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Watch: Hilary Mantell's 'Wolf Hall' Changed Fiction

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Hilary Mantell raised the dead. For millions of readers, the English novelist brings the past to a quivering life, revealing the vanished worlds, private thoughts and twisted minds of her characters with her insight and imagination. She won (and became a woman) the highest award in English literature: she transformed a reviled historical figure into one of the most haunting figures in modern fiction. She died Thursday from complications of a stroke at the age of 70, missing her admirers but also surprising what she’s accomplished in her idiosyncratic literary career. It was Mantell.

Her signature fictional work was based on a real person, Henry VIII’s political corrector and right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell. Her three books of Mantell about Cromwell — “Wolf Hall” (2009), “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012) and “The Mirror and the Light” (2020) — have sold her five million copies. Sold. Her two first books in the trilogy each won her Man Booker Prize. Her BBC television series based on award-winning plays and trilogies, as well as her translations into 41 languages, have made Mantel’s version of Cromwell’s story universal.

Despite ongoing health problems and chronic pain, Mantel has published 16 books and numerous reviews, historical studies and essays. Although she was an astute and fearless critic, and her literary fiction won awards and acclaim, she was drawn to historical fiction, a genre despised by many critics from her very beginning. rice field. Her first novel of over 700 pages about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, had trouble finding a publisher for her. Completed in 1979, it was not published until 1992. In Mantell’s hands, the past has become a sparkling, instinctive present populated by humans with the deepest psychological complexities.

In his 2020 author profile for The New Yorker, critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote that Mantel was looking for a specific kind of character. Where is the line between lies and lies? Where does state power begin and end? Is it possible to break away from the past? How does the conflict between modern reliance on reason on the one hand and primitive ignorance and irrationality on the other play out in the lives of individuals and nations?

She found the character in Cromwell.

From the beginning, Mantell took care to fix her version of Cromwell firmly in history. “Cromwell, who reveals herself over the course of her novel, is very close to the Cromwell I met,” says Diarmade McCullough, Oxford Theology professor, author of an exhaustive 2018 Cromwell biography. told the Guardian.

But her understanding of him must have been personal.

Like Cromwell, Mantell came from humble beginnings. The daughter of a factory worker in the town of Derbyshire, she instinctively grasped the plight of Cromwell, a hard worker at a time when commoners were viewed by the nobility as a lower life form. A son who was abused by a vicious father. A strategist who used his powers of observation and analysis to gain wealth and political power. And a man who lost everything he held dear: his wife and beloved daughters to a deadly plague that day.

As Mantell tells Cromwell’s story over three volumes, the story becomes darker and Mantell’s account is distilled and strengthened. She recreates the joys and luxuries of court life, but tells the story with savage dialogue, a ruthless eye, and a keen attention to historical detail. Boleyn is so reviled that no one even builds a coffin for her. Cardinal Wolsey, the old master of , his nemesis Thomas More. In her memoirs, Mantell recounts her own ghostly sightings, and in her hands, Cromwell’s ghost is even more alive than the living.

Critics struggled to find words to describe Mantell’s accomplishments. That is, his means and methods become more vicious, and he completely binds the reader to Cromwell’s story even though he sent his enemies to the chopping board. “The mantelpiece walks through a very sharp knife edge in the final part of ‘Bring Up the Bodies,'” wrote critic Laura Miller in Salon. I don’t think it cuts my leg, but at times it felt like it cut my leg.You can’t deny Cromwell, but accepting him becomes infinitely more complicated. Of the many fictionalized depictions of the moral issues involved, this one may be one of the most disturbing: how it must feel to manage the fate of a nation, i.e. how intoxicating it is. , much closer than anything I’ve ever encountered to how extremely dangerous it is.”

When Mantell died, her readers felt an irreplaceable loss. Writers and critics who understood her immense achievement made it even harder. “The loss of Hilary Mantel feels like a kind of theft,” New Yorker critic Parul Segal wrote in a tweet. “All the books we still needed from her. A bead-like understanding of

Two weeks before she died, the Financial Times published a Q&A with Mantell. “Do you believe in life after death?” she asked. “Yes,” she said. “I can’t imagine how it works. But the universe isn’t as far as I can imagine.”

Perhaps her admirers can take comfort in her beliefs. If you think so, you are being fooled about their nature. here is one.

Gwinn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist based in Seattle who writes about books and authors.