Hilary Mantel wins the 2009 Booker prize for her fictionalised life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall
She was the bookies' favourite, the people's favourite and tonight Hilary Mantel became the judges' favourite as Wolf Hall, her vividly told tale of Tudor intrigue, emerged triumphant at the Man Booker prize.
By the end of their three-hour meeting today the Booker judges were split three-two in favour of Mantel's fly-on-the-wall account of the life of Henry VIII's fixer, Thomas Cromwell.
Although it was not a unanimous decision, Jim Naughtie, the BBC broadcaster who chaired this year's judging panel, said all five were happy to name it the winner. He said: "Our decision was based on the sheer bigness of the book, the boldness of its narrative and scene-setting, the gleam that there is in its detail."
Mantel, after winning the prize, said: "I hesitated for such a long time before beginning to write this book, actually for about 20 years."
Mantel, who said she wanted to capture the imagination of readers generally, thanked the book trade for their support.
She said that if winning the Booker Prize was like being in a train crash "at this moment I am happily flying through the air".
Naughtie praised the scale and ambition of the novel: "We all felt there were paragraphs, passages, pages that we wanted to go back and read again. We have a book which, as a piece of creative fiction, is extraordinary in its technique, its confidence. Once you are in to it, you are in to it – you don't stop."
Wolf Hall had been one of the hottest favourites in years with, according to Ladbrokes, 80% of all bets on the winner. Some thought being so heavily backed might even count against it, as no bookmakers' favourite had won since Yann Martel's The Life of Pi in 2002.
Mantel is one of the most highly regarded and under-rewarded – in terms of prizes – novelists working in Britain today, and it surprised many that this was her first time on the Booker shortlist. She admitted to the Guardian this week that winning "would provide freedom from having to win the Booker".
The novelist was given the trophy at London's Guildhall, along with a £50,000 cheque and a guaranteed leap in worldwide sales. Mantel joked that she would spend it on "sex, drugs and rock and roll. "To be a little less stupid, living, I think. It buys time. That's what an author wants."
She described the award as "earnings", saying it may be a cold way to look at it "but cost out what an author earns per hour, it's far, far less than the minimum wage ... It must pay the mortgage, as authors have to do."
Her victory is all the more impressive because this year's shortlist was widely seen as one of the strongest in years and included former winners JM Coetzee and AS Byatt.
Naughtie said the "ridiculous" odds of 16-1 originally given to Wolf Hall when the longlist was announced probably led to the betting bonanza. After the shortlist was announced the novel became easily the fastest seller, accounting for 45% of all the shortlisted books' sales, according to Amazon, although Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger has sold more overall.
Naughtie said the voting process had been spirited and friendly. "There was no blood on the carpet. We parted good friends. When we gathered this morning none of us knew which book was going to win," he said. "I think we all felt exhausted at the end of the process but there was real feeling that we had found a book that was worthy of the prize."
Mantel said she has started work on the sequel to Wolf Hall, which will be titled The Mirror And The Light. "What I have got at the moment is a huge box of notes," she added.
All the shortlisted authors were at the ceremony apart from Coetzee, who has won two Bookers. If Byatt had won, she would have become only the third double winner, along with Coetzee and Peter Carey.
The other shortlisted novelists were Waters, Simon Mawer for The Glass Room and Adam Foulds for The Quickening Maze.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016