Christopher Hawtree (review date 29 March 1985)

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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...

(The entire section contains 33784 words.)

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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)

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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 argued that the seeds of their fates have already been planted before Herry's arrival. The action covers 20 years, and is moved forward by each member of the family in turn. The only character not given a voice is Miss Herring herself.

With the exception of Justus, who is horrid, and Eleanor, the mother, who is jealous, every member of the family, including Father, agrees that Herry is wonderful. Each believes that they have a special relationship with her. As Herry gives love and admonishes with an even hand, she never utters an untrite sentiment. She is, in fact, everything a family governess should be. Why, then, should each child's life—with the exception of the cold-hearted Justus—be blighted before they are safely launched on the world? Is Herry an evil woman, as Justus—who sums up his family's history—believes, or is she—as I believed on closing the book—too good?

Parents are rarely ideal. It is possible to argue that children discover their own strengths and weaknesses by contending with the natures of their parents. It could therefore follow that if the central force in a child's life was all wise and loving, the child might suffer an identity crisis and find it impossible to turn away from the hearthside paragon to embrace a less than ideal world. That is what I considered to be the theme of Patricia Angadi's novel, and very entertaining it is too.

She writes with a fine recall of the minutiae of nursery childhood with its pleasures, unhappiness and security, but her skill lies in undercutting the sentiment with an indication of the abyss round which the family hovers. As Justin sees it, bottled happiness is dispensed by Herry long after the natural variety of mother's milk has dried up in Eleanor. Without being aware of what is happening, the children gradually turn the light of their regard and expectation away from their mother towards Herry. One of the tantalising questions left unanswered is whether Herry knows of the effect she is having. Disappointment in her, if you can call it that, comes too late to save them. Left to the selfish love of their mother at an earlier age, they might have done well enough.

This is the most enjoyable new novel I have read this year, and it is considerate of Mrs Angadi, who is married to an Indian, not to have launched her talent on yet another Anglo-Indian masterpiece.

Every Day Is Mother's Day by Hilary Mantel, although less dismaying, is considerably more gloomy. The gloom comes from the fact that the situation of each of the characters is dire and the characters themselves never, for one moment, suppose it can be anything else. The lack of dismay in the reader, given this situation, is accounted for by the fact that none of these charmless characters is likeable. They are an emotionally impoverished lot, making the worst of their lower-middle-class life-style. Madness and badness lurk just below the surface despair, and become personified in the forms of an elderly widow and her retarded daughter who live a fearful life in a decaying house in a middle-class street. Evelyn, the mother, whose dead husband preyed on little girls, is slowly going crazy. The rooms of the house threaten. Things gibber in the wainscoting. Her half-witted daughter has secrets—she can write, for instance, but Evelyn does not know this. Strange, hateful messages are found in unlikely places. She is also pregnant. The girl from the social services fails to cope with, or comprehend, the situation. She has her own problems—a drunken father and a depressing affair with a depressed married schoolmaster.

Although this is a comedy, the humour, which is bleak, never lightens into fun. It relies for its effects on shock and caricature. The world that Hilary Mantel presents is a claustrophobic, unenticing one. However, once one's resistance to entering it has been overcome, some of the scenes are good, even funny, and it has a nicely creepy climax.

Margaret Walters (review date 21 April 1988)

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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)

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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 women in neighbouring apartments recall the chatter of Penelope Gilliatt's Istanbul, and are just as unpromising, always returning to the inevitable arguments about the effect of the publicity concerning two famous deaths, of a Princess who was executed by stoning and of an English nurse who fell from a balcony one night.

Frances loses weight, presumably due to stress, and sets off on a second, interior journey which allows Mantel to pass some telling remarks about the illusions travel has a tendency to foster. It occurs to Frances that getting away is always an interesting failure: ‘old habits which you thought you have left behind in one country catch up with you in the next, the old problems resurface.’

Later, when she overhears footsteps (or thinks she does) and muffled sounds of grief coming from the empty room above, Frances turns her attention to local habits, scandals and cover-ups. Dark plots unravel, in the way of a thriller, and threaten to embrace the polite Englishwoman whose eight months in Jeddah have been spent as a virtual prisoner, someone locked out rather than locked in, ‘the negative of myself.’ Mantel has written an elegant and disturbing account of the changes wrought by alienation.

Anita Brookner (review date 14 May 1988)

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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 scorches past on the freeway, and the heat and dust are so oppressive that, even if it were permitted, walking would be hazardous. For fresh air she has to go up to the roof, and from the roof she can see the balcony of the flat immediately below, which she is told is empty.

Her neighbours are Yasmin, a Pakistani girl married to Raji, a fixer and something of a bon viveur, and Samira, who wears jeans under her abaya. These ladies offer instant coffee in their apartments which come complete with chandeliers and flock wallpaper. Both their marriages were arranged, but they are too delicate to discuss their marital affairs: the Koran keeps them dutiful and propagandist, and if they refer to ‘conflicts’ they are not specific. When Frances mentions that there are noises coming from the empty flat upstairs they defuse the conversation by telling her that no English girl over the age of 12 is a virgin. Yasmin, having lived in St John's Wood for 18 months, knows this for a fact.

Frances, with too much time on her hands, keeps a diary and entertains other members of the expatriate community, boorish men who know their way around and their lethargic or officious wives. All are in this horrible place because they are earning a great deal of money, although not so much as they would have done when the oil business was booming and marble clad buildings of ideological magnificence were going up every minute. The buildings are still going up but it now seems doubtful that they will be completed. Drink, of course, is banned, although everyone seems to have an illicit still. It is not advisable to ask questions, get into conversations, or in any way infringe the rules.

