Hilary Mantel 1952-
(Born Hilary Mary Mantel) British novelist, short story writer, critic, travel writer, and editor.
Mantel is best known as a darkly imaginative storyteller whose work has focused on such topics as family life, isolation, the nature of time, and the consequences of political and social policies. Considered representative of the post-World War II British fiction writers, Mantel is highly regarded for her social satire as well as her historical novels, particularly A Place of Greater Safety (1992), which depicts events during the French Revolution.
Mantel was born in Derbyshire, England on July 6, 1952, the oldest of three children of Irish Catholic immigrant parents. As a young girl, she was sent to a convent school. In 1970, Mantel began to study law at the London School of Economics and Political Science and received her law degree from the University of Sheffield in 1973. For a year, she worked as a social worker in a geriatric hospital. During this time Mantel developed an interest in writing. When her husband, a geologist, secured employment in Southern Africa in 1977, Mantel moved with him to Botswana. In 1983, the couple moved again, this time to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Both of these settings provided material for Mantel's later novels. Returning to England in 1986, Mantel began writing full-time. She worked as a film critic for the Spectator in the late 1980s and contributed several short stories and reviews to periodicals, including London Magazine, London Review of Books, and Literary Review.
In her first novel, Every Day Is Mother's Day (1985), Mantel portrays the bleak lives of Muriel Axon, a mentally ill woman, and her young social worker, Isabel Field. In 1986, Mantel published a sequel to the book, Vacant Possession. Both novels are considered biting satires of the British welfare system and explore such themes as marital and family life, ghosts, prisons, and the impact of social and political policies. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) is a mystery story loosely based on Mantel's time in Saudi Arabia. It focuses on the alienation and repression of women, especially Western women, in a fundamentalist society. Her next novel, Fludd (1990), chronicles the arrival of Fludd, the reincarnation of a sixteenth-century scholar, to a tiny, isolated village in Northern England. In 1992, Mantel published A Place of Greater Safety, a historical novel set during the French Revolution. It follows the stories of three major revolutionaries—Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre—and their role in the history of France. Her next novel, A Change of Climate (1994), was inspired by Mantel's time in South Africa and depicts the lives of two British missionaries and how they handle hardship and tragedy. An Experiment in Love (1995) follows several interconnected young women as they mature into adulthood. The Giant, O'Brien was published in 1998. This historical novel blends fact and fiction, depicting the story of an eighteenth-century Irish giant, Charles O'Brien, and his relationship with a famous London surgeon.
Many commentators have found it difficult to categorize Mantel's work; her eight novels range from suspense thrillers to black humor to historical fiction. Her diverse interests and work in disparate genres has prompted considerable critical commentary. Regarding her historical fiction, reviewers have argued that Mantel rejects the conventions of the genre, creating a unique amalgamation of fact and fiction. She has been applauded for her vivid imagination, unsentimental writing style, and lively dialogue. Although some critics have called her novels pessimistic and claustrophobic, her work is often praised for its deft exploration of such topical issues as feminism, religion, and the social welfare system in England. Mantel's work is often compared to that of Muriel Spark for its black humor and sharp satirical qualities.
Every Day Is Mother's Day (novel) 1985
Vacant Possession (novel) 1986
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (novel) 1988
Fludd (novel) 1990
A Place of Greater Safety (novel) 1992
A Change of Climate (novel) 1994
An Experiment of Love (novel) 1995
The Giant, O'Brien (novel) 1998
(The entire section is 37 words.)
Show us the love and view this for free! Use the facebook like button, or any other share button on this page, and get this content free!free!
SOURCE: “Roasting Them,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 29, 1985, p. 341.
[In the following review, Hawtree provides a favorable assessment of Every Day Is Mother's Day.]
Evelyn leaned forward, her hands clasped together, her eyes closed, and scalding tears dropped from under her lids. Mrs Sidney watched them falling. Her heart hammered. Evelyn's mouth gaped open, and Mrs Sidney dug her nails into her palms, expecting Arthur's voice to come out. … “Mrs Sidney,” Evelyn said, “your husband Arthur is roasting in some unspeakable hell.”
By the mid-1970s in Hilary Mantel's first novel [Every Day Is Mother's Day] Evelyn Axon has long since abandoned her spiritualist sessions and her neighbour Mrs Sidney has been carted off to a home. The past lingers, though, to make the tangle of daily events a hell even for those characters whose houses “would soon be as warm as they could afford.”
The novel opens with the widowed Evelyn's discovery that her daughter, Muriel, is pregnant. This might seem commonplace. “Muriel, for her part, seemed pleased. She sat with her legs splayed and her arms around herself, as if reliving the event. Her face wore an expression of daft beatitude.” For many years Evelyn had kept her moronic daughter all but confined to the darkness of the house in Buckingham Avenue, a place which...
(The entire section is 536 words.)
Show us the love and view this for free! Use the facebook like button, or any other share button on this page, and get this content free!free!
