Hilary Mantel died on Thursday. She was only seventy years old. Now I’ll never get the chance to have tea with her. Not that there was ever much chance of that. Or any chance, actually. Still, it makes me sad that I can’t dream about taking tea with her anymore. But what makes me even sadder is the fact that we’ll have no more wonderful books from her. Now that is a loss to the whole world.

Hilary Mantel’s longtime agent, Bill Hamilton, described her as “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” And I concur. Maggie O’Farrell, whose work I also adore, called her “the queen of literature.” Hmm. I think we’re losing too many queens these days, don’t you? Anyway, you can find a couple of the articles I read about Hilary Mantel here and here if you’re interested.

I thought it was kind of serendipitous that when I googled photos of the author this morning I found this one. Of Hilary Mantel in front of her own portrait, painted by Nick Lord, winner of Portrait Artist of the Year, 2013. I remember how caught up in that series I was for weeks last winter, watching all the old episodes on YouTube. I remember the episode with Hilary Mantel. How lovely she was. How interested in the creative process of an art other than her own. And how she mentioned Hans Holbein who painted the famous portrait of Thomas Cromwell, and who appears as a minor character in her Booker Prize winning trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.

Hilary Mantel in front of her portrait at the British Library

You probably know Mantel from that historical trilogy depicting the life of Thomas Cromwell. That’s where I first read her work. I remember diving into the first book Wolf Hall and not coming up for air for hours. At least that’s how it seemed.

Such was the brilliance of her style and the evocative nature of the scenes she created with words, her story seemed to rise off the page and swirl around me. Similarly Bring Up the Bodies, and the final book, The Mirror and the Light. One reviewer said that she turned Thomas Cromwell from the villain he’d always been painted as, to a kind of hero. Certainly she reimagined the much-told tale of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More et al. A tale which spawned many, many books and films. And none from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell.

Mantel herself says that when she embarked on her writing of the story, she went back to first principles, historical fact, and tried to ignore all the stories she knew or thought she knew about that period of history. We all think we know the story of Henry and his six wives: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Plus the little rhyme that helps us keep them straight: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. But do we know the story? Or do we, as historians say, only know the headlines, so to speak? And of people like Thomas Cromwell, who have for so long been secondary characters in the drama, we know very little.

That’s why Mantel’s reimagined version from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell is so refreshing, and, well, fresh. Anyway, if you haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, I suggest you remedy the situation at your earliest convenience. Seriously. Brew up a pot of tea and settle in. On second thought, better make that several pots of tea.

The first two of Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, were made into a wonderful television mini-series back in 2015. Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell. And Claire Foy, Anne Boleyn. I’ve always had a fascination for the story of Henry VIII, and for Anne Boleyn in particular. Remember the 1969 film Anne of a Thousand Days with Geneviève Bujold as Anne and Richard Burton as Henry? Bujold was luminous as Anne. Years later I devoured Philippa Gregory’s books on the whole Henry affair. No pun intended. Ha.

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall is wonderful. And I never forgot the scenes where she calls Cromwell, “Cremwell.” So good.

Now, I don’t want to make something that is perhaps only a slight coincidence into something bigger than it is… but here goes. As they say in social media memes, “hold my sherry.” I know, that’s not exactly what they say, but “hold my beer” seems wrong in this situation.

The dearly departed “queen of literature,” Hilary Mantel, writes a book called Wolf Hall. And Claire Foy plays Henry VIII’s second wife, Queen Anne, in the mini-series. Before going on to dazzle us all by playing yet another queen, our dearly departed Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. So many queens. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Probably. But I do like to try to twist things so they connect. Especially as this week we’re mourning our second “queen” in as many weeks.

Let’s stop to think of all those royal queens, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon, Elizabeth II; so much of what makes and made them who they were was hidden behind a facade of strength, dignity, and social convention. What did we really know of their pain and struggle, except through the voices of historians or writers of historical fiction? And what of Hilary Mantel, the writer of historical fiction? She suffered too. She’ll be remembered for her work, certainly. But we should also acknowledge that life for her outside of writing was painful.

Anyway. Here’s the scene in Wolf Hall where Anne meets “Cremwell.”