In the empty days Frances’ thoughts turn to the upstairs flat, which she assumes is being used as a love-nest by two people whom she never meets. Yasmin's maid is seen taking in food. The possibility that Yasmin is entertaining a lover, both of whom would be killed if they were discovered, cannot be ruled out, although Yasmin herself is a fundamentalist and speaks of taking to the veil, an unusual step for a woman with a progressive husband. A large packing-case appears in Yasmin's doorway: for some of Raji's things, it is explained. But the packing-case is next seen on the balcony of the empty flat. Then Frances speculates that the hideaway may be political. Dream-like comings and goings—of the landlord, of builders—complicate the mystery. And one day Frances intercepts a visitor on the stairs and feels against her hands the barrel of a gun.

It all gets much worse and it would be unfair to give away the details. I doubt, in any case, whether they are easy to describe. An impenetrable air of mystery hangs over the whole affair. Who caused the death of the air-conditioning expert from England? What is in the packing-case? Who was in the empty flat? Why is everything kept secret, especially from the reader? How does one get out of the place without an exit visa? Why does Frances consent to being passively moved to a villa on a deserted compound? Andrew's contract runs out in July, but will they ever manage to get home? All these questions are unanswered, and in the meantime Frances becomes more and more inert, sitting on the patio in 100-degree heat, and no longer thinking of England and the flat they will buy with all the money they have saved.

The story is told very calmly, even flatly, by a narrator who has driven her heroine into all sorts of trouble and refuses to get her out again. Hilary Mantel has lived in Saudi Arabia and presumably knows what she is talking about. The stoical Frances, not quite the naive protagonist who usually features in fictions of this type, gives little away; even her diary is uninteresting. Everything is withheld. This tightness of control is perhaps the novel's eeriest feature. That and the nightmare of a city bristling with vacant lots, screaming tyres, cats with their fur torn away, and the ever-present penalties. The overriding boredom leeches away emotion, and this pervades the authorial voice, which is even and slightly monotonous. But the sheer fact of sustaining the mystery to the very end is brilliantly carried out. Readers looking for the manic black humour of Every Day Is Mother's Day may be disappointed by Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, but they will certainly be impressed.

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 20 May 1988)

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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. Newspapers like the Saudi Gazette print not problem pages, but pages of instruction on how women should please their husbands, so that problems never arise.

Mantel stacks the odds against her heroine by giving her a husband who empathizes with her only when his resistance breaks down. Francés is excluded by gender from the culture of her host country, and by temperament from the expatriate community, whose currencies are gossip and received opinion. The men are generally sexist, and the women generally trivial enough almost to deserve them.

Frances is restricted to a flat in a block that the Shores nickname Dunroamin; they have no European neighbours. Even after Andrew has stopped locking her in the flat by reflex when he leaves for work, she spends almost all her time there. From the very narrow range of France's view on the world Mantel is able to work prodigies of observation. She wrings comic and eerie moments from the slightest change of weather or perspective, like the view from the roof of Dunroamin: “Thirty feet down a striped cat lay, looking up; its eyes gazed into hers, offended. The cat should be above her, looking down; that was nature. Morning haze hung over the building sites, and gilded the scaffolding, like a veil over bones.”

On a shopping trip, Frances buys some bargain non-stick pans that turn out to be made of a material called Saudiflon. When she attempts a dinner party, the Saudiflon moults black flakes on to the food. When Andrew says they should have a permanent base, at their age, something to show for the years of service, she tells him things aren't so bad—after all, they still have their Saudiflon pans. At moment's like these, Frances and her creator show what they can extract from unpromising materials. What comes across just as strongly, though, is a sense of bafflement, not just the character's bafflement at the artificial purdah in which she finds herself, but the novelist's frustration at having boxed herself in with such integrity.

The only technical tremor in the book is Mantel's occasional use of Andrew's point of view, or an impersonal narration, to complement France's view of things. These passages are like narrow mirrors hung side by side, and at only a fractionally different angle from each other; they offer little additional information, and they distract from France's central point of view, by which the book stands or falls.

Mantel seems to recognize this by constructing a plot, about goings-on in a supposedly empty flat in Dunroamin, that only Frances of the Europeans is astute enough to interpret. Her female perceptions are vindicated, but she cannot follow them through to a conclusion. The result is an uncharacteristically febrile passage of attempted resolution:

Frances didn't reply. She felt too tired to think about it any more. Life is not like detective stories. There is a wider scope for interpretation. The answers to all the questions that beset you are not in facts, which are the greatest illusion of all, but in your heart, in your own habits, in your limitations, in your fear. …

This strikes a slightly false note, by seeking to generalize from France's perceptions, when the novel has done such a good job of showing her trapped in their particularity, all but convinced of their irrelevance. If Eight Months on Ghazzah Street fails to deliver the goods as a novel, it is a robust and even an enviable failure, which conveys a strong sense of its infinitely alien subject.

Lindsay Duguid (review date 8 September 1989)

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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 Mass: “I can well understand if you think Latin's too good for them. But the problem I have here is their little grasp of the English language, do you see.”