SOURCE: “Unhappy Families,” in Spectator, April 13, 1985, pp. 30–1.
[In the following mixed review, Waugh unfavorably compares Mantel's Every Day Is Mother's Day to Patricia Angadi's novel The Governess.]
Patricia Angadi and Hilary Mantel are both talented, first-time novelists. In Mrs Angadi's book, The Governess, there is an ease and maturity that is lacking in Every Day Is Mother's Day—which is hardly surprising, as Mrs Angadi has waited until her seventieth year before taking the plunge into print. She might well have drawers full of less considerable stuff such as conventionally makes up the babblings of most novelists’ first printed efforts.
The Governess, set just after the First World War, shows a middle-class family in disintegration. Why it disintegrates is the haunting question left unsettled by the novel. The story opens with the hiring of a governess by Eleanor Lane-Baker. Miss Herring is to take charge of a pair of blissfully emotionally entwined identical boy twins, aged seven, their unhappy angry, older sister Helen, and Margaret, the plump baby of the household, aged four. Two older brothers, Miles and Justus, have already started boarding school. Miss Herring, known as Herry, is a paragon of virtue, being pleasant to look at, sensible and loving. Since the children's characters are already formed before the story opens, it could be...
(The entire section is 887 words.)
Show us the love and view this for free! Use the facebook like button, or any other share button on this page, and get this content free!free!
SOURCE: “You Bet Your Life,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 8, April 21, 1988, pp. 20–2.
[In the following review, Walters praises Mantel's narrative techniques in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.]
In Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel makes skillful use of thriller techniques, as a way of keeping us edgily involved with her heroine, who's tense and lonely, and anxiously trying to make sense of a world she fears, dislikes, and certainly doesn't understand. Frances Shore's engineer husband is working in Saudi Arabia; she can't get a job, women aren't allowed to drive or walk on the streets or even go shopping alone. Occasional meetings with other expatriates are comic disasters—Frances is spiky and argumentative, not the sort of woman to be smoothly polite even to her husband's boss. So she's a virtual prisoner in her block of flats, making tentative but frustrating contact with her two neighbours, a Pakistani and a Saudi woman. Mantel gets her angry claustrophobia brilliantly: her impatience with the constantly repeated horror stories (princesses stoned to death for adultery, the inevitable Helen Smith case), her fury at how little she—or the other Europeans—understand the Saudis.
Frances becomes obsessed with the empty flat immediately above hers, with rumours that someone high up in the Government is using it for an adulterous liaison. She listens...
(The entire section is 349 words.)
SOURCE: “Bosphorescence,” in Observer, May 1, 1988, p. 43.
[In the following review of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Barnes asserts that “Mantel has written an elegant and disturbing account of the changes wrought by alienation.”]
A roaming topography also takes over in Hilary Mantel's Eight Months on Ghazzah Street where a young woman, less cosmopolitan than Madame de Rochefauld, makes a long-distance journey, and plunges abruptly into the closed world of Saudi Arabia. Like Catherine, Frances Shore encounters a mixture of routine and surprises, which hardly compensates for arriving at the wrong time.
This Englishwoman joins her engineer husband who has been recruited to devise a new Government building just as the oil price is falling and the construction boom is coming to an end. It is, he tells her cheerfully, ‘the last of the best’ and a final opportunity to accumulate in spite of the hardships.
Hilary Mantel skilfully maps the wife's growing dislike for a country she can't begin to understand. It starts as a sense of foreboding. First impressions of ‘not a very comfortable place’ don't help as Frances learns she must remain almost under a state of house arrest: forbidden to drive a car or walk in the streets, and advised not to use the public transport. Even shops are out of bounds for unaccompanied sprees. Conversations with the...
(The entire section is 423 words.)
SOURCE: “The Mysterious Affair at Jeddah,” in Spectator, Vol. 260, No. 8340, May 14, 1988, p. 43.
[In the following mixed review, Brookner considers the controlled atmosphere of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.]
Devotees of Hilary Mantel's earlier novels will be surprised by this one [Eight Months on Ghazzah Street] a horror story with an atmosphere as strange as that of a detective story, but a detective story that fails to tie up the loose ends. Clues abound and plots are plotted, but explanations are lacking. Before the last page has been reached one is fiercely uncomfortable, as if one had been trapped inside a complete delusional system. And the characteristic of delusional systems is that their logic is extreme but inaccessible to those on the outside. A peculiar fear emanates from this narrative: I dread to think what it did to the writer herself.
Frances Shore is off to join her husband, Andrew, in Jeddah, where he is supervising the construction of a government building. She is unafraid and unimpressed; references to Helen Smith merely evoke a weary smile. After five years in Africa nothing can dismay her. The Shores are billetted in a small block of flats which she christens Dunroamin. The first thing she notices is the lack of daylight. She cannot go out because Western women are not encouraged to walk on the streets; besides, there is nowhere to go. Traffic...
