The Loss of Hilary Mantel – Writer in the Shadows

Here at the Weardale WordFest we are shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Hilary Mantel. As Maggie O’Farrell says, ‘We have lost another monarch this week. Mantel was Queen of Literature, and her reign was, like Elizabeth II’s long, varied and uncontested.’

Below WordFest team member and writer Avril Joy shares with us, from her blog at her memory of meeting Hilary Mantel, in the shadows:

I was at my desk, writing, when my husband called upstairs to tell me that Hilary Mantel had died. It stopped me in my tracks. It seemed impossible that the world should lose a writer of her unmatched craft and imagination, her general all-round brilliance, a writer who had given readers such pleasure and delight, a huge intellect, and an inspiration to writers everywhere. 

As a reader I devoured her fiction and also her essays. Everything she wrote or said about the writing process was like gold dust to me. I especially love her Reith Lectures of 2017 made available again on BBC Sounds on iplayer, and I am relishing the prospect of listening again, seeing what I might glean that may help my process, make me a better writer, a better seer into the past. She was, and will always be a hero. If I have one great regret it is that I did not tell her so on the occasion I found myself in the same room as her. 

It was 29th of January 2013, at a celebration of the 2012 Costa Awards. In 2012 Hilary Mantel won the Booker (for the second time, the only woman ever) and also the Costa, for Bring Up the Bodies, the second novel in her Cromwell trilogy. On that January evening we were both at a party in Quaglinos in London, for the awards – I won the inaugural Costa Short Story that night. I didn’t spot her until the lights went down and the announcements began. 

The short story finalists had been told to stand somewhere near the front. I was feeling desperately nervous and so slunk away to perch on a bench up against the wall in the shadows, on the left of the stage, with another of my fellow finalists. When I glanced to my right, I saw Dame Jenny Murray, Head of the Judges, and next to her Hilary Mantel doing exactly the same. In fact Hilary Mantel was masked by a huge speaker tower. She looked as nervous as I felt. Somehow out of place, as if she had no wish for the limelight, or to be seen at all. And yet when her win was announced and she emerged from the shadows, she took the stage and owned it, with effortless grace and eloquence, issuing a rebuke to those who claimed she was winning all the prizes leaving room for no others. I wonder what those detractors would say now?  

I should add that before her speech both she, peering from behind her tower, and Jenny Murray had generously mouthed their congratulations to me. She grew in my estimation that night. In a room full of well-known faces and photo opportunities she appeared disinterested in celebrity, though I am sure she welcomed and enjoyed her hard won success. I didn’t dare approach her but I suspect my opportunity was gone anyway, she disappeared early, as she has done now. Too early. We will never know what we have missed, but we relish what she left.