Hilary Mantel's portrayal of the outlandish nature of Fetherhoughton is beautifully straight-faced, and she moves in on the primitive nature of its rites without hesitation. The garish iconography of the saints and the Crucifixion will be familiar to those brought up as Roman Catholics—only just believable to others. Her method is to pick up the outward signs of inward doubt, the emblems of disappointment or misdirected energies: the “music-hall medievalism” of the church of St Thomas Aquinas, which is designed to look as though it is 300 years older than it is, or the type of slipper—fur trimming sodden with chip fat—favoured by the would-be glamorous women of the town. She gives the words chanted by the undernourished children in their strange ritual games (“Touch my shoulder, touch my knee. Pray to God it won't be me”) and distinguishes the different yellows of the donkey stones used to clean the doorsteps in a vain battle against grime. Above all, Mantel almost relishes the pointless burdens of convent life: appalling food, no mirrors, no scissors, lace-up shoes, hacked-off hair, a red line left on the forehead by the starched headdress. She deftly sketches in the home background—the stigmata which turned out to be dermatitis, an aunt thrown out by the nuns and gone to the bad—of young Sister Philomena, who is to be redeemed.

For into this grossly material world is introduced a story of hope and illumination. Young Father Fludd, the mysterious but appealing curate, arrives on a stormy night and eats and drinks without consuming anything. Fludd is a transforming power (a note in the novel informs us that the historical Fludd was an alchemist); he is both angel and devil, capable of generating warmth in midwinter and bringing about the spying Purpit's death (she's consumed by fire). Fludd helps Philomena to flee the convent and together they celebrate a sacramental dinner in the Royal and North-western Hotel, Manchester. As the hotel's ecclesiastical aura (a reception desk like a mahogany altar, a purple, shiny quilt suitable for a Papal legate) also indicates, the spiritual and the secular are inextricably mixed, no matter how hard religion tries to keep them separate. Philomena's apotheosis at the railway station is at once prosaic and awesome.

Mantel's flexible, ornamented style, full of mock-solemn adjurations to the reader and exact imitations of catechism, liturgy and hymn, can easily take in both the bizarre nature of everyday life and the simplicity of mystical events. By keeping the important distinction between faith and form firmly in mind, she contrives a novel that is both funny and moving.

Nicci Gerrard (review date 15 September 1989)

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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 than she had ever allowed herself to realise. She mixes with and is a match for TV programme makers, feminist groups and poets. In her middle-age, Nell suddenly “wants more than just making do.”

All You Need is busy with dialogue and firm with precise event and location, like the storm of autumn 1987 that uprooted trees all over England, or the Stock Exchange crash. Nell moves from publishers’ parties (where Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter drink red plonk) to family therapy clinics; she plays detective among the asset strippers in their Porsches and meets Private Eye victims. Behind the satire is an anger: London is dirty and downtrodden, full of greedy people and seedy conspiracies. There is a hidden Britain where thousands of women spend years of their lives bringing up ingrate offspring and find out, too late, that “making do” is not all you need. The novel has focus, energy and commitment. Perhaps it is churlish to miss the elegiac notes that make Elaine Feinstein's earlier works so haunting.

In contrast to All You Need, Hilary Mantel's fictional world of Featherhoughton [in Fludd] pulls free from an anchorage of facts and wallows instead in a ground sticky with mad detail. Father Angwin, parish priest in the northern mill town, is beset with spiritual and quotidian perplexities. His parishioners are sub-literate and violent; his housekeeper bullies him; the brutal convent superior Mother Pepetua is his sworn enemy; the novitiate Philomena asks him unsettling questions in the confessional (does the devil wear plaid trews? Can pastry-making lead you into sin?); the ever-courteous tobacconist smells of sulphur.

Worst of all, his boisterous and offensive bishop is threatening to drag him into the ecumenical pragmatism of the 1950s. Angwin isn't sure about God anymore, but he knows that thoughts run under prayers like wires underground, and that the air is packed with discarnate spirits “like flies on a hot August day.” Then Fludd arrives. Fludd is a curate sent to assist Angwin—or is he? Loving beauty and language, sowing scandal and unrest in Feather-houghton, might he not be the devil?

Fludd is a quaint and lovely novel, thick with images and angry jubilant characters who defy the authority of a finger-wagging God and his “pork-butcher” bishop and choose mystery and unholy expectations. It doesn't only believe in miracles; it believes in happy endings.

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

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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 individuals in whose mind half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman or rather fifty—whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force—and even then it's all humbug.

The case against the historical novel could hardly be better put; and faced with Hilary Mantel's latest work, a mammoth 870-page-long novel set in the French Revolution, one is inclined to ask oneself some general questions: as, for instance, whether Henry James wasn't right about the genre, or whether perhaps reading too much Henry James hasn't given one a prejudice, or whether it is a genre at all and not, rather, several.

Evidently, a first distinction has to be made between a ‘period’ novel—like Hardy's The Trumpet-Major, shall we say, or on a much larger scale Henry Esmond—in which the ‘great’ and the makers of history have merely a walk-on part (playing themselves, as it were), and a novel which takes such figures for its central focus and aspires to reinterpret them. Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety evidently falls into the second class, her protagonists being Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins, together with Desmoulins's wife Lucile. Out of her novelist's imagination she has lavishly furnished these personages with passions and motives and emotional entanglements; and since they, as much any individuals can be said to be, were the makers of the French Revolution, she must be said to be rewriting the Revolution (whereas Thackeray was not trying to rewrite the War of the Spanish Succession).

This leads to a second question: what have historical novels to do with historiography? Or to put it another way, would Mantel be happy to have her book thought of simply as a ‘historical romance', akin to those biographies romancées of Emil Ludwig (Bismarck, Napoleon, Michelangelo) which found favour in the Twenties and Thirties. The wording of her Author's Note seems, if guardedly, to claim more:

This is a novel about the French Revolution. Almost all the characters in it are real people and it is closely tied to historical facts—as far as those facts are agreed, which isn't really very far … My main characters were not famous until the Revolution made them so, and not much is known about their early lives. I have used what there is, and made educated guesses about the rest … I am very conscious that a novel is a co-operative effort, a joint venture between writer and reader … I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside.