(The entire section is 984 words.)
SOURCE: “Baffling Boxed-In,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 20, 1988, p. 552.
[In the following review, Mars-Jones offers a mixed assessment of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.]
Which is stronger, the whale or the polar bear? It's not easy to tell, since the bouts are so hard to arrange, but Hilary Mantel comes close to setting up a similar contest in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. The opposed principles in her novel are the intelligence of her heroine, Frances Shore, and the world of Islam, as represented by the city of Jeddah, where Frances joins her architect husband Andrew.
Hilary Mantel made her name with a pair of black comedies, Every Day Is Mother's Day and Vacant Possession; she has also lived in the Middle East, and there seems nothing to stop her putting technique and subject together to produce a novel of exemplary force and fastidiousness. But Saudi Arabia is not like other sorts of abroad; Africa, with which author and heroine are also familiar, seems by contrast a place of ramshackle welcome.
Islam makes no pretence of treating women with equality, and allows no place for female perceptions. When Frances shops with Andrew, shopkeepers treat her as if she was invisible and inaudible, though her husband has a shape and a voice. When she goes out in the street, drivers gesture her to cross in front of them, then accelerate....
(The entire section is 817 words.)
SOURCE: “Ecclesiastical Auras,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 8, 1989, p. 968.
[In the following review of Fludd, Duguid commends the novel as both “funny and moving.”]
Fludd is a novel about Roman Catholicism which is in the tradition of Muriel Spark rather than David Lodge. Serious without being pious, satirical without being trivial, and always forgiving, it describes the religion of Fetherhoughton, a windswept Northern town whose hideous stone terraces are caught between mill and moor. Fetherhoughton's deformed Irish Catholicism, which puts an emphasis on abstinence and sin, is better suited to the uncompromising nature of its citizens than the more florid manifestations of the Church of Rome.
The rites observed there have all but lost touch with Christianity. The grim women, banded together as Children of Mary in order to enjoy “strong tea, parlour games and character assassination,” relish the conviction that their Protestant neighbours will burn in Hell. They have turned the name of the head of the nearby convent from Mother Perpetua to the more suitably curt “Purpit” and, in their rendering, the words of the saccharine hymns become pure gibberish. Father Angwin, their parish priest, a man who has lost faith in God but not in whisky, is doubtful of the bishop's plans to drag his inarticulate parishioners into the 1960s with the Vernacular...
(The entire section is 681 words.)
SOURCE: “More Than Just Making Do,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 85, September 15, 1989, p. 34.
[In the following positive review of Fludd, Gerrard contrasts Mantel's novel with Elaine Feinstein's All You Need.]
In the interior, dreamy worlds of Elaine Feinstein's previous fiction, the nostalgia of remembered grief floods the present. One of her novels is called The Survivors and its title describes most of Feinstein's characters, who (often because they are Jewish, eastern European, and have lived through the horrors of world war two) have been violated by the past. All You Need’s characters are survivors of a very different kind. They are not looking back over their shoulders, but assessing the present and near future. Elaine Feinstein's latest novel, set in the late eighties of dilapidated inner city London, is more contemporary than any of her others; it lacks their plangency and tangy pain, and is instead shrewd and decisive.
Indeed, being decisive and resourceful is part of the novel's subject. Since leaving university, Nell has lived a sheltered life in one of East Anglia's gentle towns. When her husband Brian is sent to gaol in mysterious circumstances, she has to uproot herself and her resentful adolescent daughter and go to London. To the surprise of herself and her friends, she discovers she is brighter, more attractive and more dissatisfied...
(The entire section is 612 words.)
SOURCE: “Falling for Desmoulins,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 16, August 20, 1992, p. 3.
[In the following review, Furbank analyzes A Place of Greater Safety as a historical novel.]
When Sarah Orne Jewett sent her friend Henry James a copy of her latest work, a historical novel entitled The Tory Lover, he told her it would take a very long letter to ‘disembroil the tangle’ of how much he appreciated the gift of this ‘ingenious exercise’ of hers, and how little he was in sympathy with historical novels. He begged her to come back to the modern age and ‘the dear country of The Pointed Firs’, to ‘the present-intimate’ that ‘throbbed responsive’ and was so much missing her.
The ‘historical novel’ is, for me, condemned even in cases of labour as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness, for the simple reason that the difficulty of the job is inordinate and that a mere escamotage, in the interest of ease, and of the abysmal public naivety, becomes inevitable. You may multiply the little facts that may be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as naught: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of...
(The entire section is 1888 words.)
SOURCE: “Justice and Terror,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 28, 1992, p. 17.
[In the following review, Coward underlines the strengths of A Place of Greater Safety, particularly Mantel's portrayal of women and inventive narrative style.]
