the throne. Mantel also said: "It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn't mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty."
In September 2014, in an interview published in The Guardian, Mantel confessed to fantasizing about the murder of Margaret Thatcher in 1983, and fictionalized the event in a short story called "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: 6 August 1983". In the interview she expands on her hatred for the former British prime minister. Allies of Thatcher called for a police investigation, to which Mantel sarcastically responded, "bringing in the police for an investigation was beyond anything I could have planned or hoped for, because it immediately exposes them to ridicule."
In an interview with the Telegraph, Mantel stated: "I think that nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people." She continued in the interview to say: "When I was a child I wondered why priests and nuns were not nicer people. I thought that they were amongst the worst people I knew." These statements, as well as the themes explored in her earlier novel Fludd, have led some to question her work in Wolf Hall, with Bishop Mark O'Toole noting: "There is an anti-Catholic thread there, there is no doubt about it. Wolf Hall is not neutral."
She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2006 Birthday Honours and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2014 Birthday Honours for services to literature.