When the Queen died a fortnight ago, it was widely speculated that the perfect writer to describe both her death and its aftermath was Hilary Mantel, but now that will never be. Mantel died from a stroke yesterday at the age of 70, leaving behind a unique legacy in transatlantic literature not merely as someone whose weighty novels about royalty in the Tudor era have sold millions, but as an acute chronicler of our own time, too. Not for nothing is her most controversial short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, a subversive account of what might have happened if a woman she felt “boiling detestation” for had been killed in 1983.
Now, Mantel’s death has robbed readers not only of a perceptive — and no doubt contentious — account of royalty’s last stand, but of many other books in the future. Her Wolf Hall trilogy has been adapted both for television and stage and won her the Booker Prize twice. It is widely regarded as a series of highbrow literary novels that appeal to people who would generally avoid the kind of difficult, intellectually penetrating books that Mantel specialized in. 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 in the kinds of numbers that far less distinguished airport reads usually do. And she retained her intellectual integrity while doing so.
Yet I always felt that something shifted over Mantel’s career. Her earliest novels, 1989’s anti-Catholic Fludd and 1994’s A Change of Climate, were critically acclaimed. The New York Times described the latter as one of the year’s best books and called it “smart, astringent and marvelously upsetting fiction.” But they did not transcend the commercial bounds of literary fiction. It was only when she published Wolf Hall in 2009, age 56, that she became a literary superstar, and her fortunes shifted accordingly. She’d been a respected and admired writer, but largely known only to a coterie in literary circles on the East Coast and in major cities in Britain. She was now a brand, whose books could be found on sale in convenience stores and high-end literary establishments alike.
Mantel always had an ambivalent relationship with fame. On the one hand, she participated willingly in all the documentaries and interviews and general circus that bestselling writers are expected to lend themselves to, even accepting a damehood in 2014. On the other hand, she was a socialist who openly criticized the Catholic Church as “not an institution for respectable people.” She said of the British monarchy, “It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty.” She described the now-Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton, as a “personality-free shop window mannequin.”
Mantel was often criticized by the right-wing press for such remarks — perhaps ironically, she was the Spectator’s film critic for a while, leaving the job in 1991 — but she was always unafraid to speak her mind. This refreshing individuality of thought explains in part why she was such a popular novelist in the best sense of the phrase.
Mantel’s sudden death robs English literature of one of its most distinctive and fascinating voices, and she will be much mourned. But the canon of writing that she leaves behind will be remembered for decades, even centuries, long after the confected spats and arguments that took place in her lifetime have drizzled down into nothingness. And that, you imagine, is what she would have wanted.