The French Revolution produced far more history than can be conveniently digested. To help it down, it has often been served garnished with Pimpernel and smothered in ideological sauces: the Revolution as the first taste of democracy or socialism, or Terror as a political instrument. Victor Hugo and Abel Gance exploited its epic dimension. Andrzej Wajda showed a symphonic clash of Titans. Hilary Mantel prefers the intimate, non-rhetorical, chamber mode which humanizes the phenomenon of political action. She generates no new myths and grinds no ideological axe. Centre stage is not the Revolution but those who made it.
In A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel rejects the usual ploys of the historical novelist. She does not invent a character on which to hang a fiction, nor does she follow the varied fortunes of the members of an imagined family. Instead, she has produced a carefully researched historical reconstruction of the rise and fall of three committed revolutionaries: Camille Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre.
The focus is close. The great events—the taking of the Bastille, the flight to Varennes, the...
(The entire section is 966 words.)
SOURCE: “Three Precocious Pals,” in Observer, August 30, 1992, p. 50.
[In the following essay, Saynor offers an unfavorable review of A Place of Greater Safety.]
It's not easy running the French Revolution from home—what with writ-servers camped outside and strangers tramping in and out at all hours, and piles of old newspapers everywhere and that creepy Robespierre hovering about like an undertaker. Over at Mrs Danton's, things aren't much better. There are the escalating membership fees to the Jacobin Club to worry about, and a visiting mother-in-law who moans, ‘This wallpaper must have cost a pretty penny.’
Writing convincing historical fiction is always a head-on-the-block exercise. In A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel takes an appropriately bourgeois-democratic approach to the problem by reducing some of the most awesome, paradigm-shattering events in European history to a mosaic of homespun moments in the lives of three young political idealists—Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins—and their long-suffering families. There's nothing baroque or fantastical about this plunge back in time. History is appraised through the cool lorgnette of a drawing-room realism: home-making worries, work problems and social-life concerns are given similar stress for most of the 870-page narrative.
This let-us-now-domesticate-famous-men approach always risks...
(The entire section is 458 words.)
SOURCE: “Citizens’ Band,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 121, No. 4100, September 4, 1992, p. 38.
[In the following mixed review of A Place of Greater Safety, Morton contends that Mantel “has made an accomplished job of a near-impossible outline.”]
Last month Hilary Mantel lent her increasingly weighty imprimatur to a historical novel called Malefice. She wrote that its author, Leslie Wilson, “lets the voices of her characters speak directly from their century to ours—and what they speak of are the constants of the human condition, the drive to power and the need for love.” It's hard to imagine that she wasn't subsconsciously drafting the reviews for A Place of Greater Safety, her own massive fly-on-wall reconstruction of the French Revolution.
Perhaps nowhere has bicentennial revisionism been taken to such remarkable and deflationary lengths. In Mantel's version, the Revolution emerges as a career move for a tightknit group of disaffected ABs. With admirable sauce, she manages to make Thermidor sound like a boardroom rationalisation, with real blood on the carpet. Long shots are rare and functional and the dialogue has a soapy intimacy and sting.
In so far as Mantel has a principal, it is LCS Desmoulins, known as Camille, who came up out of Guise where his lawyer father has the Prince de Condé as a client. He shared a...
(The entire section is 842 words.)
SOURCE: “The French Revolution as Fiction,” in Spectator, Vol. 269, No. 8565, September 5, 1992, p. 30.
[In the following review, Spivey places A Place of Greater Safety within the context of other novels based on the French Revolution.]
This [A Place of Greater Safety] is a tale of three men: Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre. Superficially, their early lives in provincial France do not seem packed with radical promise. Danton, following a Champenois usage, was put to suckle on a cow's udder at the age of two, and badly gored by a bull. At subsequent junctures of his youth he was beset again by farmyard beasts, and also by smallpox, leaving him heartily ugly and fairly glad, one imagines, to have made it as far as adulthood. Desmoulins and Robespierre, from Guise and Arras respectively, met at the same college in Paris. Robespierre, a scholarship boy, delivered a Latin panegyric to the young Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette when they visited the college in 1775. There, perhaps, a token of his future use of formal oratory—though the sentiment of the speech is, with hindsight, poignantly ironic.
These three made careers out of the French Revolution. Desmoulins demonstrates best what opportunities the ferment offered to someone desperate to be something: his letters home show a man whose political commitments were motored not so much...
(The entire section is 1054 words.)
SOURCE: “Two Doors: Which One Will You Open?” in Observer, March 13, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following essay, Kellaway provides an overview of Mantel's life and work.]
Hilary Mantel lives in Sunningdale, Berkshire, in a stocky, dependable red brick house. Above her front door is a white plaster medallion of the Virgin and Child. The place used to be a nursing home for mothers and babies, then a dating agency. Now she and her husband live in it with their cats, Tertius and Bella. Past and present pets—pale lemony dogs, a masterful Burmese—stare out from oval silver frames. Hilary Mantel's face looks feline too, with unrealistically large, blue-saucer-eyes. She is one of those writers about whom one feels, meeting her at home: so this is where you hide, this is how you keep your unsuburban imagination safe.