Now, of course, there is no intrinsic incompatibility between novel-writing and history-writing. Walter Scott was an admirable historian—here indeed lay most of his strength. A case can be made, too, for saying that Flaubert, in L'Education sentimentale, was a better historical thinker—showed a more advanced grasp of historical causation—than Michelet or Acton. On the other hand, one cannot imagine Flaubert writing historical romance—peering into the boudoir or the private consciousness of Louis-Philippe and Louis Blanc, of Guizot and of Lamartine, as a way of writing history.

One may go back to Henry James. For what balances James's scorn for the historical novel was an evidently quite passionate longing to write one. (It was not for nothing that, when his mind was wandering during his last illness, he dictated imaginary letters from Napoleon to his family.) Were he to attempt such a novel, he felt, it would have to deal with a not-too-distant past, one with which he might hope to make a genuine connection: ‘I delight,’ he once wrote, ‘in a palpable imaginable visitable past.’ But even then, for such a hater of escamotage and cheating, so great a fanatic for ‘the real thing', the enterprise seemed hopeless. Then he had an inspiration. He would create a hero, a young American writer in England, who both passionately desires and admits the entire impossibility of true commerce with the past, doing so with such purity—‘He wanted the unimaginable accidents, the little notes of truth for which the common lens of history, however the scowling muse might bury her nose, was not sufficiently fine'—that he is granted the right to go beyond imagining and step physically into the past, his own past, just after the Napoleonic wars. James's historical novel The Sense of the Past turns out a very odd one, with no postchaises or lamplighters or encounters with Castlereagh or Cobbett. It is entirely concerned with hermeneutics—with how the hero learns to orient himself in the past by listening to people's tones of voice and making on-the-spot use of a historian's skills.

In the historical novels that one most admires the problem that Henry James here solves in fantasy has been answered in one way or another: I mean of how to preserve a place for the modern consciousness in the narrative and to make plain the thread connecting the writer to the bygone scene. What is impressive and winning in Scott's Waverley is exactly his handling of the logic of ‘period’. The novel's subtitle is ‘Tis Sixty Years Since', meaning that it is written in 1805 and deals with the year of the ’45 Rebellion; but the shift of viewpoint from 1805 to 1745 is no greater than the symbolic time-shift, or rather series of time-shifts, experienced by the hero Waverley as he moves on horseback from the modernity of Hampshire to Edinburgh, and then to Tully Veolan in highland Perthshire, and then across a great mountain-barrier, which is also a time-barrier, into the Highlands proper. Scott gains by this the right to cunning ambiguities of historical viewpoint, as when he writes, ‘The Baron of Bradwardine, mounted on an active and well-managed horse, and seated on a demi-pique saddle, with deep housing to agree with his livery, was no bad representation of the old school'—leaving it to us to decipher what ‘old school’ this is, or for whom. Much of the force of The French Lieutenant's Woman, again, lies in the contrivances by which the 19th-century hero Charles is furnished with the eye of a 20th-century social historian. As for Thackeray in Esmond, the thread of connection is here not a logical one, as with Waverley, but it is just as unmistakable—a matter of masterly ‘cheating’ and getting of the best of both worlds, telling a 19th-century tale under an 18th-century cover. (For an utterly anarchic historical novel, making its time-leaps according to no known rules, I recommend Patricia Beer's engaging Moon's Ottery.)

So one looks for the thread connecting the writer of A Place of Greater Safety to the French Revolution, and at first sight at least it is hard to identify. Mantel has her characters talk in 1990s idiom. (‘“Don't be snide,” Brissot said gently. There was impatience in the faint lines around his eyes.’) They are very Christian-namey: it is all ‘Max’ and ‘Camille’ and ‘George-Jacques’ between them. They are profane, in today's style. Once Lucile Desmoulins ‘might have said the prayers for the dead. Now she thought, what the fuck's the use, it's the living I have to worry about.’) Plainly, Mantel does this to avoid ‘tushery', in the Thackeray and Bulwer Lytton manner, and so far, so good. It is, you may say, a good working convention, like Shakespearean blank verse. Yes, but blank verse is a ‘timeless’ convention (relatively so, anyway), whereas these 1990s speech-conventions carry with them a swarm of time-bound historical implications. Thus you look to see these implications put to work, to make some significant historical point.

For there is no doubt, a price has had to be paid for them. For long, the amateur historian in ourself has been meaning to study such things as the history of Christian-naming and swearing, a history in which no doubt the French Revolution played its part. It would be interesting to study the very significant transition, during the 18th century, from blasphemous swearing to sexual: the change took place both in France and in Britain, but certainly not in the same manner. Social historians like Richard Cobb have done such amazing work on the French Revolution, studying the minutest lineaments of ‘the real thing', that one begins to look for their sort of history in a historical novel and to feel thwarted when such topics are ruled out of court by the very terms of the enterprise.

Preoccupation with ‘the real thing', authenticity, the hardly capturable tone and mental set of the Revolution might be thought a Jamesian obsession, out of place here, but I think not quite fairly. For the point is, we still care deeply about the French Revolution; many of us have not made up our minds about it, indeed are still under its influence; so that how Desmoulins and Robespierre and Danton ‘really’ talked and behaved is a matter of concern for us. (Matters would be different with a novel about the Punic Wars, for it is nice to know what to think about Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, but it will hardly change our life.)

