Hilary Mantel – an early death

When the Queen died a fortnight ago it was widely assumed that the perfect writer to describe both her death and its aftermath was Hilary Mantel, but now that will never be the case. Mantel died yesterday of a stroke at the age of 70, leaving behind a unique legacy in transatlantic literature, not only as someone whose landmark novels about royalty in the Tudor era sold to millions, but also as an acute chronicler of our time. It’s not for nothing that his most controversial short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, is a subversive…

When the Queen died a fortnight ago it was widely assumed that the perfect writer to describe both her death and its aftermath was Hilary Mantel, but now that will never be the case. Mantel died yesterday of a stroke at the age of 70, leaving behind a unique legacy in transatlantic literature, not only as someone whose landmark novels about royalty in the Tudor era sold to millions, but also as an acute chronicler of our time. Not for nothing is his most controversial short story, The assassination of Margaret Thatcher, a subversive account of what might have happened if a woman she felt a “boiling detestation” for had been killed in 1983.

Now, Mantel’s death has robbed readers not only of an insightful — and arguably controversial — account of kingship’s last stand, but many more books to come. His Hall of Wolves trilogy has been adapted for both television and the stage and won him the Booker Prize twice. It is widely regarded as a series of high-level literary novels that appeal to people who generally avoid the genre of difficult, intellectually penetrating books in which Mantel specializes. She was the female equivalent of a Jonathan Franzen or a Martin Amis – or, if you will, a less controversial Philip Roth – in that she was able to write uncompromising novels that sold out in the genre. numbers that much less genteel airport readings usually do. And she retained her intellectual integrity while doing it.

However, I always felt that something had changed in Mantel’s career. His first novels, anti-Catholic from 1989 Fludd and 1994 A change of climate, were critically acclaimed. The New York Times described the latter as one of the best books of the year and called it “intelligent, astringent and wonderfully moving fiction”. But they did not transcend the commercial boundaries of literary fiction. It was only when she published Hall of Wolves in 2009, at the age of 56, she became a literary superstar, and her fortunes changed accordingly. She had been a respected and admired writer, but widely known only to a coterie in literary circles on the East Coast and in Britain’s big cities. She was now a brand, whose books could be found for sale in convenience stores as well as in high-end literary establishments.

Mantel has always had an ambivalent relationship with fame. On the one hand, she participated willingly in all the documentaries and interviews and general circus that successful writers are supposed to lend themselves to, even accepting a femininity in 2014. On the other hand, she was a socialist who openly criticized the Church Catholic as “not an institution for respectable people.” She said of the British monarchy: “The whole phenomenon of the monarchy may be irrational, but that does not mean that when we look at it we have to behave like spectators in Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily turn into cruelty. She described the current Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton, as a “showcase model with no personality”.

Mantel was often criticized by the right-wing press for such remarks – perhaps ironically, she was the Spectator‘s film critic for a time, quitting the job in 1991 – but she was never afraid to speak her mind. This refreshing individuality of thought is part of why she was such a popular novelist in the best sense of the word.

Mantel’s sudden death robs English literature of one of its most distinctive and fascinating voices, and it will be much mourned. But the canon of writing she leaves behind will be remembered for decades, if not centuries, long after the squabbles and confusing arguments that took place during her lifetime have crumbled into nothingness. And that, you can imagine, is what she would have wanted.

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