Not that she has always lived here. She has never quite got over the years spent in Africa, in Botswana and in the Sudan (where her husband Gerald worked as a geologist). For a long time, she missed ‘the daily melodrama’ of African life. England was unnerving: ‘lamplight shining on black roads.’
She's dressed in a pretty tent, covered in flowers. ‘Since Africa I've had a difficult relationship with my clothes. I'm afraid I just turn the central heating up,’ she says. Her voice is reassuring, treating sentences as if making a bed, smoothing and tucking...
(The entire section is 1176 words.)
SOURCE: “Fossils and Fundamentalists,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 25, 1994, p. 19.
[In the following review, Kemp applauds the insight and wit of A Change of Climate.]
A Change of Climate is a novel studded with fossils and relics. From a Norfolk landscape dotted with ruins and tumuli, Roman skeletons and terracotta shards are unearthed. Flint arrowheads poke out of the ground. On a beach at Cromer, prehistoric bison bones turn up. Elsewhere, a stroller across the sands finds a weird primeval object: the hundred-and-fifty-million-year-old shell of a bivalve, scientifically termed Gryphaea, but more commonly known as a “devil's toenail.”
This sinister-looking fossil—“thick, ridged, ogreish”—lurks in the recesses of Hilary Mantel's dark new novel as a symbol of the evil that has clawed hideously at the lives of two good people and remained petrifyingly lodged in their past. Scooped up from the seaside by a young man alive with idealism, it is flung away decades later by his harrowed older self. In between, Mantel arrestingly unfolds the tale of an appalling descent into hell.
At the centre of the novel are a couple born into godly circles. Ralph Eldred, and Anna who becomes his wife, are the offspring of families who subscribe with dour literalness to Bible doctrines. In this milieu, Ralph's announcement that he wishes to read...
(The entire section is 865 words.)
SOURCE: “Very Cold Norfolk, Very Hot Africa,” in Spectator, March 26, 1994, p. 34.
[In the following laudatory review, Brookner delineates the major themes of A Change of Climate.]
Hilary Mantel's new novel [A Change of Climate]—by far her most assured—deals with no less a subject than good and evil. Evil, we are told, is pure energy. This seems acceptable in the light of the unavailing efforts made by ordinary human beings to be good. It might be countered that Ralph and Anna Eldred are not ordinary human beings, that they have been chosen to suffer a wrong for which amends were never made, never could be made. It might also be argued that they were prepared for this fate not only by early betrayals and disappointments but by the very fact of their Christian beliefs. They are good people: being good is their profession. Ralph works for a charitable trust set up by his father. There is a mission house in the East End which caters for the drunk, the homeless, the confused and the frankly disturbed. There is also a great deal of work to be done in Africa, of which more later.
Ralph did not always want to be good; he wanted to go to university and study archaeology. But according to his father archaeology is Darwinism and therefore contrary to Bible teaching. If he persists in this folly then Emma, his sister, might not be allowed to study medicine, another godless...
(The entire section is 943 words.)
SOURCE: “A Form of Showing Off,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 8, April 28, 1994, p. 13.
[In the following review, Vaux offers a stylistic and thematic overview of A Change in Climate, deeming it “a morality tale without a moral.”]
‘If God knows our ends, why cannot he prevent them, why is the world so full of malice and cruelty, why did God make it at all and give us free will if he knows already that some of us will destroy ourselves in exercising it?’ The question is put by Father Angwin, the non-believing priest in Fludd, Hilary Mantel's short, black, funny novel about Roman Catholicism. Then he remembers that he doesn't believe in God—an unusually quick solution to the Problem of Evil—and goes about his business, dispensing pieces of wisdom to his flock, thinking of ways to avoid the bishop, and looking out for the Devil, in whom he has no difficulty believing. He's seen the Devil, after all: he runs the tobacconist's shop at the bottom of the hill and he smells of sulphur.
Ralph Eldred in A Change of Climate believes in God but has read some Darwin and some geology and puts the matter differently:
If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principle of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to...
(The entire section is 2504 words.)
SOURCE: “Bothered by God,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 341, February 24, 1995, pp. 54–5.
[In the following favorable review, Cooke compares An Experiment in Love with the work of Muriel Spark and David Lodge.]
In her last novel, A Change of Climate, Hilary Mantel took on the nonconformist tradition of mission and righteousness and exposed its insufficiencies. Her family of well-intentioned “East Anglican fossils” find that their parents’ religious and ethical beliefs lacked validity when it comes to the crunch. Faced by the immensity of evil, and the loss of their baby son, they react by blaming themselves.
On a smaller scale, this new novel follows a similar theme. Carmel McCabe, the central character, is the only child of a poor northern couple who work hard at earning the appellation “dour.” Her destiny is to become a scholarship girl, winning a place, first, at the Holy Redeemer—the McCabes are Catholic—next, at London University.
