Hilary Mantel, English queen of the historical novel, dies

from ANNACHIARA SACCHI

Author of internationally successful historical novels, she was 70 years old. Among her titles, “Wolf Hall”, the opening title of a triad on the Tudors, and “The secret history of the revolution”

Who knows if now he will meet his ghosts, Hilary Mantel. Those of his novels: the beloved Thomas Cromwell, Anna Bolena, Henry VIII. And those of her of her personal story of her: the ghosts of her – she said – of the woman that she could have been her, of the mother who could have become if her doctors had not devastated her body, in excruciating pain. and privations. The spirits of a life that ended Thursday 22 September, “suddenly but peacefully”, as her publisher warned. “From me Hillary “, twice Booker Prize, An investigator of the Tudors and the human soul, she was seventy years old and was talented, shrewd, often controversial even with her country, as sharp and brilliant as her books, whether she talked about herself or English history. With her, Great Britain says goodbye to another queen. Of literature.

Superfine writing, scientific rigor, depth, capacity for introspection bordering on cruelty, an out of the ordinary irony that helped her to deal with personal pain and devastating losses (the absence of her father, the death of her stepfather): Hilary Mantel, born in Glossop, Derbyshire, on 6 July 1952, a law graduate, grieved since she was 19 from an endometriosis that haunted her all her life – between misunderstandings, wrong treatments, to the point of depriving her of any possibility of having children – she always said that she did not know if the pain had led her to write. She surely she had helped her to understand others. Her books, essays, short stories, the thirteen novels (in Italy it is published by Fazi), in which the historical ones stand out, which are never boring biographies or even improbable works of fiction, but they dig into the souls of the characters making texts and sources blossom. “When you write a historical novel you tell the present, because the author knows what happened, the reader too, but the protagonist doesn’t.” Well, maybe this is the secret.

It has been like this since his first novel, concluded in 1979 (and initially rejected): a fresco on the French Revolution, released in the UK only in 1992 with the title A Place of Greater Safety (The secret history of the revolutionin Italy released in 2014, followed by A safer placeof 2014, and Days of terror of 2015). In those early years the writer – who in 1973 married the geologist Gerald McEwen, from whom she later divorced and with whom she remarried – said: «I was poor and sick, how could I make myself known? The only thing that came to mind was writing, because you only need pencil and paper and you can work lying down. But it was not a fallback, it was my source of strength ».

Not an easy road. Even more so if you start with Robespierre, given that at the time in Great Britain the historical novel was considered commercial: “To get published I had to focus on a contemporary novel” (it was 1985, he wrote Every Day is Mother’s Day). But in the end he won it her. And not just because The secret history of the revolution became a hit. But because Hilary Mantel has managed to restore dignity to the historical novel, giving shape (perfect) and light (dazzling) to the past. She did it with the famous Tudor saga. Translated into 41 languages ​​and sold in 5 million copies. Thomas Cromwell, right arm of Henry VIII: here is the great protagonist of Hilary Mantel. The powerful minister of the most famous and cruel king, son of a blacksmith, star of a trilogy set in the sixteenth century and started with the novel Wolf Hall (Booker in 2009), continued with Anna Bolena, a family matter (Booker in 2012) and concluded in 2020 with The mirror and the light (from the first two volumes the BBC has drawn the TV series Wolf Hallwhich won the 2016 Golden Globe). And it’s like having it in front of your eyes: the author follows his actions and thoughts, transforms him into a hero (“I wanted to relieve him of centuries of prejudice”), illuminates him in the moment of defeat, elevates him to a tragic and epic figure. Love, power, ambition, envy. Timeless themes, even if Hilary Mantel has never succumbed to the temptation to project her novels into the present, to make them an easy lesson for today. Not even with Anna Bolena she gave in. Rather, her feminism shines through in another novel, A love experiment (Fazi, 2021), a story of social barriers, aspirations and disappointments in England in the 1960s, which Mantel describes with a monstrous clarity, ferocious to the last line. Same approach for the memoir The ghosts of a lifetime (Fazi, 2021): “I have been so massacred by the medical procedures that sometimes I have the feeling of having to materialize in writing every morning”.

Caustic, sharp. Free. Even when it was necessary criticizing Brexit, the monarchy (“It’s unfair”; “it won’t last long”), the royal family and the “artificial” Kate, cancel culture, racism Britisheven when he said to wanting to live in Ireland to return to Europe. She had character, this great author (named from me from Elizabeth II) who shares the pinnacle of English women’s literature with Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and AS Byatt. She lived by the sea, in Devonshire (land of Agatha Christie), and here, in Exeter, she died. Nicholas Pearson, her editor, recalls: “We met last month on a sunny afternoon, we talked about the new book.”

September 23, 2022 (change September 23, 2022 | 20:34)

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