Consider, then, an example of what, in the line of ‘educated guesses', Mantel has allowed herself to do. The novel's chosen ‘hero', in the old-fashioned sense, seems to be Camille Desmoulins (he who, with his impromptu speech on a café table near the Palais Royal, gave the signal for the storming of the Bastille). She has fallen for Desmoulins, as everyone tends to, including oneself. Even the dyspeptic Carlyle had a soft spot for him: ‘he with the long curling locks; with the face of dingy blackguardism, wondrously irradiated with genius, as if a naphtha-lamp burnt within it.’ To make him more poignantly interesting she has supplied him with a homosexual past. It is made clear he had a liaison with the middle-aged lawyer.

David Coward (review date 28 August 1992)

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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 September massacres—occur off stage. There are no battles and few speeches; mainly there are words. Spoken in anger, regret, love, betrayal, and usually within four domestic walls, words are the real heroes and villains of the tale. Camille lobs them at the rabble from his soap-box in the Palais Royal, or seasons them with dreams and malice for the newspapers which created a novelty: political opinion. Danton spends them like a sailor. Robespierre measures them like an apothecary preparing a potion. Words are generous ideas before they harden into labels: “citizen” and “patriot” raise increasingly sinister cheers, but “aristocrat,” “enemy of the Republic,” “suspect” lead directly to Dr Guillotin's killing machine. Words, said Hitler, build bridges to unexplored regions. Here they connect not with the millennium but with the place of greater safety which Camille soberingly identifies as the grave.

Lawyers do not often make sympathetic heroes, and Mantel's trio are no exception. But liking or disliking is hardly the point. Intelligent and comfortably middle-class (apart from the odd nocturnal raid and one “greedy, proletarian kiss,” the rabble are kept at arm's length), they despise the ineptitude of the ancien régime and dream dreams which they cannot control. Justice turns to Terror, democracy becomes the will of the junta and the freedom of the individual is suspended in the name of Liberty for all. The unstable Camille is the arch destabilizer. Danton, who likes money, believes at least half of what he says, while Robespierre says nothing he does not mean. Regularly at odds in public, they remain loyal to the friendship which binds them together until the Revolution ceases to have anything to do with loyalty or even humanity and becomes the exercise of naked power. Camille is regularly rescued from his own excesses by Danton, a roaring, gutsy man and the supreme political manager, and Robespierre, the icy puritan. But ultimately they are devoured by the Revolution they had done so much to make.

Mantel refuses to judge them, yet she goes out of her way to understand Robespierre, the tormented idealist. Idealists make bad revolutionaries, for they are pure and will kill for an idea. Cynics will prefer the likes of Mirabeau and Danton: expecting the worst from life's cavaliers is much safer than hoping for the best from the roundheads. Perhaps this is how we should read the ending which denies Robespierre his last big scene. The curtain falls in April 1794 with the execution of Camille and Danton, three months before Robespierre, sinking ever deeper into a murderous, secular religiosity, was himself beheaded. Or should we conclude that what died that April was his last link with the generous spirit of 1789? The rest would then be history.

Curiously, we are not given the rest. The premature guillotining of events may well puzzle readers unaware of how soon the bubble was to burst. But Mantel's grasp both of detail and the complex sweep of events is quite remarkable. There are occasional problems with continuity (whatever happens to Laclos?) and a few awkward moments (“I'm Barnave, you may have heard of me”), but “her people” are firmly rooted in physical and historical reality.

In any case, the real strengths of A Place of Greater Safety lie elsewhere, in an imaginative involvement which creates a tragedy of disillusionment as intense on the private as on the public level. Little is known of the personal lives of most revolutionary leaders before 1789, and after they became famous, they lived constantly in the public eye. Yet Mantel has managed to get inside them by feeling her way through their writings, families and, quite brilliantly, their women. Poor Gabrielle Danton, miserably pregnant and out of her depth, and intelligent, bruisable Lucile Desmoulins, are especially vibrant, and a clutch of hungry females stand poised to engulf the surprisingly but plausibly motherable Robespierre. Like the few women who made their own bids for power—Madame Roland and Théroigne de Méricourt—they taste the bitterness of despair as love and hope turn to blood.

The plot is, of course, predictable—History got there first—but it is overlaid with crafty tensions, twists and high drama. Snippets of letters, first-person interventions, fierce exchanges and highly charged confrontations are woven into a pacy collage which smoothes the passage of time and provides an admirable outlet for the detached irony which sets the tone both of the narration and the spiky-sharp dialogue. In the lulls, Ms Mantel turns on a bravura display of her endlessly inventive, eerily observant style.

James Saynor (review date 30 August 1992)

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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 ridicule, recalling as it does the bathos of Monty Python. But that's just because we're prisoners of a schoolroom vision which sees history as a pageant of strutting and bombast—novels like this seem to argue—instead of on a properly human scale.

Mantel presents a Jeffrey Archer-ish saga of three precocious pals making their ways in the world and finding precarious room at the top. The inky-fingered Camille Desmoulins is a lively charmer with a stutter. Georges Danton is a craggily magnetic wheeler-dealer with the hots for Camille's wife and questionable allegiance to the high moral values of the Revolution. Max Robespierre is a mild-mannered odd-bod and orange-addict who abjured women on the grounds that they blunt his revolutionary instrument. Nevertheless, as Danton observes, ‘he has his moments, does Maximilien’.