Her mother's insistence on achievement is matched by a marked revulsion from Carmel's budding sexuality. In one telling passage, she writes to warn her against accepting a boyfriend's invitation to spend Christmas with his family. If she does, she needn't come home ever again.
By this time, Carmel's own will power is pretty well developed. Sharing a room in a hall of...
(The entire section is 538 words.)
SOURCE: “Not Nice Girls,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 24, 1995, p. 22.
[In the following review, O'Faolain finds parallels between An Experiment in Love and Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means.]
Hilary Mantel is a darkly inventive storyteller who has in the past dealt ruthlessly with, among other targets, unhappy families, the social services, the Roman Catholic Church and the French Revolution. Her fictions blaze with satiric vision. Her tone is usually cool and her stance detached.
Her new novel, however, is narrated in the first person by its protagonist, Carmel, who, since she is telling her own story, risks paying a price for indulging in too fierce a satire: she may lose sympathy. Not that first-person narrators have to be likeable. Think of Humbert Humbert.
An Experiment in Love is a coming-of-age novel, a story of three Catholic girls for whom we are surely meant to care—and here doubt assails me. Perhaps we are not. Perhaps the classic format—three girls come to town—is camouflage for a surprise: the discovery that evil lurks not outside these young things but within, like sin. It tells the story of the anorexic Carmel and other residents at Tonbridge Hall, where she lives and starves while attending London University in the 1970s. Intercut with her account of this, are childhood memories of Lancashire, where she met...
(The entire section is 1011 words.)
SOURCE: “We Have Stood Apart Studiously,” in Spectator, March 4, 1995, pp. 36–7.
[In the following review, Brookner explores Mantel's portrayal of women in An Experiment in Love.]
The love mentioned in the title [of An Experiment in Love] is not of the sapphic kind, although the protagonists are three girls of roughly similar backgrounds who go to the same school and are later inmates—the word is apt—of a students’ hostel in London. The love, rather, is that disingenuous affection that in early days is almost indistinguishable from life at home, is taken for granted, unquestioned, accepted, even when a quite specific dislike is felt. Later attitudes harden, and then antagonism is acknowledged, and the evidence of faithlessness can no longer be ignored.
In this feminist age it is politically incorrect to hint at dissension among women, yet it exists. In her clever novel Hilary Mantel has avoided the issue by making her protagonists close their minds against notions of disapproval or distaste: these may be adult sentiments, not available to girls of five, or ten, or finally 18, forced to cohabit, unsure of individuals outside the group, even, perhaps particularly, of the men with whom they experiment. The real experiment is with the girls they know too well, and the testing time that interval between childhood and adulthood which will mark their characters and their...
(The entire section is 974 words.)
SOURCE: “The Little Woman Inside,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 5, March 9, 1995, p. 12.
[In the following review, Birch perceives Mantel as representative of the post-World War II British generation of authors.]
Women of my age, born in the early Fifties and now in our forties, have reached the season of retrospection. We have become—or have not become—wives, wage-earners, mothers, home-makers, gardeners or taxpayers. Our place in post-war history, formed by a procession of notions (often experimental, often contradictory) of what success is for women, has settled into a pattern that can be discerned and appraised. We can begin to compare our lives with those of our mothers. Hilary Mantel, born in 1952, has tried out a number of female identities—more than most of us—and succeeded more than most. She has trained as a lawyer and given it up, she has been a social worker and a teacher, she has earned a living in the Middle East and in Africa. She has also been several kinds of good writer—a film critic, a travel writer and a prolific novelist. Her fiction has continually tested different formats. Black comedy, super-natural fantasy, political satire and social realism move in and out of her books. A Place of Greater Safety (1992), a brave and solidly researched novel on the French Revolution, was a surprise. Perhaps it ought not to have been, for the Revolution, the biggest...
(The entire section is 1747 words.)
SOURCE: “All about Evil,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIII, No. 13, August 8, 1996, pp. 35–6.
[In the following favorable review, Annan compares Mantel to Graham Greene and asserts that in An Experiment in Love “her approach is slow and stealthy; the hair on the back of the neck rises, not all of a sudden, but gradually.”]
Hilary Mantel has just published a very cross article in The Author, the quarterly journal of the British Society of Authors. She grumbles about the large number of letters she says she gets, all deploring the pessimism of her novels:
They don't, on the whole, have the nerve to assert that the world is a nicer place than I make it out to be. What they are challenging is my need to speak, in such plain terms, of the atrocious and the absurd; they are not complaining about me as a writer, so much as complaining about me as a person.
She is afraid that her readers may all be elderly, middle-class persons in cardigans. “The popularity of Jane Austen is one current cultural strand,” she writes. “Tarantino is another, Taste cannot be getting less violent, and simultaneously more violent, unless we have a completely divided audience.” The striking thing about her article is that she seems to accept the fact that, whether her readers are Janeites or Tarantino fans, they do not have...
