From an early age, Hilary Mantel dreamed of writing historical novels.Statue Els Zweerink

    Dame Hilary Mantel, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 70, was the most celebrated and successful author of historical fiction of our time. Her work has been awarded the Booker Prize twice: in 2009 for Wolf Hall and in 2012 for Bring Up the Bodies (The Book of Henry). Both were parts of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which concluded in 2020 with The Mirror & the Light (The mirror & the light).

    Hilary Mantel was born in Derbyshire in 1952 into a Catholic family of Irish descent. She had a lonely, troubled childhood, took her stepfather’s name Mantel after her parents split, and studied law in London and Sheffield. After graduating, she was active as a social worker, living for several years in Botswana and Saudi Arabia, where her husband worked as a geologist.

    French revolution

    From an early age, Mantel dreamed of writing historical novels, starting with the French Revolution. Not only because she found the subject extremely interesting, but also and above all because she believed there was a great untold story behind the well-known historical events. So in 1979 she wrote her own version of the events in her three-part novel A Place of Greater Safety (A safer place). She didn’t get it published until 1993, when she was an established author.

    Mantel debuted in 1985 with the contemporary social comedy Every Day Is Mother’s Day. The sequel appeared a year later Vacant Possession. These often highly satirical books tell of dysfunctional people in a society that is rotten through and through under the veneer of appearances and politeness.

    Thomas Cromwell

    In addition to the French Revolution, there was a second historical subject that Mantel was highly fascinated by, but it took her half a writer’s life to dare to tackle it: the life of Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). As an adviser and right-hand man to King Henry VIII, this power politician was responsible for, among other things, the secession of the Church of England, the abolition of the monasteries and quite a few executions, including those of Thomas More and Henry’s second wife Anna Boleyn.

    There is also a fascinating, untold story behind Henry VIII of England, according to Mantel. She was convinced that the history books were doing him an injustice. By the beginning of this century, she had gathered enough courage and knowledge to put her vision of Cromwell into a novel. It ended up being three.

    In Wolf Hall (2009) describes Cromwell’s childhood and career at the English court, where he rises to become Henry’s chief adviser. Bring Up the Bodies (2012) talks about Henry’s marriage to his second wife, Anna Boleyn. Both books were awarded the Booker Prize. In the final part of the trilogy, The Mirror & the Lightthe period was described between Boleyn’s execution and Cromwell’s own execution four years later.


    Although she was a prolific writer, she struggled with serious health problems throughout her life. The harbingers of what would turn out to be a debilitating illness announced themselves at the age of eleven. She suffered from pain and bleeding that were initially associated with menstruation, but turned out to be much more severe. In the years that followed, the pains were described as psychosomatic, and she was prescribed Valium, antidepressants, and antipsychotics.

    During her stay in Botswana, exhausted from the pain, Mantel took refuge in a medical textbook, which she used to diagnose endometriosis: a chronic disease in which endometrial mucus sticks to various organs outside the womb. Medics confirmed the diagnosis, and an operation followed that included the removal of her uterus and ovaries.

    She then had to continue taking drugs that, as she put it, “swelled her body to twice my initial size.” Mantel wrote about her illness in her non-fiction book Giving Up the Ghost (give up the ghost2003).


    Despite her historical novels, Mantel did not live – or at least not alone – in the past. She sparked controversy by criticizing Britain’s Princess of Wales Catherine, writing a story about the fictional murder of Margaret Thatcher and denouncing the Catholic Church, which she said was “no longer an institution for respectable people” today.

    Thomas Cromwell’s world would never leave her. “It will be a long time before I wake up one day and not think about Thomas Cromwell,” she said in a 2020 interview with de Volkskrant. “But even when it comes, I don’t think I’ll ever let him go. My characters don’t disappear. After all, they are creations of my own imagination and have shaped me as much as I have shaped them.’