Little attempt is made to penetrate the turbid pathology of the Mob. The Terror is soberly enough drawn, but never fully felt. Characters sometimes mouth an amalgam of modern and antique vernacular (‘I wouldn't go marketing that epigram, if I were you, Monsieur’), though more often get by in pure Waitrose-ese (‘God above … if there's one thing I loathe, its an obstetric drama …’).

Mantel charts with much skill the slow spread of corruption and opportunism among the troubled triumvirate, leading to Robespierre's eventual decision to put the other two in the past tense. But this novel falls in an unfortunate gap between history-writing and fiction-writing: the fiction wouldn't have any compulsion without the history, and the history wouldn't be justifiable unless it were packaged within the soap-operatic fiction.

Brian Morton (review date 4 September 1992)

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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 schoolroom with Robespierre at Louis-le-Grand, stuttered furiously in speech and in print (as an only intermittently successful journalist) and ended the saga pleading for a Committee of Mercy as the tumbrils began to roll. Michelet called him le prôneur habituel, which will do very well for the historical Desmoulins.

Mantel fills him out with a savage tongue and an indiscriminate taste for boys. Carlyle turned him into a foil for the shaggy, brass-lunged hulk that was Danton, giving him a “face of dingy blackguardism, wondrously irradiated with genius, as if a naphtha lamp burned within it … one of the sprightliest clearest souls in all these millions … [that] headlong lightly sparkling man.” All of which makes him sound not just paradoxical, but like a good wine for salmon.

Desmoulins’ ability to leap out of his element is perhaps the most convincing evidence for a construction of 1789 as the brief and pyrrhic triumph of a craft class, rather than a general emancipation. It's clear that head-hunting of a more innocuous sort began early, long before the axes began to rise and fall. There is a kind of “dingy black-guardism” around Desmoulins, qualified by the sense that he was brought to the fore to serve specific interests.

That aspect of the Revolution Mantel conveys very well indeed; as a power struggle, it has rarely been more convincingly portrayed. What doubts there are relate to the means and manner of her telling, rather than her recasting of Revolutionary childhoods in psychoanalytic moulds borrowed from Nietzsche and Melanie Klein.

As in a TV soap, the impression of intimacy and immediacy runs in inverse proportion to the speed and detachment of the narrative. There are moments when the novel reads like a mid-point between a gigantic, over-worked film treatment and a pared-down shooting-script. Narrative transitions are signalled by a name, a place or a date followed by a colon, and one almost expects to come across directions like “INTERIOR. DAY.” or “POV shot: DESMOULINS.”

Point-of-view is mostly externalised, but the focus is carefully limited and mediated by actual events; no one is allowed to perceive more than is already known. There is nothing improbable about early contacts between the foremost revolutionaries. Law was a small craft-world and, with general male life expectancy hovering around 30, reputations were made and bruited about quickly.

There are slight but jarring oddities in the text. The Desmoulins’ house in the Place des Armes is described as “tall, white book-filled” on page 41 and “tall, white, book-filled” on page 42, as if Mantel has just cured herself of Carlyle's aversion to commas. As to whether the voices “speak directly from their century to ours”—not always in strict comfort. When Desmoulins throws away a line like “people cannot bear too much reality,” he's presumably not aware he is alluding to Burnt Norton; if the idea has a contemporary provenance, it might have been better to avoid a red herring.

Well substantiated as most of the material is, there is still some residual tosh, such as Robespierre's green eyes. And there are moments when contemporary parallels are pushed a little too hard, as with the Prince's trumpeted eagerness to pay his poll tax and the images of a capital city white with builders’ dust. Some of the dialogue falls a little stiffly, too. “Camille looks up, snaps out of his coma of grief. ‘Oh, fuck off', he says to Herault, ‘stop being such a ci-devant’,” isn't, expletives notwithstanding, so very far from Bulwer-Lytton. And “coma”!

If A Place of Greater Safety is much slacker than the finely wrought Fludd, that's largely a function of Mantel's remarkable ambition. She has made an accomplished job of a near-impossible outline, and in Desmoulins she has found her most convincingly ambiguous advocate.

Nigel Spivey (review date 5 September 1992)

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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 by solicitude for his fellow men as by the need to make a mark in the world. Robespierre ought, in any well-balanced society, to have found his metier as a slightly pompous but competent small-town solicitor. In a well-balanced society, school-boys will happily practise drop-kicks across the dorm with their copies of Cicero. But for Desmoulins and Robespierre, Ciceronian postures of Republicanism became, almost overnight, the essential repertoire of centre-stage politics. Long speeches, proscriptions (‘the necessary murder’), plebeian mobs: Paris furnished a Hollywood set for ancient Rome, in which any habitual thug might become a Brutus. It was grotesquely gaudy throughout, and a novelist easily capitalises upon the copious memoranda trailed by the protagonists.

Professional historians, following Richard Cobb, have largely surrendered to the soap-operatic substance of the French Revolution. Robespierre was not the only one with a copy of Rousseau at his elbow: the confessional literary fashions strutted by Rousseau were aped by others, making a great biographical deposit for both popular history and historical novels (or ‘historiographic metafiction', as we are now supposed to call them). But I remain impressed by the bravery of Hilary Mantel in this enterprise. Best of times or worst of times, they were saturated with events and personalities: to isolate a trio just about enables a novelist to keep under a thousand pages, but nevertheless means that a reader unfamiliar with the Revolution will have trouble keeping up with the rapid changes of scene and personage. There is a lengthy list of characters, but this is not always helpful: it includes, for example, the name of Charlotte Corday, who murdered Marat in his bath—but in the text she is not mentioned by name, and you would have to know the story of Marat's death to make sense of its tangential reportage here.

