When many of us opened the blood-red covers of Wolf Hall for the first time 13 years ago, we wondered what kind of journey lay ahead. And perhaps, taking our time to adjust to Hilary Mantel’s bravery with tenses, and contemplating how much time we wanted to spend with Thomas Cromwell, little questions played in our minds for a while about how long it would take to tune into her song. But when the music began to take shape, I, like so many others, found it irresistible.
I was chair of the Booker Prize judges that year. The secrets of the judging room must be sacrosanct, but I well remember the scene around the table on the day we decided that she was the winner. I confess that I felt a profound satisfaction, because I believed we had settled on a truly “big” book – one that would not only cast a spell over readers who’d never expected to be transported into Tudor times through fiction with such vigour and poetic prose, but would redefine the historical novel for our time. “Match that,” she was saying to everyone else.
And, we learnt, no one really could.
Our job as judges done on that day, I recall leaning back with relief in Guildhall, where the final judging took place just a few hours before the award ceremony to minimise the chance of a leak, and then almost falling off my chair as I looked up. Because there on the wall was a portrait of Cardinal Wolsey who had, unnoticed, been looking down on us all through the last hours while we debated the shortlist. What was he thinking?
Hilary’s achievement was to make us ask such questions. Henry VIII’s court came alive in our hands as we turned the pages. The brutality and skullduggery, the sly politics and emotional deceit, the cruelty and the loneliness. Putting down The Mirror and the Light 12 years later, after Cromwell’s inevitable fall at the hands of the forces he’d designed and commanded for so long, was to marvel at the sheer force of her imagination and how it could feed on every tiny detail and turn it to use.
Read again her (second) account of Anne Boleyn’s execution in that last volume of the trilogy – with words for every flicker of light, every drop of blood, for all the faces gathered around that had been forced to put on a show – and you experience writing that consigns craft to the background and leaves you aware of nothing but the scene and the feelings that matter.
It was impossible to talk to Hilary – on a public platform, on the air, or in private – without being stirred by her passion. That eagle eye, the wonderful rolling vowels and always the knowing chuckle. Above all, the honesty.
A brave and brilliant author, and an inspiration to readers and writers alike. I can hear her now, talking about visiting an archaeological excavation in London, at the site of Cromwell’s house, and noticing how on some bricks that had been lying undisturbed for centuries there were some tiny pawprints, laid down when before the bricks had properly dried. Was it a Tudor rat that had scuttled across them?
How she loved telling that tale, like all the others. A weaver of great stories, and a writer who could soar above them into a world that was hers alone.
James Naughtie is special correspondent for BBC News, and presenter of Bookclub on Radio 4