Hilary Mantel Criticism

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Christopher Hawtree (review date 29 March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 appears to contain ghostly presences: “it was here, a little removed yet concurrent; each day some limb of the supernatural reached out to pluck you by the clothes”; these subdued but powerful demonic forces are matched by the creaking, insidious machinations of the Social Services. After a series of excruciating letters from Luther King House, the tormented Muriel found herself on regular visits to a Day Centre, where she was treated to the rigours of basket-making and discovered, on one therapeutic expedition, the joys of shoplifting. Happily for all concerned, a bureaucratic upheaval has enabled the smiling, mysteriously impregnated Muriel to return to the darkness of her mother's ministrations.

All might have been well had not the file come before Isabel Field, a social worker so dedicated to her job that she attends evening classes in writing so that she is better able to express herself. “The sort of writing I want to do is the sort that will force me to become a tax-exile,” thinks an embittered, drearily-married history-teacher, Colin Sidney, as he listens to the encircling chat about fairy stories, “Humour in Uniform” and articles on mushrooms for The Edible World.

His inevitable liaison makes its furtive, wretched progress, Muriel's child grows beneath the billowing gowns which Evelyn provides, and Every Day Is Mother's Day takes off into a dizzying number of scenes whose ironic juxtaposition is made all the more entertaining by the malevolent eye with which each locale is observed. Suburban housing-estates, obnoxious children, squalid pubs, rebarbative mechanics and ignorant literati (“intellectually speaking, it's a case of fur coat and no knickers”) are weighed and found wanting. Everything works towards a hideous, murderous conclusion. Colin's son is left to make repeated banshee wails which any amount of Souza on the gramophone will not drown. This is hell, nor are they out of it. One relishes the prospect of Hilary Mantel's devising further tortures for them.

Harriet Waugh (review date 13 April 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 33,784 words.)