The author promises to devote more attention to the scrofulous Marat separately, and she admits that the equilibrium of dramatisation and explanation was tricky to maintain. This is a pardonable weakness of the book, and could be surmounted if its readers kept a copy of Simon Schama's Citizens handy as they are frog-marched through the story. That the style is elliptical is to be expected: it happens to those who write about the French Revolution. Carlyle's account puffs along with breezy, verb-shorn sentences, exclamations, questions and philosophical platitudes; and in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens suspended Dickenisan circumlocution: two good precedents for the jumpy tenses and bitten-off slices of dialogue which prevail in A Place of Greater Safety. It works especially well for the climax of the story, which is the ‘trial’ of Danton and Desmoulins; less well at the outset, when the rythms of rural France are never allowed to settle.

Dramatic or ‘tragic’ as the Revolution is often billed, this story offers no genuine catharsis to those who immerse themselves in it. As Danton and Desmoulins are dragged off for a grand exuent in the tumbrils of public execution, there is little to lament. They fell as they had risen. Robespierre survives to the end of the book: he is known scarcely any better than when it started. So there is no major revision here of ‘The Incorruptible’: unsmiling he stays, and repellent or admirable depending whether persons count for more than ‘the People’. His own come-uppance at the hands of the Termidorians is appended in a tidying-up note: the prediction, made by Pierre Vergniaud, that the Revolution would, like Saturn, ‘devour its own children', is satisfactorily fulfilled. Danton goes to his death with the same endearing sensual wisdom he has shown throughout the story; Desmoulins, a ‘veteran’ of the Revolution, suddenly shows his age (he was only 28) and freaks out. The end might have been sadder if we had gained any sense of soul-sharing amongst our original trio: as it is, their relationships are depicted not so much as friendships as dangerous liaisons.

Engaging sympathy for these men was never going to be easy. The paradox coined by Edmund Burke to describe the Revolutionary agenda—it was, he said, a system of ‘homicidal philanthropy'—dogs the exploration of their motives, and the consummate stagecraft of their public appearances frustrates any attempt to define their private personae. One can see why Dickens eschewed the historical Revolutionaries: it makes the job of constructing a novel about the French Revolution much simpler. Trollope, too, had a go: of his now largely forgotten early novel, La Vendée, one reviewer commented that it had ‘the fiction of a romance, but with a little too much of the phlegm of history’. This seems, in retrospect, an odd line of criticism. Robespierre anticipated Derrida by two hundred years when he said, ‘History is fiction’: encouragement enough for Hilary Mantel to have written a novel whose claim to wide readership is that it is never phlegmatic, and yet it does proper justice to the events it recalls. Her story is compact with movement, disjointed, Romantic, florid and perplexing. What else should one expect from the subject?

Kate Kellaway (essay date 13 March 1994)

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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 them in, like a good nurse.

She has written about Africa before in her hellishly funny Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, set in Saudi Arabia. Her new novel, A Change of Climate … divides itself between South Africa and East Anglia. It does not set out to amuse. For the reader, it's an emotional ordeal, but it's the best book she's written (in my opinion, not in hers). It starts off peaceably, but lulls one into a false sense of security. This is appropriate, for it is a risk-taking book about safety, about how having any sense of security is false. A couple's baby son is abducted, probably murdered, by an African servant. Mantel makes you understand, in an intimate, dismaying way, what it would be like to be on the receiving end of outlandish cruelty.

She says that because the book is ‘thumpingly traditional', it compelled her to face her own (dangerous) material. ‘You can't give it the slip with post-modernist tricks’. The book she regards as her most important, A Place of Greater Safety, which won the Sunday Express book award, was an ambitious post-modernist conjuring of the French Revolution. She began it when she was 22, but had published several novels including two merry, satirical books (Every Day Is Mother's Day and Vacant Possession) and Fludd (which she is turning into a screenplay) before it came to light. Some books almost write themselves, she says. She has just finished a novel which she says slipped off the end of her fingers, ‘a squidgy little thing’. But A Change of Climate was ‘a brute’. She explains: ‘My official version of myself is that when I switch off the word processor, I switch off too.’ But this was too ‘harrowing’ to put on hold.

Hilary Mantel is shy but not timid. She's warm but has an uncosy intelligence. A Change of Climate began as ‘a piece of overheard gossip about a middle-aged man who went off the rails’ and developed into a novel about faith and the nature of God. ‘I wanted to find out what I thought but at the end I still did not know.’

She was brought up as a Catholic in Derbyshire. At 12, she decided against God. ‘I must have been the most fearful little prig. Marxism slotted right in where Catholicism had been. Later you're left with the problem: wouldn't it be nice to believe something?’

In the absence of certainties, the mind starts to inspect accidents, reconsider choices. She writes: ‘Every choice breeds its own universe’. This investing of trivialities with fatefulness can give new heart to the present. But in Hilary Mantel's work, it's a tormenting enterprise to look back and think: If I hadn't done X, Y would not have happened. ‘Every choice is continual splits', she says, ‘I'm absolutely haunted by the idea of an endlessly replicated universe, the universe where you didn't catch the train existing alongside the world where you did. I believe it's a mathematically respectable idea.’

Did she ever feel tempted with this book to write its other half, to cure the pain she had created, to do more than comfort her heroine with cucumber slices for her weeping eyes? She says: ‘you can do anything.’ There are two doors in her story: one opens on calamity, the other on hope. Questions are left open, too: especially, what does it mean to be good?

