Famous Derbyshire people - Dame Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel (c) WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Hilary Mantel (c) WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The best-selling historical novelist was born in Glossop

Dame Hilary Mantel (1952-)

Best-selling historical novelist Hilary Mantel has sold more than 1.5 million copies of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, chief advisor and power behind the throne of Henry VIII.

But having spent the past 15 years consumed by Tudor intrigue and writing a combined total of more than 2,000 pages of award-winning historical fiction, Mantel told the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August that that was it; she hadn’t got another big historical novel in view.

Hilary Mary Thompson was born in Glossop, the eldest of three children, and raised in the mill village of Hadfield where she attended St Charles Roman Catholic Primary School.

In her 2003 memoir Giving up the Ghost, Mantell describes the area she grew up as ‘a place of complex geology and inventive forms of human deprivation, of inhospitable uplands and steep-sided valleys. Tiny fields, bordered by drystone walls, lie like a worn blanket on a pauper: sharp angles of limestone (sic) protrude like bony spurs through a token covering of green’.

Her parents, Margaret and Henry Thompson, were both of Irish descent and separated when she was 11; she never saw her father again. The family, now with a man called Jack Mantel who had moved in with them, relocated to Romiley, Cheshire, and Jack became her unofficial stepfather. At this point she legally took her de facto stepfather’s surname.

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Although she lost her religious faith at the age of 12, Mantel says it left a permanent mark on her: ‘You grow up believing you’re wrong and bad. For me, because I took what I was told really seriously, it bred a very intense habit of introspection and self-examination and a terrible severity with myself. So that nothing was ever good enough’.

She attended Harrytown Convent School in Romiley and in 1970 began studying at the London School of Economics reading law. She transferred to the University of Sheffield and graduated as Bachelor of Jurisprudence in 1973. After university, Mantel worked variously in a geriatric hospital and as a sales assistant in a department store.

In 1972, she had married geologist Gerald McEwen, and two years later began writing a novel about the French Revolution, subsequently published in 1992 as A Place of Greater Safety. In 1977, Mantel moved to Botswana with her husband for five years. Later, they spent four years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and she later said leaving Jeddah felt like ‘the happiest day of (her) life.’ At this point, McEwen gave up geology to manage his wife’s business interests. They briefly divorced but remarried again after a couple of years.

Her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was published in 1985 and its sequel, Vacant Possession, a year later. After returning to England, she became the film critic of The Spectator and a reviewer for a number of newspapers and magazines in Britain and America. Her Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize-winning novel Fludd, centring on a Roman Catholic church and a convent, is set in 1956 in a fictitious northern village called Fetherhoughton, which bears telling similarities to her childhood Derbyshire home in Hadfield.

Her historical novel A Place of Greater Safety (1992) won the Sunday Express Book of the Year award, while A Change of Climate (1994), is set in rural Norfolk. An Experiment in Love (1996), which won the Hawthornden Prize, follows the progress of three girls as they leave home and attend university in London in 1970. Although Mantel admitted she used material from her own life, she claims it was not autobiographical.

Her next book, The Giant, O’Brien (1998), is set in the 1780s, based on the true story of Charles Byrne (or O’Brien), who came to London to earn money by displaying himself as a freak. In 2003, Mantel published her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, which won the MIND Book of the Year award, and in the same year published a collection of short stories involving childhood, entitled Learning to Talk.

Mantel’s breakthrough historical novel Wolf Hall, centred on Henry VIII’s conniving first minister Thomas Cromwell, was published in 2009 to wide critical acclaim. The book won the £50,000 Man Booker Prize and, on winning the award, Mantel said: ‘I can tell you at this moment I am happily flying through the air.’ Wolf Hall accounted for 45% of the sales of all the nominated books, and was the first favourite in seven years to win the award. On receiving the prize and asked what she would do with the prize money, Mantel famously answered she would spend it on ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.’

The 2012 sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, was published to equal widespread acclaim. It won the 2012 Costa Book of the Year and the 2012 Man Booker Prize, Mantel becoming the first British writer and the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize more than once.

The books were adapted into plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company and produced as a successful mini-series by BBC TV. In 2020, Mantel published the third novel in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, entitled The Mirror and the Light, and the book was again selected for the longlist for the 2020 Booker Prize.

Mantel was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2014 Birthday Honours List for her services to literature. She now lives in the Devon seaside town of Budleigh Salterton with her husband.