Last month, the writer Alan Garner sent me a small gift, a curious glazed jar. In it, on a slip of tiny paper, he had written: From a poor man to his friend. There it was—the essence of the author-editor relationship, collapsed into a few words.
I befriended Dame Hilary Mantel long before I read her. In the early Nineties, I published a writer who had encountered Hilary at a writing class she gave one Saturday morning in Reading library. At the end of the morning, Hilary had asked the class to write a paragraph. This writer wrote about a tiger moth trapped in a glass jar. Hilary spotted his talent in that handful of sentences, and encouraged him. It was a crucial push. She was like that, she cared about other writers. She was generous to a fault. And she would lend support to any editor who was publishing books she believed in.
As a reader, there was catching up to do: her extraordinary early novels, drawn from her experiences as a social worker and the four years she lived in Saudi Arabia. They were critically acclaimed but, in truth, not widely read. A Place of Greater Safety, her novel about the French Revolution, had initially failed to find a publisher at all. When it was finally released in 1992, a fully formed historical novelist was revealed to us. By then she was already homing in on Thomas Cromwell, although she didn’t embark upon the writing of that project for another decade.
Hilary Mantel cared about other writers. She was generous to a fault.
One day in 2005, out of the blue, an email arrived from Hilary asking if I would read the first 40 pages of what she had in mind for Cromwell. She felt she had the voice. And there it was, that deceptively simple opening sentence: “So now get up.” A jolt to any weary reader and, it would later transpire, a rallying cry for historical fiction itself.
Those first pages were mesmerizing. Hilary was able to crouch the reader somewhere at the back of Cromwell’s skull, it seemed to me, where we could see history completely afresh and witness characters whose lives were unspooling in front of them. We knew the consequences of their actions but they, like all of us in our daily lives, were fumbling in the dark.
Another email. She had 250,000 words on the page by now, but Thomas More had only just departed the scene. The project had swollen. She was confident there was a satisfying arc to the story so far: would I read it? I happened to be flying to Australia the next day and I will never forget finishing the manuscript of Wolf Hall in the stifling heat of Adelaide, the claustrophobic intrigue of the Tudor court played out for me in the harsh Australian sun. It felt something had changed, for Hilary and the historical novel. But in publishing I’ve learned not to count your chickens.
My role, as it was right to the end, was simply to implore her to keep going. Very occasionally, publishing is easy. You just let great writers write and remove any subsidiary pressure that you can.
The treasures in what is the bottomless email inbox were always from Hilary; emails that without fail would light up your day. Other friends of hers attest to this. Wise, often mischievous, a take on our increasingly ugly, shifting world that had caught her eye, a deep dive into where she was with the Cromwell story. She was a truly great letter writer.
And the fact that she was completely absorbed in her own imaginative world from which she wanted little distraction didn’t stop her from being there for her friends. She was kind and caring and loving, a rock if times were tough. The quiet, supportive life behind the public persona of Hilary, as George Eliot says of Dorothea in the closing lines of Middlemarch, “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts”. In the difficult days since her death, many have remarked on her kindness.
One day in 2005, out of the blue, an email arrived from Hilary asking if I would read the first 40 pages of what she had in mind for Cromwell.
It was a surprise to me, after the extraordinary success of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, to watch Hilary became so absorbed in the making of the stage plays. As a child, she told me, she liked nothing more than trips to the theater, Stratford especially. The plays that lit up Stratford and London and New York seemed to give her as much pleasure as that double Booker win.
Her collaboration with Ben Miles in the writing of the last play, The Mirror and the Light, and with Ben and his brother George in the making of The Wolf Hall Picture Book, published only this month, were important relationships for her and a break from the lonely slog of a novelist.
She described it to me once. “My routine rigid,” she wrote in an email. “Life deliberately narrowed, attention each morning narrowed to a fierce, injurious point.” She would talk about missing much of ordinary life while she spent years bringing her story to the page.
Recently, somebody described her death as being like a theft, and then picked out this sentence from The Mirror & the Light: “This is what life does for you in the end; it arranges a fight you can’t win.” Except, when our tears have dried, Hilary has won. She left us a body of work that will forever resonate with readers everywhere. She changed the shape of contemporary literature.
When our baby son Pip died in January 2009, and a great space opened up in our lives, Hilary wrote to my wife having just visited Drapers’ Hall, the site of Cromwell’s London residence. “There is still a garden where his house once was,” Hilary wrote. “There is a quietly tinkling fountain and a big magnolia tree which last night was in its glory. It was very peaceful, and I said a secular prayer for you, all three.”
We will visit this garden and say a prayer for Hilary, and for her husband of 50 years, Gerald McEwen, and the great chasm that has opened up for those who loved her and for readers across the world. We needed her voice and now it has gone.
Nicholas Pearson was Hilary Mantel’s publisher and an editor at 4th Estate from 2004 through 2022