Hilary Thompson was the eldest of three children in a Catholic English family of Irish descent. She took the surname of Mantel from her unofficial stepfather after her parents separated and she did not see her father again. After university, she worked as a social worker at a geriatric hospital and as a sales assistant in a department store. In 1972, she married Gerald McEwen, a geologist, and the couple later lived in Botswana and Saudi Arabia. She published a memoir of this time, "Someone to Disturb," in the London Review of Books. In her twenties, Hilary Mantel suffered from a debilitating and painful disorder originally considered a psychiatric illness, but eventually diagnosed as a severe form of endometriosis. Her first novel, Every Day is Mother's Day, was published in 1985. Returning to England, Hilary Mantel became the film critic of The Spectator and a reviewer for a number of newspapers and magazines in Britain and the USA.
Her long novel Wolf Hall, about Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell, was published in 2009 to great critical acclaim and has just been followed by a sequel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012).