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37 interesting facts about historical fiction queen Hilary Mantel

The celebrated British novelist died on Sept. 22, 2022 at the age of 70. Mantel was best known for the popular Wolf Hall Trilogy, a fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell.

The bestselling historical fiction author died on Sept. 22, 2022

Hilary Mantel was an English writer whose work included historical fiction, personal memoirs and short stories. (Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Hilary Mantel, the queen of the historical novel, died at 70 on Sept. 22, 2022.

The U.K.-born author was one of the few writers who has won England's Booker Prize twice. 

Mantel won the awards for the first two books in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy — first in 2009 for Wolf Hall and again in 2012 for its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies

The Mirror & the Light, the final novel of Hilary Mantel's popular Tudor trilogy chronicling the life of the influential English minister in the court of King Henry VIII, was released in March 2020 and sold more than 95,000 copies in its first three days. It was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and was a finalist for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction

In 2020, Mantel spoke with Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel about writing a fictionalized account of Thomas Cromwell's life: "The first thing I did then was to get back to the historical record — to try to forget what I'd been reading in biographies — and I began to access a very different story.

"I saw how historians have rolled along not just prejudices but error, from one generation to the next. So I felt as if I were wiping the slate clean and trying to see Cromwell as if for the first time."

Listen | Hilary Mantel on Writers & Company:

The two-time Booker Prize winner talks to Eleanor Wachtel about concluding her chronicle of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII.

CBC Books has collected these 37 interesting facts you might not know about the historical fiction master. 

1. Hilary Mantel was born Hilary Mary Thompson in Derbyshire, Northern England, on July 6, 1952. She later took the name Mantel from her stepfather.

2. As a child, the novel she recalls strongly identifying with was Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.

3. Mantel attended Harrytown Convent School. Her experience at the convent school shaped her approach to life and religion: "My convent years left me a legacy, a nervous politeness, an appearance of female timidity which will probably stand me in good stead if I am ever on trial for murder".

4. Mantel believes in ghosts and that her house was haunted as a child: "When I was a child I believed our house was haunted, and so — worryingly — did the grown-ups." 

5. Mantel wrote in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost that she lost her faith in religion at the age of 12.

6. According to Mantel, Thomas Cromwell is one of the most influential people in Britain's history: "Cromwell was driven by a larger vision of England's future, not just personal ambition. Yes, he was a ruthless man; he was no more ruthless, however, than most of the great men in the reign. He was a radical thinker working against opposition from all sides."

Thomas Cromwell circa 1520. He went on to become the right-hand man of King Henry VIII. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

7. As a teenager, she became obsessed with the idea of social politics and revolutions. She would later write a novel set during the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. It was published in 1992. "I thought of this as a political stance, although when I look back on it now I realize that the idea of 'the world turned upside down' was attractive to me because I was miserable and I wanted the world to be different and I wanted to be in charge of myself," she told the Socialist Review in 1993.

8. In 1970, Mantel attended the London School of Economics and the University of Sheffield to study law

9. Mantel worked in the fashion department of British department store Kendals in her early 20s.

10. In her 20s, she suffered from severe endometriosis, an affliction that she self-diagnosed. "I was 27 when I received it, and by that stage, major surgery was the only answer. Abruptly I lost my fertility and, in some ways, lost myself," she wrote in a 2015 essay in the Guardian. "Anything I have achieved has been in the teeth of the disease."

11. In 1973, Mantel married geologist Gerald McEwen at the age of 20. The couple divorced in 1981, but re-married in 1982.

12. Mantel in her early 20s felt that writing was her "lifeline." "I started writing in earnest at 22. I thought: I am a wreck and have no money and am in poor health — and so how am I going to impose myself on the world? I was seethingly ambitious, I don't make any secret of that. I needed to be somebody," she told the Guardian in 2003.

13. Mantel lived to Botswana — where her husband was employed — from 1977 to 1980 and also spent time in Saudi Arabia in the early to mid-1980s. Her 1988 novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and 1994 novel A Change of Climate are drawn from these experiences

14. In the 1980s, Mantel was a film critic for weekly British magazine The Spectator, reviewing popular films such as Robocop.

