The death of Hilary Mantel on 22 September, at the relatively young age of seventy, was a sad day for many readers and writers, me included. A truly inspiring writer has gone from the world.
I’ll be honest. Although Mantel wrote many novels and non-fiction works before producing ‘Wolf Hall’, I hadn’t come across her work until I read a transcript of the first of her Reith Lectures, given in 2017. She used the lecture to dissect the boundaries between history, fact and fiction.
At the time I was writing my first book and found her insights helpful. The depth of her research impressed me. But her ability to use language eloquently and succinctly overawed me. I bought and became engrossed in the first two books of her ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chancellor and hatchet man.
The third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, contains a conversation which I think epitomizes Mantel’s skill as a writer. Cromwell is talking to Lady Rochford when the teenage Katherine Howard appears. Katherine is already being groomed by her uncle as Henry VIII’s next wife, to replace the unhappy Anne of Cleves. Cromwell looks her over and says,
Just four words. A lesser writer might have added “he asked” and “she replied”. The average writer would have used full sentences, if not a paragraph or two to say the same thing. But Mantel managed to convey whole pages of information and intrigue in that simple, true-to-life conversation.