Margaret Atwood: ‘She had a grasp of the dark and spidery corners of human nature’
Canadian author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, and twice Booker winner
I was shocked and saddened to hear of Hilary Mantel’s death. It was always a pleasure to read such a smart, deft, meticulous, thoughtful writer, and one with such a grasp of the dark and spidery corners of human nature – and a pleasure to review her too, which I did both early and late. A Place of Greater Safety was an eye-opener about the French Revolution, and the Cromwell trilogy was a well-known stunner. She never shied away from the difficult folks, and doled out a tad of redemption for even the most hardened cases. What might she have written next? I don’t know, but I will miss it.
Anne Enright: ‘She bristled with intelligence’
Irish writer best known for her Booker prize-winning novel The Gathering
Hilary Mantel recently spent time in west Cork where she had acquired a house. It was her intention to reclaim her European citizenship by way of the Irish passport to which she was entitled. There were times in her life when her Irish ancestry was less important to her, but after the Brexit referendum it had become central again.
Mantel grew up in a pocket of Irish immigrants that lodged in Hadfield, a stony town in the High Peak of Derbyshire. Her mother was a mill-girl, her grandmother did not know her own date of birth. She described a childhood so frugal and windswept that she was 11 years old before she saw a rose. Her family was part of a declining Irish population in a town where tensions between Catholic and Protestant played out in daily life. This sense of displacement made history important to Mantel, whose childhood was haunted by the figures of the dead, not least the men who did not return with her beloved grandfather from the first world war. Mantel felt presences from an early age and was not fully at home in her own skin. When she was eight, she had a vision of “a body inside my body … budding and malign”, in part because she realised that she would not grow up to be a boy. When her parents’ marriage ended, she fell into repeated fevers, lost her thick hair, and turned into a child the local doctor called “little miss Neverwell”.
Mantel bristled with intelligence, looked at everything, saw everything. She described herself as a slightly pedantic small girl. “Few people acted with any malice towards me, it was just that I was unsuited to being a child.” With the uneasy energy of her early life, Mantel made rigorous and unsettling work about history, the body and the unknowable. The strangeness of the past made sense to her.
Her last interviews returned to the fact that she came from a family of immigrants. Her work about the court of Henry VIII might have placed her at the heart of a British nationalist revival, but Mantel had no interest in any such a thing. Her brilliance depended, to the last, on the piercing eye of a writer who is an outsider, one who is never fully at home.
Kamila Shamsie: ‘She was incredibly gracious and generous’
Pakistani and British writer of Burnt Shadows and Home Fire
How many of us, at the start of the first lockdown, had a breezy confidence that it wouldn’t last very long and in the meantime at least we would have the company of Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (published on 5 March 2020) to take us through the dark times? I was certainly of that number, and plunged into the third book of her Cromwell trilogy, correctly assured that here was a writer with the ability to pull me into her world, no matter how distracting the news of the world around me might be. I intended to read while taking notes – I was due to interview Hilary about her new novel at the Manchester literature festival in April that year – but all plans of note-taking were quickly abandoned in favour of the pure immersive pleasure of the novel. And anyway, why did I need notes? There was no shortage of questions I already had to ask one of the greatest writers on the planet. But the one question I really wanted the answer to might just have been the one that even Mantel couldn’t answer: how exactly is your brain wired?
Mantel was that rare writer whom you read and think, I have no idea how your brain goes where it goes, and how it comes back to produce the work that it does. It is a matter of immense sadness that I will never again hear the words “new novel by Hilary Mantel”, and the only consolation is the books that she has left us with.
I deeply regret never having the chance to speak to her about The Mirror and the Light – not only for the public conversation, but for the few minutes of private talk that would precede and perhaps follow it. In my few short encounters with Mantel, she was incredibly gracious and generous. I always walked away thinking: “One day, we’ll sit down for a proper chat and we’ll have a really good laugh.”
William Boyd: ‘Her fierce intelligence, sense of humour and stoicism seemed enshrined in her novels’
Scottish author of A Good Man in Africa and Any Human Heart
I didn’t know Hilary Mantel well, but we did meet from time to time over the years. We first encountered each other some 20 years ago at a literary festival organised by Cosmopolitan magazine. We last met in June this year, at Clarence House, of all places. She seemed very well and full of energy. I have huge admiration for her body of work and, also, enormous respect for her as a person – as I was aware of the serious health issues that dominated her life. Her fierce intelligence, sense of humour and her tremendous, clear-eyed stoicism seemed somehow conjoined and enshrined in her writer’s life and the enduring novels that she wrote.
Maggie O’Farrell: ‘She leaves behind a huge, unfillable vacuum’
Northern Irish writer whose novel Hamnet won the 2020 Women’s prize for fiction
We have lost another monarch this week. Mantel was queen of literature, and her reign was, like Elizabeth II’s, long, varied and uncontested. She leaves behind a huge, unfillable vacuum, a deep sense of loss for the reading public, and a toweringly significant body of work.
