Hilary Mantel Criticism - Essay

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...

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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 printed...

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Margaret Walters (review date 21 April 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 for footsteps, watches, thinks she hears someone crying, believes someone is being kept prisoner there; the mysterious flat becomes the centre of her life, her sexual fantasies, her intense baffled curiosity about the country she's hardly living in. But then a visiting Englishman, stumbling drunkenly up to the roof, meets a visitor to the flat—and is killed almost at once in a car accident. It becomes increasingly clear that Frances's curiosity is putting her in danger, that the flat is the centre of a plot that involves real violence. But she can't read the clues. So what might be a thriller, turns inevitably, cleverly, inward, and we're left with Frances's discovery that in a country where she has no language she's nothing, ‘whited-out … the negative of myself’.

Hugh Barnes (review date 1 May 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anita Brookner (review date 14 May 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Adam Mars-Jones (review date 20 May 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Lindsay Duguid (review date 8 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nicci Gerrard (review date 15 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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P. N. Furbank (review date 20 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Coward (review date 28 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Saynor (review date 30 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brian Morton (review date 4 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nigel Spivey (review date 5 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Kate Kellaway (essay date 13 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Kemp (review date 25 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”...

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Anita Brookner (review date 26 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anna Vaux (review date 28 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Judy Cooke (review date 24 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Julia O'Faolain (review date 24 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anita Brookner (review date 4 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dinah Birch (review date 9 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gabriele Annan (review date 8 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charlotte Innes (review date 14 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Baumann (review date 5 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Nokes (review date 4 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Teresa Waugh (review date 12 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Mullan (review date 1 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Jean Richardson (essay date 5 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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John Bayley (review date 8 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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