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How Hilary Mantel Soared

When Elaine Showalter met the author in 2000, she was on the verge of an intellectual breakthrough.

David Levenson/Getty

When she died last week, Hilary Mantel was internationally mourned as one of the great British novelists, a genius, a beloved mentor and cherished friend. But her acclaim came late. Mantel was 57 when Wolf Hall, the first volume of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, was published to ecstatic reviews and impressive sales, winning her her first Booker prize and propelling her to the top of the literary pyramid. 

Before the bestseller, and before the Booker, Mantel had a respectable standing as the author of nine well-reviewed novels, but she was by no means a star. I met her in April 2000 at a conference on “The Novel in Britain: 1950–2000” at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. She was there as a woman novelist, one of the few represented in the programming. I was there as a critic, and gave a talk called “Lad Lit”—a response to the patronizing category of “chick lit,” which had become popular in the previous decade. And indeed many lads were at the conference: Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie. They were friends and were immediately smoking and chatting to each other in the spaces between the papers, and planning dinner excursions to four-star restaurants in Pasadena. But they did not chat and smoke with Mantel, or invite her to dinner, and the first night, as I recall, she came out to dinner with me and a group of literary ladies. 

She was used to being ignored. In her devastating memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), she wrote about her decades of suffering from endometriosis, and the enormous weight gain caused by the steroids she had taken for it. Having always been thin and frail, she was suddenly transformed. The psychological shock was so great that she wrote about it in the distancing second person: “You get fat knees, fat feet, fat in bits of you that you never thought of. You get in a panic, and believe in strange diets. You throw tantrums in fat lady shops, where the stock is grimy tat tacked together from cheap man-made fabric in a choice of electric blue or cerise.”

By the end of the conference Martin Amis had invited her to tea. But by then she had made discoveries that far outweighed the lads. She had met Sue Hodson, a curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington, and mentioned that she was thinking about writing a novel about Thomas Cromwell. In 2005, when she started writing, Hodson connected her to Mary Robertson, a Cromwell scholar who was the Huntington curator of British historical manuscripts. Through extensive correspondence Robertson became her friend and “muse,” the source of endless detail about Cromwell’s life. Mantel dedicated Wolf Hall (2009) and then Bring Up the Bodies (2012) to her.

Robertson too has written about the way Mantel’s performance at the conference had impressed the women curators. Sue Hodson had “witnessed Hilary more than hold her own onstage with writers Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Christopher Hitchens. Discussions began almost immediately about the possibility of her papers eventually coming to The Huntington, and, in the ensuing years, she periodically sent batches of her literary papers to San Marino to be accessioned, cataloged, and made available to scholars.” The Mantel archive now holds more than 1,300 items. In 2017 she returned to the library to give a keynote for “An Overflow of Meaning: Reading and Re-reading Hilary Mantel,” an international conference dedicated to her writing. If the Huntington conference was a party for the lads, it was a launching pad for the lady.

Between the time when she became famous and her death, Mantel had only 13 years to enjoy her international preeminence, and to build a reputation for personal generosity and modesty, although her essays became even more scarifying. In 2013, in a controversial article on “Royal Bodies,” she noted that while she had once questioned the need for a monarchy, she now thought of the royal family much like pandas—“expensive to conserve and ill-suited to any modern environment,” but fun to watch in their cages. She mocked Kate Middleton, the Perfect Princess:

Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture. Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. Kate seems capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation.

She wrote a short story on the assassination of Margaret Thatcher by the Irish Republican Army, and although Thatcher was already dead and it was clearly fiction, some readers were profoundly offended. Moreover, in her essays about her wrenching experience of endometriosis, she wrote with rage, precision, and bloody detail of being ignored, misdiagnosed, then subjected to a hysterectomy that left her in pain and unable to have children. Her stories are self-lacerating. “How Shall I Know You,” a story about a novelist’s lecture trip to a regional literary society, dwells on the “travelers’ stench” of dingy hotels and the weird audiences, but Mantel throws in some ironic allusions to more successful novelists—“Come now, come now, what would Anita Brookner do?” or  “A.S. Byatt would have managed it better.” These fierce essays, and disturbing, even creepy short stories gave one of her sharpest critics, Terry Castle, the impression that Mantel was “working with some fairly edgy and complex private material” in her fiction.

I suspect the discovery of Cromwell as a historical character whose life she could imagine freed her from her private wounds and liberated her from her personal ghosts. The world of Cromwell embraced pleasure as well as pain, spirituality as well as cynicism, love as well as self-deception. It’s no wonder that the Cromwell novels won her a huge audience, and with the theatrical adaptations, made her a beloved figure.

Once launched, Mantel soared. Thirteen years wasn’t nearly long enough. But Mantel was making up for lost time, and she made every minute count.