As a writer, Mantel was fierce, fabulous and fearless. In her books, she took risks, she pushed back the boundaries of narrative, she grabbed hold of novelistic rules and shook them by the neck until they obeyed her. Everything she wrote, whether it was memoir, journalism, contemporary novels or weighty historical trilogies, showed the labour involved in her work – and also her love of that labour. I challenge anyone to find a word or even a comma out of place; there isn’t an ounce of fat on the bones of her work, even the books that cover 900-odd pages. It’s clear from her prose that she was profoundly committed to her craft, to editing and re-editing and redrafting it into perfection. Her voice on the page is unmistakable; it’s possible to deduce within a paragraph whether or not it was written by her. That perspicuity, those elegant sub-clauses, that precision, the psychological acuity, her logophilic daring.
As a person, she was unfailingly generous, making time to support and champion the work of other writers. She always held the ladder for those coming up behind her, which is not always the case with someone of Mantel’s stature. She loved her own work; she loved the work of others and she wanted to share it all with the world.
How fortunate we were to have her. How much poorer our shelves will be without the novels she might have gone on to write. She said in a recent interview that she believed in an afterlife and her novels often grappled with a perforated membrane between life and death. Let’s hope she has reached her ideal posthumous location, perhaps a well-stocked library. Rest in peace, Queen Hilary. You will be missed.
Ian McEwan: ‘She helped us know ourselves as a nation’
British writer known for his novels Atonement and Enduring Love
To borrow John Updike’s phrase, Mantel gave history its beautiful due. In doing so, she deployed breathtaking resources of literary skill, and helped us know ourselves as a nation. The Wolf Hall trilogy will stand as her monument, but her backlist is full of wonders. She was also brilliant, witty company with a distinctive mode of scepticism that was all her own.
Sarah Waters: ‘She was the UK’s greatest living writer’
Welsh author of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith
I remember selling Hilary’s books when I worked in a bookshop in the late 1980s, and it’s astonishing to think that, already an established writer then, she still had a further 30-year career ahead of her. Many authors do their most significant work early on and then simply repeat it, but she was one of those really extraordinary writers who start off great and get even better.
Her literary longevity came partly, perhaps, from the fact that she was able to take her fiction in so many different directions; she was as at home in historical epics as she was in tight domestic dramas, as comfortable with fable as with naturalism. She is best known for her marvellous Thomas Cromwell trilogy, but it is her more gothic, female-centred novels that have inspired me most, especially the creepy masterpiece Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and the sublime Beyond Black.
I associate her with two other fiercely intelligent and darkly mischievous British writers, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge: her work, like theirs, has always resisted easy categorisation and has been all the more fascinating for it. I met her only a couple of times, and she was unfailingly kind and generous, but I was as flustered in her presence as if I were meeting royalty – which, in a way, I think I was. She was the UK’s greatest living writer, and her death is a dreadful loss.
Sarah Perry: ‘What will we do without her?’
British author of The Essex Serpent
Hilary Mantel is dead and I am ashamed of the sorrow I feel, since I met her only once, and we corresponded rarely; it occurs to me she would possibly be amused by my sorrow, and amused, too, that I’ve taken out like a holy relic the Christmas card in which she hoped I was happy and that 2015 would be good to me and to my gift, which she signed Hilary (Mantel).
A year or so before, I’d locked myself in the toilets of the offices where I worked to finish her memoir Giving Up the Ghost. Alone in a cubicle, I wept over its unflinching account of suffering and loss, and returning to my desk I wrote a love letter that ran to several pages. I praised what we must all praise: the elegance and rigour of her prose, the startling visions of her imagination, the candour and courage of her self-knowledge, the treacly blackness of her wit and the piercing intelligence that riveted the lot together with bolts of stainless steel. Having once read that she bound her manuscripts with treasury tags, I raided the office stationery cupboard, shoved a fistful of them in the envelope and sent my devotion first class.
In the years that followed I have loved her only more. The year 2015, as it turned out, was not as good to me as she had hoped it would be, nor were the years that followed: I became ill and endured tormenting pain, so that her writing on bodily suffering arrived for me like despatches from a traveller who had entered a bad land long before me and had left a map and a light. I loved her for her novels, unmatched by any writer now living, but I loved her, too, because she was a woman for all seasons, whose intellect was equal to every moral or political matter the world could hurl at her door. What will we do without her? I have been waiting for her word on the crown that has passed from one old hand to another, and now the word won’t come.
All afternoon I have aimlessly paced the house, followed by dogs, holding the card she sent me, thinking myself absurd. I find her in the blue-eyed model of a jackdaw that eyes me from the mantelpiece, and the deck of tarot cards I keep close to hand; I find her in the box of opioids I store under my bed in case pain returns to my life; I find her in the postcard of Cranmer she sent me once, which I have pinned above my desk. Mostly I find her at my shoulder berating me when my prose becomes weak and thin. “All houses are haunted,” she wrote. She haunts mine and cannot be shifted. What poor priest would dare?