Through a career spanning 17 books and almost four decades, Hilary Mantel cemented herself as one of the world’s best-loved authors. Whether you’ve read her Wolf Hall series and would like to know where to turn next or are new to her work, here is a walk-through of her best writing
It was, of course, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series – published 24 years after the release of her debut – which made her a household name. In those three bestselling novels she brought a fresh perspective to a familiar historical period, all the while holding a mirror to a nation. She won the Booker Prize twice in the process, becoming one of only four authors ever to do so.
But while she is revered within the boundaries of historical fiction for her vivid depictions of the Tudors, her scope was far more expansive. From personal memoirs to short stories and critical articles and essays, Mantel was as comfortable penning a domestic drama as she was creating a sweeping historical saga. She unflinchingly revealed human nature and told haunting tales of loss, while excelling in the gothic. Her prose, always detailed, was breathtakingly intimate and laced with her fiercely intelligent wit.
Mantel leaves behind a legacy of masterpieces. Whether you’ve read her epics and would like to know where to turn next or are new to her work, here is a walk-through of the best of her career.
Every Day is Mother’s Day (1985)
Mantel’s first published novel was set in the free-spirited 1970s, which is slightly surprising given the author is now so synonymous with the stiff collars of the Tudor dynasty. But look closely and her debut bears all the marks of her work on which she would build throughout her illustrious career. Inspired by her own experiences as a social work assistant, it follows Evelyn, a medium who is convinced ghosts prowl the dilapidated home she shares with her daughter, Muriel. A revolving cast of social workers tries to infiltrate their solitary and bleak existence, while Evelyn maltreats the mentally disabled Muriel. It’s a razor-sharp satirical read that is seeped in desperation, but Mantel tempers this all by weaving in moments of levity when it’s needed most. The New York Times described it as a ‘black comedy of such spite that its mordancy could be surpassed only by a sequel, Vacant Possession’ and said ‘It would be hard to overemphasize the mean pleasure to be found’ within the first two books that forged Mantel’s reputation.
A Place of Greater Safety (1992)
It was 1992 before Mantel published a novel in the genre that would claim her as its own. However, although it was her fifth published novel, A Place of Greater Safety was in fact the first novel she wrote. In almost 900 pages she chronicles the French Revolution through three of its major players – Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins – interweaving their personal backstories, from the streets of Paris to the height of the Reign of Terror. Mantel said, ‘Almost all the characters in it are real people and it is closely tied to historical facts—as far as those facts are agreed, which isn’t really very far…’. The Times Literary Supplement declared it a novel of ‘crafty tensions, twists and high drama… a bravura display of her endlessly inventive, eerily observant style’. A Place of Greater Safety was adored by fans and critics and demonstrated Mantel’s ability to transform a past event, bound up in historical records, into a present bursting with colour and emotion.
Learning to Talk (2003)
In 2003 Mantel released a humble set of loosely autobiographical short stories that offered a glimpse into her provincial upbringing in the North of England during the 50s and 60s. ‘At four o’clock the daylight would almost have vanished, sucked away into the dark sky; our wellingtons squelched in the mud and dead leaves, and breath hung like disaster in the raw air.’ The interlinked stories are all subtly earmarked with a desire to escape the gnawing claustrophobia of her village and they bring to life the hinterland between childhood and adulthood with poignancy and vulnerability. The New York Times said, ‘These stories hold worlds as wide as those of her longest novels. Learning to Talk is an author exploring her own self-history and showing how place leaves an indelible mark on a person.
Beyond Black (2005)
Mantel’s first recognition from the Booker Prize came in 2005 when she wrote Beyond Black, a gothic masterpiece that bears all of her hallmarks. The longlisted novel is riddled with ghostly spirits, death and rot, as well as welcome doses of her own now fully-formed dark humour. Alison Hart is a medium with a connection to the spirit world. But rather than being a gift, she is haunted by the ghostly forces who torment her and must conceal the terrors the next life holds from her giddy clients. ‘This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud. It is a landscape running with outcasts and escapees…’, she writes. The Guardian said, ‘Hilary Mantel has done something extraordinary. She has taken the ethereal halfway house between heaven and hell, between the living and the dead, and nailed it on the page.’
Wolf Hall (2009)
By 2009, Mantel was an accomplished novelist with several awards under her belt. She was now adept at filling in the blanks of history through her exceptional characterisation and prose that was rich in sense of time and place. But when she decided to begin work on a novel about the Tudors, five years earlier, she knew she had to do something ‘very difficult’. ‘I had to interest the historians, I had to amuse the jaded palette of the critical establishment and most of all I had to capture the imagination of the general reader’, she said. So she tilted the lens towards the mysterious figure of Thomas Cromwell, charting the rise of a blacksmith’s son to Chief Minister, to create a mesmerising portrait of the cut-throat and often-crooked world of Henry VIII. Writing in present tense and with modern language, Mantel drew readers into the political battleground of the 1500s. Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize in 2009. ‘Our decision was based on the sheer bigness of the book, the boldness of its narrative and scene-setting, the gleam that there is in its detail,’ said James Naughtie, who chaired the 2009 judging panel. With Wolf Hall, Mantel placed herself at the apex of the genre and set a new bar for historical fiction.
Bring Up The Bodies (2012)
Just three years later, Mantel published Wolf Hall’s follow-up and the second book in her trilogy. In the novel, a darker read than its predecessor, Anne Boleyn’s failure to produce an heir cements her downfall. As the King’s affection grows for another woman, Mantel intricately weaves Cromwell’s web of conspiracy around Boleyn. We all know what happens next in the bloody court of the Tudors, yet the crux of this story is a man propped up by power, safeguarding his own position in a shadowy world beset with corruption. ‘What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales,’ Mantel writes. Once again winning the prize in 2012, Mantel became the first woman to win the Booker twice and the first person to win for two novels in a trilogy. Chair of the 2012 judging panel, Peter Stothard, said Mantel had ‘rewritten the book on writing historical fiction’ and described her as ‘the greatest modern English prose writer working today’.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014)
2014 saw a change of pace for the writer as she released a collection of short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Full of her wry wit, Mantel unravels the human experience as she expertly dissects relationships, class, depression, and loneliness. She takes us from dank guesthouses to the dusty roads of Greece, each location evocatively detailed. This is not an uplifting read; it’s at times unsettling and each story is imbued with distress, but Mantel’s observational skills show an author at the top of her game, as she writes what it is to be human. The Sunday Times called it ‘a small triumph: a lesson in artfully controlled savagery’. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher displays Mantel’s breadth as a writer and shows how she can turn out a short suburban noir that is every bit as compelling as a historical epic.
The Mirror & the Light (2020)
Mantel brought her trilogy to a close in 2020 with the release of The Mirror & the Light. ‘The Wolf Hall trilogy is the central project of my life, so it’s gratifying that all parts of it have been recognised,’ Mantel told us, after the novel was longlisted in 2020. Covering the last four years of Cromwell’s life from 1536 to his death in 1540, over the course of this final instalment we watch his ascent to power before he too falls from grace, at the blood-soaked hands of Henry VIII. Mantel’s conclusion shows a more reflective Cromwell, before he is ensnared in the King’s net. The author had succeeded in vividly bringing Tudor England to life through the most intimate of renderings and the novels were, by now, a huge commercial triumph, translated into 41 languages and selling over five million copies, aided by a Bafta-winning TV adaption led by Mark Rylance. The New York Times described The Mirror and The Light as ‘the triumphant capstone to Mantel’s trilogy’.