‘The pen is in our hands. A happy ending is ours to write’: Hilary Mantel in her own words

·11-min read
<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Hilary Mantel, who has died aged 70, was one of the most celebrated writers of our time. Her widely acclaimed Wolf Hall trilogy and its subsequent screen and stage adaptations brought her millions of fans around the world.

Here are some of her thoughts and comments from over the years.


On writing

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. The only way I could think of was by writing. Because all you need is paper and pencil and you can do it horizontal. But it was never an escape, nor was it the place I was running to – because it wasn’t a refuge – but it was what enabled me, it was my source of power and it was all I’d got and it was the cheapest source of power. Words are free. And when I think: what do I retain from the old days? It’s a turn of phrase.” – Interviewed in the Observer in 2003.

Some writers claim to extrude a book at an even rate like toothpaste from a tube, or to build a story like a wall, so many feet per day. They sit at their desk and knock off their word quota, then frisk into their leisured evening, preening themselves. This is so alien to me that it might be another trade entirely. Writing lectures or reviews – any kind of non-fiction – seems to me a job like any job: allocate your time, marshal your resources, just get on with it. But fiction makes me the servant of a process that has no clear beginning and end or method of measuring achievement. I don’t write in sequence. I may have a dozen versions of a single scene. I might spend a week threading an image through a story, but moving the narrative not an inch. A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.”

I haven’t got another big historical novel in view. I think that’s quite important to say, so I hope people will stop writing to me with suggestions. It’s lovely that people have the appetite for it but considering the pace at which I proceed, I would like some life before it’s too late.” – Talking to the Edinburgh international books festival in 2020 after publishing the final instalment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.

Well, let’s put it this way; if it was the third volume, if it was a book about Thomas Cromwell, I think they would know it is me and to be honest if the judges just couldn’t pick the authors, I wouldn’t think very much of their literary acumen. It might work for first-novel prizes but people do tend to develop distinctive voices, and of course it might lead to mischievous writers imitating each other. I bet quite a few of us could knock off a Martin Amis.” – Mantel, a former Booker prize judge and twice winner, talking to the Sydney Morning Herald about the idea of the prize being judged blind.

It doesn’t matter how many centuries you’ve scored in the past, you can fail in the next innings. Writing’s like that – the next ball can always catch you out.” - Interviewed in the Guardian in 2021.


On illness

Illness strips you back to an authentic self, but not one you need to meet. Too much is claimed for authenticity. Painfully we learn to live in the world, and to be false. Then all our defences are knocked down in one sweep. In sickness we can’t avoid knowing about our body and what it does, its animal aspect, its demands. We see things that never should be seen; our inside is outside, the body’s sewer pipes and vaults exposed to view, as if in a woodcut of our own martyrdom.” – In an essay, Meeting the Devil, in the LRB, 2020.

An unlit terrain of sickness, a featureless landscape of humiliation and loss.” – On endometriosis, a condition she finally learned she had aged 27, after eight years of misdiagnosis, including a psychiatrist who suggested she was suffering from overambition, in Giving Up the Ghost, 2003.

I often had to say to people, when they offered some wonderful opportunity – travel, for example – ‘I cannot do that, I have a long-term illness.’ I wanted to add, ‘I suffer from fatigue and I am often in pain – I cannot rely on my body.’ But endometriosis is not a condition that you can explain in one sentence. For me, the condition and attempted cures have devastated my life. Many cases go undiagnosed for years, causing immense distress. I am glad to have played a small part in starting the conversation around the condition. Writers often reproach themselves with being useless to society. I hoped to do some practical good in the world and, more selfishly, I thought that writing about it might free me from the burden of making excuses.” – Interviewed in La Repubblica in 2021.

Historians and, I’m afraid, doctors, underestimate what chronic pain can do to sour the temper and wear away both the personality and the intellect.” – In Mantel Pieces, 2020.


On Covid-19 and other pandemics

It is hard to see any upsides to this but maybe it expands our imaginations a little, because many of us have lived such safe lives that we cease to understand how the natural world can undo us.” – Talking at the Hay literary festival in May 2020.