As I said, I’ve long felt that I’d love to have tea with Hilary Mantel. I knew that was never really possible. But a girl could dream.

I imagined sitting with her in her back garden in Devon on a sunny fall day. Sipping, eating, chatting. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? According to her longtime agent, Bill Hamilton, “emails from Hilary were sprinkled with bon mots and jokes as she observed the world with relish, and pounced on the lazy or absurd, and nailed cruelty and prejudice.” She sounds like a bit of a hoot. But maybe a little intimidating at first. So I’d probably bring along my much smarter friend, Susan, another Mantel admirer, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself.

You know, I’ve often imagined what it would be like to sit down to a fantasy tea party with my favourite writers, Mantel among them. I see me and my friends sitting around a table with all the wise and talented women whom we admire. Women who observe the world with a keen, clear eye, and then tell stories in which their characters navigate the world, and their own lives. Writers like Barbara Pym, Penelope Lively, Anne Tyler, P.D. James. What life lessons there are to be learned from the writers of the books we love, books which have already taught us many life lessons.

I wrote a post about that fantasy tea party a few years ago. You can read it here, if you’re interested. In it I describe who I would invite. I had to be strict with myself. And how I saw the day, and the evening progressing. Gad. I was so wrapped up in my fantasy that, after I was finished writing, I almost believed it had happened. Ha.

If you missed that post, have a look.

So, I’m thinking in honour of Hilary Mantel’s passing, we should reprise the event. I’ll be inviting Hilary. And I’ll have to add Elizabeth Strout and Maggie O’Farrell to my guest list.

So are you game? Want to join our Fantasy Tea Party II? Let us know in the comments who you’d like to bring. Alive or dearly departed, makes no difference to us. Remember it’s a fantasy, so geography, weather, time zones, and even death can’t interfere with our plans.

P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will earn a small commission which helps to pay for the blog.


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57 thoughts on “Tea with Hilary Mantel”

  1. Interesting idea.. so many authors so little time… here goes
    Jane Austen, Val mcdermid, Georgette heyer, … do they all have to be women? If not then Neil Gunn, Peter Matthiesen, Stuart McBride… the mind boggles but at least I wouldn’t have to keep the conversation going! I haven’t read anything by Hillary mantell as yet but you have inspired me to try.

  2. It’s sad we have lost Hilary Mantel . She was a woman of good political principles too . I must read her trilogy – it just seems quite a marathon . I did love the TV version . The royal court was a dangerous place to be in those days . Lots of treachery & revenge . The scrabble for power & money . Things don’t change 😁 At your last literary get together my guests were Alan Bennett & Diane Athill . I’d now add on Anne Patchett , Mary Lawson , Mary Wesley, Raynor Wynn & , of course Ann Tyler & Penelope Lively . All astute authors full of empathy & wisdom .

    1. I listened to Eleanor Wachtel’s interviews with Hilary Mantel. She seemed very lively and intelligent author. I just finished Lucy by the Sea yesterday and I would invite Elizabeth Strout. I enjoy Ann Cleeves ´ books and she is an interesting speaker. Barbara Kingsolver would be a great addition.

      1. I have Lucy By the Sea on my “to read” list. I’m waiting for a while because there are so many great books out just now. And once we read them… well, then we’ll be done and not have them to look forward to. 🙂

    2. I’ve been thinking lately of Alan Bennett… and his “Uncommon Reader” now that QEII has passed away. I have read about some of Hilary Mantel’s political views… and how she sometimes got into trouble every now and then with her opinions. A fact that made me like her even more.

  3. I’m so sorry! I loved the trilogy very much,every book a little bit more. And now, there will be only silence….
    I feel utterly sad when one of my favourite authors die (selfishly)
    Unfortunately,I didn’t watch the series,have to check once more if they
    were available now somewhere
    Dealing with Henry VIII and his wives,for many,many years,in many books ,films and series,I’m currently watching The Spanish Princess-although a lighter version,some emotional states get very clearly
    Have to think about my guests for the tea party (and some of my first choices are already invited)…..so,at the moment let’s say Ann Cleeves and Ivana Brlic Mazuranic (and I hope that someone will invite Lady Agatha)

    1. I know… I selfishly mourn the loss of my favourite writers too. I was sad when Susie Steiner died. Particularly because she was so young and just getting started, really. Such a shame.