(The entire section is 1940 words.)
SOURCE: “The Searchers,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 14, 1997, p. 6.
[In the following essay, Innes discusses the defining characteristics of Mantel's fiction.]
Two-thirds of the way through A Change of Climate, James, the head of a hostel for “derelicts and drunks” in the East End of London, is shaken to his Christian core. He has just received a letter from his nephew Ralph, who is a missionary in Botswana. Something terrible has happened to Ralph and his wife, Anna, something unimaginably violent. And because James is wise, kind and an old hand at life's tragedies, he tries to compose, haltingly, a few words of encouragement in preparation for Ralph and Anna's return to England.
“There is nothing, there is nothing worse, there is nothing so burdensome … there is nothing so appallingly hard … as the business of being human. …” The inadequate words die in his throat as he catches sight of himself in a mirror on the wall, a “desiccated old man, worn by humility, sucked dry by the constant effort of belief.” Quickly, he shies away from these unbearable truths by submerging himself in altruism. “Glass is a danger in a place like this,” he thinks, where fights break out in the blink of an eye and everything is a potential weapon, and he “should take the mirror down.”
It's one of the more chilling moments in this darkly...
(The entire section is 1608 words.)
SOURCE: “Critics’ Choices for Christmas,” in Commonweal, No. 4, December 5, 1997, pp. 25–7.
[In the following excerpt, Baumann provides a laudatory assessment of Fludd and An Experiment in Love.]
How many gimlet-eyed and razor-tongued English lady novelists can there be? Evidently an unlimited supply. I was vaguely aware of the name Hilary Mantel, but remained wholly innocent of her work until a friend urged her 1989 novel, Fludd (Penguin, 186 pp.), on me. It's a magically atmospheric book set in England's damp and gloomy north. Father Angwin, a sodden, grandiloquently grumpy parish priest who has misplaced his faith, takes center stage, at least initially. A wonderfully drawn little platoon of nuns, and the mysterious interventions of Fludd, Angwin's new curate (or at least everyone takes Fludd to be the new curate), keep the reader guessing—about everything.
“The church in this story bears some but not much resemblance to the Roman Catholic church in the real world, c. 1956,” Mantel mischievously instructs her readers. After bantering viperishly with his trendy bishop, Angwin is ordered to clear up the unfashionable clutter of his church by chucking most of its plaster statues. In an obscure kind of defiance, Angwin buries the banished troupe of chipped and faded saints in the back yard of the rectory. Things then begin to happen.
(The entire section is 467 words.)
SOURCE: “See for Yourself,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 4, 1998, p. 10.
[In the following favorable review of The Giant, O'Brien, Nokes maintains that “the novel has a weary, off-balance quality that catches where we least expect it.”]
Hilary Mantel, in her latest novel, The Giant, O'Brien, seems fixated by the hunger of public credulity. What will detain the imagination, or charm a penny from a tight-wad's pocket? “We are victim to fresh sensations,” says Bitch Mary. One day, a queue of eager spectators lines the walls of the premises in Spring Gardens, waving their half-crown entrance fee. The next, the novelty is gone: “Ooh, giants—giants were last year,” all agree; out of fashion, like the Spotted Boy, the Human Pincushion and the “What Is It?.” “The life of a freak is not long,” says Con Claffey, with an egg-stain on his waistcoat which he wears as a badge of former wealth.
This is a novel in which we are treated to all the novelties of the freak-show trade: mermen and women, intelligent horses, small gentlemen of Scotland, not four feet high and with long and yellow teeth. All these are the curiosities of the fashionable for a brief spell. Among themselves, the subjects dream eagerly of wonders they have heard of: mattresses and quilts filled with feathers and swansdown; looking-glasses surmounted by gilded swans; consoles...
(The entire section is 724 words.)
SOURCE: “For Strong Stomachs Only,” in Spectator, Vol. 281, No. 8875, September 12, 1998, pp. 41–2.
[In the following positive review of The Giant, O'Brien, Waugh praises Mantel's storytelling ability.]
Hilary Mantel's new novel The Giant, O'Brien is about an 18th-century Irish giant. The heart, then, may well sink at the prospect of some fey, quasi-magical fantasy; but there is nothing fey about Mantel. On the contrary, her imagination encompasses the outright revolting, the pustular, the crapulent, the violent. I asked myself as I read on, my stomach churning, the bile rising in my gullet, whether this is any better than the quaint fantasy I feared. But such is Mantel's miraculous command of language and so extraordinary her ability to tell a story that, after the first few puzzling pages, she had me in her power, torn between nausea and fascination.
Charles O'Brien is a real giant—a gentle giant who entertains his uncouth Irish friends with story-telling in a rough hut on a hill. One day he decides that he must earn a living by the means most readily available to him—that is to say, by exhibiting his height. With this in mind, he hires the odious, slimy Joe Vance as his agent to take him to London, there to exhibit him as a freak. Vance and the giant set off with a handful of rogues—half-witted Jankin, Claffey and Pybus—for companions.
