As one of Britain’s most beloved authors, Dame Hilary Mantel is celebrated for her gripping, darkly comic novels that breathed new life into the historical fiction genre. Though best known for her Tudor political trilogy spanning the life of Thomas Cromwell, she’d been writing strange and sardonic fiction for decades before reaching literary stardom.
Born into a working-class Roman Catholic family in 1952, Mantel attended convent school before studying law in London and Sheffield. She found work as a social worker and journalist, then spent large stretches living in Botswana and Saudi Arabia with her geologist husband. The cultural isolation she felt, coupled with long periods of chronic illness, spurred her into fiction writing, and she published her first book, Every Day Is Mother’s Day, in 1985.
Mantel would go on to author over a dozen novels and short story collections, along with an acclaimed experimental memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. In 2009 she set the book world abuzz with the release of Wolf Hall, a voluminous fictional narrative chronicling the rise of Thomas Cromwell. An international sensation, the book and its 2012 sequel Bring Up the Bodies both won Mantel the prestigious Booker Prize. The series’ third installment, 2020’s The Mirror & the Light, was longlisted and debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
In a 2012 reading list for Newsweek, Mantel shared 5 of her favorite works of historical fiction. Rich, searing, and endlessly insightful, the writer’s picks plunge readers into far-flung reconstructions of Nigerian tribal life, the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and Marie Antoinette’s final days at Versaille. Explore her recommendations below.
Hilary Mantel’s Reading List
“A classic of African writing and a book of world stature, Chinua Achebe’s novel is set in a Nigerian village in the 1890s, where traditional society and the individual’s role falters in the face of modern and western influence. It is a gripping human story, universal in its appeal.” -HM
The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
“An idiosyncratic masterpiece, wise and richly comic, set in India in 1857 in a besieged town garrisoned by the British. Original and endlessly entertaining, it repays repeated readings.” -HM
The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan
“A novel on the grand scale, combining multiple narratives to chronicle the failed and tragic Irish Rebellion of 1798. Inspiring and almost heart-breaking.” -HM
Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth
“This is a novel about the perils of hero-worship. A modern-day would-be biographer disintegrates psychologically as his research faces him with unpalatable truths about the great naval warrior of the eighteenth century.” -HM
Farewell, My Queen by Chantal Thomas
“A delicate, precisely-researched reconstruction of Marie Antoinette’s final days at Versailles, as the forces of revolution gather and the world stands on the brink of transformation.” -HM