Hilary Mantel, the two-time Booker Prize-winning author known for her trilogy of novels based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, has died from a stroke, according to her literary agent Bill Hamilton. Mantel was, per Hamilton, working on a new novel at the time of her death. “It’s just an enormous loss to literature,” he said in a statement.
Raised in Hadfield, Derbyshire, Mantel read law at the London School of Economics before transferring to the University of Sheffield to study law theory, earning her bachelor’s there in 1973. She married her husband, geologist Gerald McEwen, that same year, and in 1974 began work on A Place of Greater Safety, a novel about the French Revolution that would not sell for nearly 20 years. Mantel’s first published novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985), emerged from a particularly trying time in her life: Her marriage to McEwan had faltered (the pair divorced in 1981 before remarrying a year later), and in her late 20s Mantel fell severely ill with what she later concluded was severe endometriosis. (“I went into St. George’s Hospital,” she told The New Yorker in 2012, “and ten days later I came out minus ovaries, womb, bits of bowel, bits of bladder. Minus a future, as far as having children was concerned.”)
Subsequent novels were inspired by the years she spent in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for McEwan’s work (1988’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street) and the long shadow of her Catholic upbringing (1989’s Fludd, which would win Mantel the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and 1996’s Hawthornden Prize-winning An Experiment in Love), among other personal and historical subjects. Yet Mantel found her biggest audience with Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012), and The Mirror and the Light (2020), three books about Thomas Cromwell, a powerful adviser to Henry VIII. (Cromwell’s twisting story had become a fascination of Mantel’s in high school; “I realized that some imaginative work is due on this man,” she said in 2020.) The first two books, both of which won Mantel the Booker Prize, were adapted into a critically acclaimed BBC series starring Mark Rylance, as well as a Tony-nominated play during the 2014-2015 Broadway season.
James Naughtie, the chairman of judges for the Booker Prize in 2009, praised the “sheer bigness” of Wolf Hall—which ran nearly 700 pages—as well as the “boldness of its narrative, its scene setting. The extraordinary way that Hilary Mantel has created what one of the judges has said was a contemporary novel, a modern novel, which happens to be set in the 16th Century. We thought it was an extraordinary piece of story-telling.” Mantel’s final completed novel, The Mirror and the Light, covered the last four years of Cromwell’s life before his death by execution in 1540. It, too, was adapted for the stage, opening at the Gielgud Theatre in London in 2021.