15. Mantel has been a travel writer and was awarded the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 1987.

16. Mantel told the Paris Review that she initially wanted to be a historian before becoming a bestselling writer of historical fiction. "I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to ­become a historian. So it began as second best," she said.

17. Mantel's debut novel, Every Day is Mother's Day, was published in 1985.

18. Hilary's writing process includes writing down everything that's on her mind upon waking each day.

19. Mantel told Eleanor Wachtel in 2012 that a feeling that the real life story of Thomas Cromwell hadn't been told fuelled her desire to write the bestselling trilogy. "I think historical fiction is in many ways a project of recovery, rediscovery and, sometimes, rehabilitation," she said. "He was very central to King Henry VIII's reign — he was his chief minister for almost 10 years during the tumultuous decade of the 1530s. He's a fascinating man in his own right." 

The two-time Booker winner talked to Eleanor in 2012 about her novels exploring the reign of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall is shortlisted for the special 50th anniversary Golden Man Booker Award, to be announced July 8, 2018.

20. Mantel published Wolf Hall in 2009, the first book in the Tudor trilogy. Wolf Hall, which won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, has sold more copies than any other Booker winner ever — nearly 3.5 million worldwide.

Hilary Mantel with her novel Wolf Hall after winning the 2009 Booker Prize. (AP Photo/ Alastair Grant)

21. Mantel refuses to write historical fiction that changes the factual events of the period and will often travel to the places she writes about. "I aim to make the fiction flexible so that it bends itself around the facts as we have them. Otherwise I don't see the point. Nobody seems to understand that. Nobody seems to share my approach to historical fiction," she told the Paris Review.

22. Mantel said that she loves sleeping and feels it boosts her productivity. "I have a sense of doing a lot of work when I'm asleep. Of leaving a problem overnight, waking up with some image or stray word that is probably the solution," she said in an interview with the Financial Times.

23. Wolf Hall was adapted for a television miniseries in 2015. The six-episode series starred Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy.

24. In 2013, Wolf Hall was also adapted into a play that premiered at U.K.'s Royal Shakespeare Company. The adaptation won two Olivier Awards and a Tony Award.

25. Mantel was not fond of Margaret Thatcher and fictionalized the former British prime minister's murder in a short story titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: 6 August 1983.

26. In 2017, Mantel delivered a series of lectures for the Reith Lecture series on the theme of historical fiction. The Reith Lectures are given by prominent leaders and thinkers and air on BBC.

27. When Mantel won the 2012 Man Booker Prize for Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in the trilogy, she became only the third author, after Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee, to win the literary award twice. 

Hilary Mantel poses in London after winning the 2012 Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up The Bodies. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

28. Mantel is a big fan of the TV series Game of Thrones. "It might be fantasy, but it's a lot more like real history than some novels."

29. Now at 67, she told the Guardian in 2020 that she probably won't write another trilogy with the scope of her bestselling Tudor series: "It's just maths, really"

30. Mantel is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and recipient of the Bodley Medal. The Bodley Medal, which is awarded by Oxford University, is awarded to people who have made "outstanding contributions ... to the worlds of communications and literature" and have helped Oxford's library achieve its goals.

31. Oxford University gave Mantel an honorary degree in 2015.

32. Mantel told the New York Times that, in her own personal reading time, she loves to read books with action. "I don't like over-refinement, or to dwell in the heads of vaporous ladies with fine sensibilities."

33. Mantel was made a commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2006 and a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2014.

34. Wolf Hall was on the shortlist for the special Golden Man Booker Prize, an honour in celebration of the award's 50th anniversary in 2018.

35. The Mirror & the Light is the final book in Mantel's trilogy, one that took just under 15 years for her to write. 

36. A documentary on Mantel's life and career — titled Hilary Mantel: Return To Wolf Hall — was released in 2020.

37. Mantel died at 70 on Sept. 22, 2022. In a statement, her publisher said Mantel was "one of the greatest English novelists of this century....her beloved works are considered modern classics. She will be greatly missed." 

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