Hilary Mantel has died: what terrible words to write. Mourning her will, of course, primarily be the heavy, difficult work of those who were closest to her, especially her husband, Gerald. Her readers will acutely feel the loss of the unwritten books, the plays, the stories.
At just 70, there was so much more that seemed to be welling up inside her: she had talked of writing more fiction (though not, at least for the time being, historical novels). She had recently adored working in theatre, adapting, with Ben Miles, the third of her Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. I wanted more of it all: more stories; more of her penetrating, acerbic essays and criticism.
But what a body of work she leaves behind her. The first written, though not first published, was her epic, minutely researched novel on the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. During the 1990s, she gradually amassed loyal, but not spectacularly numerous, readers with novels such as Every Day is Mother’s Day and A Change of Climate.
She was a regular literary critic, for the Guardian and the London Review of Books, and also the author of dazzling essays. (Her wonderful article on Kate Middleton from 2013 cuts mercilessly to the bone, and was perhaps wilfully misunderstood by sections of the press as an attack on the then duchess.) By the early 2000s, she was beginning to feel to her fans like a secret that was perhaps too well kept. It was Wolf Hall, the first of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, that finally made her a bestseller in 2009.
I loved those books, especially the second of the three, Bring Up the Bodies. For me, though, it was her 2005 novel Beyond Black, about a medium called Alison and her sidekick, Colette, that is closest to my heart. It brilliantly renders the Unheimlichkeit of the home counties, the eeriness of the edgelands of the M25, the ghostliness of the outer London suburbs. Beyond Black is about grief and violence and the half-forgotten trauma of the past. It’s about the spirit world, in a way – or maybe it’s about memories too dreadful, too painful to speak. In a metaphorical sense it’s about the act of writing, and the immense but fugitive power of the imagination.
Some writers’ principal talent lies in the acuity of their rendering of the material world. Goodness knows Mantel was marvellous at that: she could whisk you up and plonk you down in front of the fire in a panelled room at Austin Friars in 1528 within the space of a couple of sentences. But her books also beckon you to a place beyond the everyday world, towards something stranger and less tangible. When I asked her how her work as a writer of fiction compared with that of a medium, she told me: “We deal with those things that cannot be faced and cannot be spoken … We all are employed on the dark side.”
Mantel was genuinely adored by fellow writers, by editors, by journalists. Even on those occasions when she was gently refusing a request to contribute an article, or to be interviewed, her emails were models of gentleness and treasurable pieces of prose. You had the feeling of someone from whom rich and glorious sentences simply poured.
Somehow, this kindness came from a person who was often in pain or ill health (she wrote of the horrors of her endometriosis in her remarkable memoir, Giving up the Ghost). The last time I wrote to her it was to ask her whether she would look at a friend’s book, with a view to writing a blurb for the back cover. Such requests are onerous and I made it extremely easy for her to refuse, but refuse she did not.
Being with Mantel, watching her speak at a literary festival, or interviewing her as I had the good fortune to do several times, gave you temporary access to a singular intellectual and imaginative realm. You left those encounters feeling changed, more alert to the world and its mysteries, your fingers tingling with metaphor and magic.
You had been in touch, during these encounters, with someone who picked up frequencies unnoticed by most of us. Afterwards, you could still feel a little of Mantel’s shimmering perceptiveness clinging to you. Then, soon enough, the feeling faded, leaving you alone with your own dimmer, coarser senses.
Charlotte Higgins is chief culture writer of the Guardian