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Hilary Mantel: A storyteller in the classic tradition, who breathed life into old bones

Sheila Llewellyn and Rosemary Hennigan pay tribute to their inspiration

Sheila Llewellyn: ‘I’ll miss her wisdom, her warmth, and her generosity’

I’ve been struck by the number of tributes to Hilary by writers, journalists and others who have posted their recollections of her. There is a common acknowledgement of her genius as a writer, but more importantly perhaps there is frequent mention of her generosity and kindness to those lucky enough to meet her.

I can vouch for that too, although not so much from the point of view of an established writer. I became associated with her initially as a researcher for my PhD, and then as a novice writer, and then as someone who was fortunate to develop an unusual relationship with her, primarily by e-mail, over a period of seven years or so.

I first saw her at the Costa Awards in 2012 – I was up for the Short Story award, she was up for the Costa Book of the Year – I didn’t win, she did, and gave a wonderful acceptance speech. I didn’t have the nerve to speak to her then, she was surrounded by the great and the good. But to hear her there was so inspiring. Then in 2014, I was shortlisted for the Kingston Short Story prize. Hilary was the judge. I didn’t win that one either, but I came in the top six, and Hilary wrote encouraging comments about all our work in the subsequent anthology.

I was in the middle of my PhD at the Seamus Heaney Centre by that time, investigating the aesthetic and ethical issues facing a novelist in the use of historical primary sources. The short story I’d submitted was based on a chapter of the novel which went alongside the research. I contacted Hilary to thank her for her comments and told her a little about the research and that I’d read her articles about similar themes and found them useful for the PhD. She got back to me with an invaluable two pages of further comments which I incorporated into the PhD. I told her I’d also contacted Sebastian Barry for his comments on how he’d approached the idea of historical fiction in ‘A Long Long Way’ and that he’d got back to me too. I shared his thoughts with Hilary. ‘SB is so eloquent,’ she said, and went on to say how much she agreed with him.

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She expressed interest in the novel and suggested I send her a one-page extract and an overview, which she sent on to her agent. He liked it, suggested some revisions, and eventually took the novel on. I was in Oxford in November 2016, visiting my brother who was ill with cancer, when I learned the book had been accepted for publication. I spent the afternoon in turmoil, elated one minute, then full of anxiety for my brother. Hilary got back to me about book offer – ‘excellent news… I think it’s time for some cautious rejoicing…’.

I’m sure I wouldn’t have found a publisher so quickly, if Hilary hadn’t taken an interest in my work – I was 64, it was my first novel, who was I kidding? But it happened. And that led to a seven-year email correspondence between us, mainly about writing, but widening to certain aspects of our personal lives. I found it amazing that I would contact her about something, and she’d reply quickly, from wherever she was, and whatever great event she was involved in, with no attempt at pretention, just as an explanation for not replying immediately - for instance - ‘I’m in New York at the moment, but will get back to you later’, she wrote once, and she did. I didn’t realise she was there because Wolf Hall was up for a Tony award.

It transpired we had a lot in common – I’d travelled a lot, both as a child and an adult, but I spent two years in the UK as a schoolgirl, living about two miles from Romiley, in Cheshire, where Hilary, four years younger than me, was living at the same time. We both went to Sheffield University within roughly the same time frame, although I transferred to Manchester after a year. We’d both lived in African countries, me in Zambia, Hilary in Botswana, and in Moslem countries, Hilary in Saudi Arabia, me in Iran, plus a short visit to Saudi, when my husband was working there. Most unusual of all, perhaps, on a personal level, we both shared the experience of marrying, then divorcing, then re-marrying our respective husbands. We both hadn’t had children. And we both had strong Irish connections. I was so pleased when she told me she and her husband were thinking seriously about moving to Ireland.

I never mentioned these shared experiences directly to Hilary, they just surfaced during our discussions about writing, or related issues. For example, I asked her once how to respond to publicity requests – how much should I share of my chaotic childhood? She gave me sound advice on that - ‘put a fence around what you don’t want to be included. Be polite but firm.’ She felt it was a right to set parameters. And she always encouraged me when I struggled through my many ‘I can’t do this’ phases. ‘Cut yourself some slack,’ she wrote to me once. I’m sure I wasn’t the only writer she was there for in this respect.

And here I am now, feeling the loss. She was not just my literary lode star. She was unique and it was my privilege to get to know her in some small way. I’ll miss her wisdom, her warmth, and her generosity.

Sheila Llewellyn is author of Winter in Tabriz (Sceptre)

Rosemary Hennigan: ‘My husband and I quote Mantel’s words almost daily’

On a shelf over my desk sit the works of Hilary Mantel. I heard the news of her death while seated below the spines of her books. A varied collection of work, united by the clarity of her voice, the sharpness of her observation, the richness of her characterisation, and the depth and breadth of her extraordinary intellect. In a world of deafening noise, Mantel’s words rang bell-like through the din. She had that rare and priceless ability to shine on a light on the world around us and make it clearer, the edges sharper, the vagaries and machinations of power more comprehensible.

It is power and its uses that, I think, motivated much of Mantel’s work. In the Wolf Hall trilogy and through her greatest character, Thomas Cromwell, the ebb and flow of power rested with the wild whims of Henry the VIII. In Beyond Black, the powerlessness of the living in the face of death is at the heart of a story about a medium overrun by the spirits of the dead. In The Giant, O’Brien, the power of science and the ethics of human discovery triumph over the individual in the story of John Hunter’s theft of the remains of Charlie O’Brien. Through her books, she gave hungry minds a feast to consume.

In Mantel’s work, her Irish roots can be felt, an identity which saw her recognise and embrace the underdog, the striver, the trier. There were times when her politics upset the British press, perhaps none more so than when she questioned the ways of modern monarchy. In her defence of those comments, there is a clear portrait of her spirit: “I have absolutely nothing to apologise for”: indeed.

In our house, my husband and I quote Mantel’s words almost daily. Little pieces of her texts have weaved their way into our daily lives; a particular expression, a description, a perfectly captured social observation, or a turn of phrase that precisely communicates a thought in a defter and sharper way than we ever could. In the midst of our ordinary routines, there lies a shared language that was Mantel’s.

I had the honour of meeting her once, last summer, during the staging of The Mirror and the Light in the Gielgud Theatre in London. It felt like meeting someone I already knew intimately. No stranger, but a dear friend. Through her books, she showed an incredible mind at work, a storyteller in the classic tradition, who breathed life into old bones. Therein lies the magic of books.

In person, Mantel was physically short and softspoken. In books, she was a giant. May her extraordinary legacy endure, and may she rest in peace.

Rosemary Hennigan is author of The Truth Will Out (Orion)