(The entire section is 698 words.)
SOURCE: “Freak Anatomist,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 20, No. 19, October 1, 1998, pp. 9–10.
[In the following review, Mullan regards The Giant, O'Brien as historical fiction.]
In the Council Room of the Royal College of Surgeons hangs the portrait by Joshua Reynolds of the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. It has been much darkened by the bitumen content of Reynolds's paint, and restoration work in the Fifties has not been able to prevent the fading into the surrounding gloom of many of its supporting details. Only Hunter's face, once bathed in light, is still fairly clear. One can just make out that he is depicted at his writing table, caught, we are to imagine, in the midst of his thoughts. We cannot be shown his actual researches (it took Hogarth and Rowlandson to stoop, with the satirist's relish, to the horrors of the anatomy room). Rather, we are to see the enlightenment to which the researches led. Hunter's left hand is held pensively to his chin and his eyes look up, far over the viewer's head, apparently seeing only his new knowledge of Nature's works.
We can recover the details from the surrounding darkness. William Sharp, a friend of Hunter, made an engraving from the painting in 1788, soon after it was finished, and there is also a small, fine-enamel-on-copper copy by Henry Bone, made ten years later. From these we can see more clearly not...
(The entire section is 2680 words.)
SOURCE: “Hilary Mantel: The Novelist in Action,” in Publishers Weekly, October 5, 1998, pp. 60–1.
[In the following essay, Richardson overviews Mantel's life and career.]
In the late 1970s, Hilary Mantel traveled to Botswana with her husband, a geologist employed by the government geological survey. On a card table on a verandah covered with bougainvillea, using a portable typewriter frequently choked with dust from the Kalahari desert, she turned out two drafts of a first novel, a 350,000-word account of the French Revolution.
Mantel has been using a word processor since the mid-1980s, but she still works from notes written in unlikely places, at bus stops and on station platforms and trains. “I always work outside, if I can,” she says. “It's important to grab the instant thought.”
It's a technique very much in keeping with the peripatetic imagination that fuels her sharply observed novels. Mantel is an especially difficult writer to categorize, for, as Michael Upchurch pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle, she “reinvents herself from scratch from book to book,” and her eight novels span a remarkable range, from black comedy to historical fiction and social realism. Taxed with what must be a publicist's nightmare, Mantel explains that however different her subject matter, the style and the idea of each book always come to her as one...
(The entire section is 2098 words.)
SOURCE: “To the Pith of London's Heart,” in New York Review of Books, October 8, 1998, pp. 12–15.
[In the following favorable review, Bayley compares Mantel's historical imagination and narrative style to Sir Walter Scott, Jonathan Swift, and Peter Ackroyd.]
Inveterate novel-readers, not a common tribe today, can still be both fascinated and comforted by a vision of history, and by a novel confident enough to supply one. Sir Walter Scott's is still a potent spirit, although his novels, once in the background of every literate mind that loved the past, may nowadays hardly be read. He handed on the torch to unlikely runners: Virginia Woolf for instance, who in Orlando and Between the Acts strove to visualize history in feminine terms, in records not researched but imagined, in moments that once collapsed into nothing, as our own are doing now from day to day, in mute lives in the shadow of fame, like those of Shakespeare's sister or King James's drowned apple-woman.
Hilary Mantel's historical imagination has the same sort of bizarre sharpness. In her earlier brilliant novel, A Place of Greater Safety (1992), she glimpsed the events of the French Revolution not as an orderly procession of riots, meetings, guillotinings, the fall of one faction and the rise of another, but as a state of mind that stirred the blood, as it stirred the blood and produced that...
(The entire section is 3314 words.)
Barron, James. A review of A Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel. New Statesman & Society 7, No. 294 (18 March 1994): 56–7.
Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 64, No. 1 (Winter 1997): 43-45.
In this excerpt, Bell considers Mantel's narrative technique in An Experiment in Love.
Cohen, Bertram. A review of The Giant, O'Brien, by Hilary Mantel. British Medical Journal 317, No. 7171 (28 November 1998): 1533.
Asserts that “this book has to be classed as an unusually disappointing potboiler depending, it would seem, on the outlandish and the macabre to attract a readership.”
Craig, Patricia. “Belfast Book.” London Review of Books 8, No. 10 (5 June 1986): 19.
Favorable assessment of Vacant Possessions.
Cunningham, Valentine. “The Burdens of Eve.” Observer (4 May 1986): 23.
Describes Vacant Possession as “a zippy satire of current Welfare State ills and nonsenses felicitously joins forces with the old-fashioned horrors of a well-arranged spine-chiller.”
Greenwell, Bill. “Laugh?” New Statesman 111 (30 May 1986): 27–30.
Praises the satirical qualities of Vacant...
(The entire section is 249 words.)