[The Tudors] were very good at quarantine in those days. They took it very seriously. I think [Cromwell] would have locked us down for a bit longer … We tend to think that their medicine and their comprehension of the science was all rubbish but actually they did know a lot. They didn’t understand what is conceived through a microscope, they didn’t know of viruses or bacteria, they didn’t know the causes of disease. But they did know how disease worked and how infections spread among the poor, that one should be clean and avoid dirt at all costs. They knew that cities were a locus of infection and they knew to ban crowds – so no public ceremonies when the plague was suspected … So in many ways, what the Tudors did in these times, was very much like what we have been enjoined to do. They just had different names for things.” – Talking at the Hay literary festival in May 2020, which happened entirely online that year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The warm weather has brought sweating sickness to London, and the city is emptying … This plague came to us in the year 1485, with the armies that brought us the first Henry Tudor. Now every few years it fills the graveyards. It kills in a day. Merry at breakfast, they say: dead by noon.” – Wolf Hall, 2009.

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell the stage adaptation of The Mirror and the Light.
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell the stage adaptation of The Mirror and the Light. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian


On Thomas Cromwell

I have to say, I think I’ve given Thomas Cromwell a better audience, a better airing, a better public than historians have managed to do through the ages … I stick as closely as I can to the historical record. You won’t go far wrong if you want to know about Thomas Cromwell by reading those books. It is not a locked box to which only historians have the key. There’s a great deal that the record doesn’t tell us, that was never on the record or for some reason has been lost and yet there are scenes, conversations that we know were crucial. It is the job of novelist to work between the lines and I don’t think for a moment that anyone is confused between fact and fiction. Every time I say ‘he thought’, they know I’m making it up, that I do not have access to the inside of a dead man’s head.” – Talking to the Guardian in 2021 as it was announced that her third and concluding Cromwell novel, The Mirror and the Light, would be staged in a partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London’s West End.

It reminds us that these people didn’t know what was going to happen in the next five minutes. We look at it with hindsight. But in the theatre that corrupting influence of hindsight, it vanishes because every night is a fresh telling and I hope the audiences will feel that … One of the thrilling things about performing the plays was conveying to an audience or causing the audience to collectively believe that they were in the present moment. It wasn’t the past any more, it was the present.” – On adapting the Wolf Hall trilogy for the theatre, talking to the Guardian in 2021.

‘So now get up.’

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.” – The opening lines to Wolf Hall, 2009.


On politics

I have met him a number of times, in different settings. He is a complex personality, but this much is simple – he should not be in public life. And I am sure he knows it

… We see the ugly face of contemporary Britain in the people on the beaches abusing exhausted refugees even as they scramble to the shore. It makes one ashamed. And ashamed, of course to be living in the nation that elected this government, and allows itself to be led by it.” - Asked about Boris Johnson and British politics in a 2021 interview with La Repubblica.


On the monarchy

I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions … Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture. Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. Kate seems capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation.” – On the Duchess of Cambridge, London Review of Books, 2013 (taken from her lecture, Royal Bodies, at the British Museum).

I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.”

We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control. I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes. Get your pink frilly frocks out, zhuzh up your platinum locks. We are all Barbara Cartland now. The pen is in our hands. A happy ending is ours to write.” – London Review of Books, 2013.

Elizabeth II has demonstrated an amazing ability to subsume her individuality into the institution she represents. I think the monarchy will go on for a generation or two, but I don’t know if any successor will be capable of that incredible disappearing act. And why should they be? It’s a huge, pointless sacrifice for an individual, and an unreasonable thing to ask – especially as the incoming monarch is a man of knowledge and experience.

The popularity of monarchy as an institution is something that baffles me. I don’t want to think that people are naturally slavish, and actually enjoy inequality, though I understand that they prefer change to continuity.” – Interviewed in La Repubblica in 2021.


On her later life

Finishing the Cromwell trilogy is a real landmark. There are lots of possibilities but I’m 70 next year and my health isn’t getting any better. I would love to do more work in theatre but I think it depends on my physical stamina. But, if it turns out I’ve left it too late, there’s nothing to regret.” - Interviewed in the Guardian in 2021.

  • The Wolf Hall Trilogy collection by Hilary Mantel (HarperCollins, £70). To support The Guardian and Observer, order the collection at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.