  4. I found a copy of Wolf Hall in the used section of my indie bookstore and snapped it up. It seems daunting, but now I must read it. As for authors, I would love to meet Elizabeth Strout, and I would add Ann Patchett, Anna Quindlen, and Sue Miller. When any of them comes out with a new book, I am on it immediately. 🙂

  5. Yes, please and thank you. Fantasy tea sounds wonderful. Permission to bring my favorite author Jane Austen and another favorite (living), Deanna Raybourn. May we also dress to tea, I feel the need for a new dress. By the by, tea with you Sue, is a real treat, you are a favorite blog author. Cheers.

  6. I read Wolf Hall as a book club read. I thought I would never finish it! So, I passed on the follow up books. It might be an unpopular opinion but I found it dull. I had to force myself to keep picking it up when there are so many other potentially interesting reads sitting by my chair waiting patiently for me to pick them up.

    1. It’s pretty dense. But once I got into it I found it gripping. If I’d not liked it I would not have persisted, book club or not. I no longer feel guilt for not finishing a book. There are too many ones out there that I want to read.

  7. It’s funny, I think I generally prefer to keep authors separate from their books, so I probably wouldn’t have any on my list. Having met a few, the personal impressions they gave coloured the works for me (they are only human, and I have the impression that many authors are troubled by the expectations of them as people).

    Then again, maybe I lie, as I’d love to meet George Eliot. I was thinking I would like to meet Alice Munro, too, but actually I think I have all I need from having read all of her work. I feel on some level as though K-O Knausgaard and I are similar so I wouldn’t mind meeting him. Generally though, I would choose female political activists or suffragettes or otherwise for my list, probably partly because my great-grandmother’s cousin was one of the Canadian famous five and so I grew up with the lore of that. Maybe I’d like to confirm what I know, interrogate the historical record. I’d also want to meet more anonymous characters from my own family’s past, e.g., the spinster daughter of one branch of my family who immigrated to Canada from England with the family in the 1850s, and who subsequently declared her occupation in the Canadian Census as “painter in oils.” She eventually moved across the country by herself.

    I have met a famous pianist (I like classical music) twice – once randomly while walking around Venice and then after one of her concerts in Canada – and I have to say it was rather embarrassing to answer her engaging questions. I do play the piano, but not on the level that I’d be able to spar with her!

    1. There are some dodgy members from my family history I’d love to meet. But maybe not more than once. Ha. Still, I so wish I had met my Mum’s older sister who died very young. I’m supposed to resemble her. So much so that my grandmother always called me Marion when I was a kid. I hear you about letting a writer’s work stand on its own. But there are some writers whose opinions I’d still like to have. Or whose thoughts on life I’d like to hear.

      1. Likewise, I have some dodgy family members I would love to meet, too! 🙂 In fact, I think what is interesting about the ones I mentioned above, is that they also held some unsavoury ideas that were consistent with their times. So…interesting to be able to contextualize their good works, and remove them from the modern sensibility.

        I heard a repeat of Eleanor Wachtel’s 2012 interview withe Hilary Mantel yesterday and I found it very engaging. Sad that she’s gone.

        1. I haven’t listened to that interview. Since I am no longer at my desk prepping lessons on Sunday afternoons I’ve fallen out of the habit of listening to Writers and Company. I must sign up for the podcasts.

  8. Amost finished reading “Resolution”, the last in the Garnet Hill trilogy, and loved them all three books so I would pick Denise Mina to have at the tea.

    1. I’m a big Denise Mina fan. Heard her read and discuss her work at a writers’ festival here in Ottawa. She was really interesting. Also on the same panel were fellow mystery writers Stuart McBride and Ian Rankin who joked with each other privately at the audience’s expense, and were rude to a couple of rather earnest questioners. Then I saw a tweet that Rankin posted later in the evening that “thank god he was back in his hotel room and could have a scotch,” that he wished he’d had the scotch to get through the panel discussion. Sheesh. I wanted to reply… “Grow up, buddy. We readers are your bread and butter.” I imagine they get tired of the same questions from audiences at these readings. But still. He and McBride should have had more respect for their fans. And I find that experience has put me off reading either of those guys again.

