LONDON — I remember standing with Hilary Mantel in the offices of the literary agency we shared. It was autumn 2008, several months before “Wolf Hall” was published. I knew she was writing a novel about Thomas Cromwell when I pointed out of the window and said that certain important events in his life and the lives of those he knew must have happened not far from here. We were in Holborn, an old part of London, where you can still see surviving Tudor architecture. “Oh yes,” she said. She mentioned a nearby street and launched into a description of a dinner there attended by Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell’s patron, nearly 500 years before.
It’s no surprise to me when writers have a deep knowledge of the subjects about which they’re writing, but I was struck by the manner in which Hilary spoke of the dinner party. It was as though she’d been present and was relating, full of delight, a piece of slightly scurrilous gossip that she overheard while pouring wine, unseen, into Wolsey’s cup.
I told Hilary someone needed to record an audio guide to Tudor London, narrated by her, that visitors could listen to while walking past locations of significance. It was a mark of her graciousness that she looked amused though I’d reduced her to the role of tour guide instead of recognizing that she had a different way of entering King Henry VIII’s England than anyone else who’d ever written about it. When I started to read “Wolf Hall” a few months later I recognized instantly the narrative voice though I had never before seen it on the page: It peers over Cromwell’s shoulder, unseen, before entering his mind.
“How does she do it?” is a question often asked of a writer who pulls off something wonderful in her work. This question leads me back to rereading and, in doing so, I find the answer. When you’ve been writing long enough, you learn to see the puppet strings once you’ve watched how the puppet moves.
With Hilary Mantel’s work, that is a purely rhetorical question. She embodies both the magician and the spell, and part of the particular wonder of reading her is the knowledge that no one else has ever written like that before nor will again. She seemed to see so clearly the things — the past, the spirit world, the intricate relationship between the self and power — the rest of us saw through gauze or not at all.
As her agent and friend of 35 years, Bill Hamilton, said shortly after news of her death: “She seemed to operate in more dimensions than the rest of us, but always had her feet on the ground.” That comes close to describing some of the source of her power as a writer: Nothing was too large for her understanding or too small for her attention. Cromwell’s appetite for food intrigued her as much as his appetite for power, and she knew how to write about both in ways that spoke to each other, simultaneously in the 16th and 21st centuries.
For the readers who know her genius only through the “Wolf Hall” trilogy, there remains the joy of discovering her in earlier works: “A Place of Greater Safety,” a memoir “Giving Up the Ghost,” “Beyond Black” and many more. When I heard we had lost her, the writing I found myself returning to was a 2009 memoir, “Someone to Disturb.” The publication year is significant. We were nearing the end of a decade that had taught me to be very nervous about any writer who was not Muslim writing about Muslims.
I embarked on reading the memoir entirely, and rightly, confident that the only kind of disquiet I might feel while reading Hilary Mantel recalling encounters with a Pakistani man in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s would be the right kind of disquiet, the sort you feel when writers clearly see what is troubling in themselves, in the people they encounter and in the world around them.
Almost 15 years later, the story disquiets and troubles in all the right ways. And it is also a reminder that one of the great gifts of Hilary Mantel is her skewering wit. Here she is, recalling an afternoon spent with a Pakistani woman whose conversations she steered toward Islam in order to avoid talking about pregnancy,: “Monday, 6 June: ‘Spent two hours with my neighbour,’ my diary says, ‘widening the cultural gap.’”