Hilary Mantel is dead: what terrible words to write. Her mourning will, of course, be above all the heavy and difficult work of those who were closest to her, in particular her husband, Gérald. Its readers will keenly feel the loss of unwritten books, plays, stories.
At just 70, there was so much more that seemed to well up inside her: she had talked about writing more fiction (but not, at least for now, historical novels). She had recently loved working in the theater, adapting, with Ben Miles, the third of her Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. I wanted more of all that: more stories; more of his penetrating and acerbic essays and criticisms.
But what a work she leaves behind. First written, though not first published, was his epic and painstakingly researched novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. During the 1990s, she gradually amassed a loyal, but not spectacularly large, readership with novels such as Every Day is Mother’s Day and A Change of Climate.
She was a regular literary critic, for the Guardian and the London Review of Books, and also the author of dazzling essays. (His wonderful piece on Kate Middleton from 2013 is ruthless to the bone, and may have been deliberately misinterpreted by sections of the press as an attack on the Duchess at the time.) Early 2000s , she was starting to feel like a secret to her fans. it was perhaps too well guarded. It was Wolf Hall, the first of his Thomas Cromwell trilogy, that finally made it a bestseller in 2009.
I loved these books, especially the second of three, Bring Up the Bodies. For me, though, it’s his 2005 novel Beyond Black, about a medium called Alison and her sidekick, Colette, that’s most close to my heart. He brilliantly restores the Unheimlichkeit of the original counties, the strangeness of the edges of the M25, the ghostly character of the outer suburbs of London. Beyond Black is about heartbreak and violence and the half-forgotten trauma of the past. It’s about the spirit world, in a way – or maybe memories too awful, too painful to talk about. In a metaphorical sense, it is about the act of writing and the immense but fleeting power of the imagination.
The main talent of some writers lies in the acuity of their rendering of the material world. God knows Mantel was marvelous at that: she could whip you and throw you in front of a fire in a paneled room at Austin Friars in 1528 in the span of a few sentences. But his books also invite you to go beyond the everyday world, to something foreign and less tangible. When I asked her how her work as a fiction writer compared to that of a medium, she said, “We deal with those things that cannot be faced and cannot be said… We we are all employed on the dark side.
Mantel was truly adored by his fellow writers, by editors, by journalists. Even on the occasions when she kindly declined a request to contribute an article or be interviewed, her emails were models of sweetness and valuable bits of prose. You had the feeling of someone from whom simply flowed rich and glorious phrases.
Somehow that kindness came from someone who was often in pain or in poor health (she wrote about the horrors of her endometriosis in her remarkable memoir, Giving up the Ghost). The last time I wrote to her was to ask her if she was going to look at a friend’s book, with a view to writing a blurb for the back cover. Such requests are onerous and I made it extremely easy for her to refuse, but she did not refuse.
Being with Mantel, seeing her speak at a literary festival, or interviewing her as I had the chance to do on several occasions, gave you temporary access to a singular intellectual and imaginary domain. You left these encounters changed, more attentive to the world and its mysteries, fingers sparkling with metaphor and magic.
You had been in contact during these encounters with someone who picked up frequencies unnoticed by most of us. Then you could still feel a bit of Mantel’s shimmering insight clinging to you. Then, fairly quickly, the feeling faded, leaving you alone with your own darker, grosser senses.