  9. Can I bring Margaret Atwood, Sarah Winman, and Anne Munro? I’ve been an Atwood fan since I first encountered her writing in The Edible Woman decades ago and Winman’s A Year of Marvellous Ways immediately made me greedy to read more of her work. Alice Munro, of course, can write anything and I’ll happily grab it from a shelf. Somehow, I think Mantel, Strout, and O’Farrell would enjoy their company?

    And put me down as another fan of Mantel’s historical fiction—she completely turned the genre into something new and thought-provoking. I’m saddened to think of what we’ll be missing by not having a new Mantel to put on our TBR lists.

  10. Wolf Hall is daunting, and gripping and heart-stopping in equal measure. Mantel’s decision to write in the present tense drops the reader into the day to day life of Cromwell as he experiences it and I loved every minute. What a loss.

  11. I’ve not read the Wolf Hall trilogy, so I headed to Amazon to see just how much they would cost me, and discovered that Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies are currently $2.99 each in the U.S.! Needless to say, snapped them both right up.

    As for our tea party, most everyone I’d want to invite has already been named (Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Ann Patchett) so I’ll add Donna Leon, because I love her Commissario Brunetti books.

  12. That trilogy is pure genius. As you read them you feel you are in the presence of someone transcendent. Will re-read with sadness.

  13. I too was very saddened by Hilary Mantel’s sudden death. What a loss to us all. To her family and friends, of course, it must be devastating but what a loss also for her wider audience as she was planning another book and apparently had many ideas on the go. So sad. I adored her Cromwell trilogy and think it the best thing I’ve read ever. I shall get the one on the French Revolution soonest to recapture that literary depth – she will be so missed.

    As to a tea-party, oh yes, can we all come! I’d like to meet Margaret Attwood, and maybe Georgette Heyer as she was the author I read and read as a teenager. And Alice Munro as well, please. What a great time we’d all have!

  14. … and Kate Atkinson, and Tana French! I turned my husband on to Tana French recently.

    One could also fantasize about the hall which would hold all these guests, and the menu.

  15. I vote for Louise Erdrich too. She doesn’t get as much atttention and respect as she deserves, I think. The Night Watchman was wonderful.

    Hilary Mantel was wonderful, in every way too.

  16. Thanks for this. If you have the CBC app, there are two brilliant interviews with Hilary Mantel on the programme Writers and Company, on the recently aired list, that I think you’d enjoy. She was mesmerizing. I look forward to your musings on both clothing and books—you are a first-class muser!

  17. The Wolf Hall Trilogy is like dessert for every meal The writing is rich, juicy and goes down quickly. Give yourselves a treat and dive in. I plan to read them all again in her honor. Delicious.

  18. This is so intriguing. I am in the midst of a hurricane warning in St. Petersburg, or I’d be right over!
    Thank you, by the way, for recommending the Portrait Contest show; I enjoyed every single episode! And I’ve got to put these writers on my list for my book club. Some we have read already, but others no.
    Best wishes to all of you, and please say a little prayer for us in Hurricane Ian.

  19. I was not familiar with Hilary Mantel until I recently read of her passing … and learned about the books she authored. I caught “Wolf Hall” series on PBS several years ago and it was SUPERB! The scene where Anne Boleyn is beheaded was one of the most masterfully (albeit chilling) scenes I have ever watched.

    And there is no end to female authors I’d love to have tea with … Elizabeth Strout, Elizabeth George, Elizabeth Berg (think I’m partial to the name Elizabeth?) … of course Dame Agatha Christie, Donna Tartt and Joyce Carol Oates …

    1. Of course! I love her books. I met her once at a reading here in Ottawa. She was so kind and lovely to chat with. I remember feeling sad when she died… much too soon.

  20. Jane Austin, Louisa May Alcott, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood and Emily Henry. If men are invited, I’d add Ocean Vuong and Khaled Hosseini. That’s an eclectic bunch and it would be interesting to guess how the conversation would go. It includes some of my favorite authors from my youth and authors I’ve like up through today.

    I haven’t read the Wolf Hall trilogy and I need to remedy that. Thank you for your wonderful descriptions of the stories and the characters.

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