She writes about punishing subjects (prison / a woman discovering her husband's adultery) so freshly it is as if they had never been written about before. Does she have to strip her literary memory bare to do this? ‘By now the book isn't taking place as a book, it's taking place as life. I do feel right inside my characters.’ She unreasonably disparages herself, saying that she has often thought that she has ‘no imagination', that it is ‘all research’. She emerges as someone with a fanatically attentive eye. Even as a child, she had ‘the habits of a writer’. She used to walk the mile and a half to school and ‘do’ the weather (among other ploys), setting herself the task of coming up with polished sentences every day: ‘Consequently, I have a great file of weather to draw on.’ She researched A Change of Climate by reading about South Africa in the Fifties and spent time in Norfolk (about which she writes with flinty poetry).

But can you research emotions? I admire her ability to describe the way that people under-react to grief. The betrayed wife sits, like the casualty that she is, wrapped in a blanket: ‘She fingered the blanket's satin-bound edge, and sat, apart from this fingering, without moving.’ She says ‘I'm good with characters who react physiologically to emotional stress. At such times, you should not be indulging in reveries. Your guts are churning, you are cold.’ She did not invent the blanket: she stayed in a chilly pub in Reepham, a market town (where she has since bought a cottage). There she wrapped a satin-edged blanket around herself, and thought: this will do for Anna. ‘It's a cheat,’ she says.

Not so. Life is her co-author. She visited a church in Burnham Norton where she read the gravestone of a girl who ‘died 19th of December 1736 aged 10 years, 5 months, 2 weeks and 1 day.’ She pocketed the detail, using the counting of days to effect. Now, playing her own game, she wonders: ‘On another day would I have gone to the church at Burnham market instead? Would I have found something else there because I was in the right mood?’ Would she have written a different book? Could she have been a different person?

Peter Kemp (review date 25 March 1994)

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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 geology at university causes cruel consternation. Inexorably, righteous bigotry thwarts his plans. Silhouetted against a Darwinian background of fossils and fundamentalists, and displaying how theological dogmas and conflicts more usually associated with the late-Victorian era lingered on in to the rural Norfolk of the 1940s and 50s, Mantel's account of Ralph's worsting by his parents reads as a chilly domestic shocker. From here, his story moves out to a climate that is warmer meteorologically but, in other ways, even icier.

The first staging-post in Ralph's journey with Anna to their heart of darkness is a South African township to which they travel as a newly married couple, glowing with liberal Christianity and faith in progress. The year is 1956. Before leaving England, they read Trevor Huddleston's Naught for Your Comfort; and in the brutal society they encounter, little comfort is indeed in evidence. Frayed and exhausted by their efforts to help oppressed blacks, they reel between the thuggery of the Afrikaner authorities and the desperate lawlessness apartheid foments. Brave but hopeless opposition to the race laws lands them in prison, then results in deportation to Bechuanaland.

It's here—in a benighted teaching mission on the edge of the Kalahari—that the Eldreds fall foul of a barbarity so lacerating that it leaves a permanent weeping scar across their lives. Lethal creatures creep around the mission house. Anna sees a leopard with fresh blood still wet on its chest. Tropic downpours whip snakes hidden in the garden out into the open so that the ground seethes “like a living carpet.” But malignity strikes from a different quarter. In a heart-thumping then blood-freezing sequence, Mantel shows how Ralph is impelled to open the door to atrocity by his fatal trust in human nature.

Set mainly in 1970s Norfolk, where the Eldreds—now fatigued and unillusioned—perform social work, the novel takes a long time to disclose exactly what iniquity has devastated them. In narratives of this sort, there's a high risk that the eventual bringing of the horror into the light will come as an anticlimax. Here, though—while steadily eschewing any sensationalism—Mantel confronts you with a happening of such vileness that there's never any doubt about its continuing power to contaminate and sicken.

Despite the ghastliness at its core, her novel is far from despairing. In fact, recounting how two traumatized but persistingly well-intentioned people struggle on to lead useful, unselfish lives, it is crisp with wintry humour, and pulses with unstaunchable vitality. Astringent wit tingles through the prose. Quick, sharp psychological and social insights glint, whether Mantel is turning her attention to sanctimonious sadism in East Anglia or political viciousness in South Africa.

In one African scene, she notes how “the go-away birds wheeled overhead … squawking out their single, unvaried message.” Clearly intended also to be give-away birds, they seem a little flight of homage to the author Mantel has always had affinities with and, in this book, follows to brilliant effect. Muriel Spark's story, “The Go-Away Bird,” sent the same warning call echoing over a disillusioning and dangerous South Africa. And similarities between her fiction and Mantel's reverberate in other ways too. Like Spark, Mantel writes imperturbable prose studded with surprising images and interspersed with snatches of acutely—and often hilariously—caught dialogue. Like Spark, she sets a hellish aura flickering around brittle scenes, is much engaged with good and evil, and deploys flashbacks and flashes forward with crafty flair.

Brisk, unsentimental, unsurprised but uncynical, Hilary Mantel has previously written with rueful comedy about social workers and misfits (Every Day Is Mother's Day, Vacant Possession); with sardonic fascination about religion (Fludd); and with choking tension about personal and political nightmare (Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, A Place of Greater Safety). In A Change of Climate, working at the peak of her powers, she clenches all these concerns together into a novel that simultaneously horrifies and heartens.

Anita Brookner (review date 26 March 1994)

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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 profession. He capitulates, of course, works for a time in the East End, acquires a girlfriend, Anna, whom he marries, and then, on the advice of his uncle James, leaves for Africa, where he and Anna will do the work of modern missionaries, which is not spreading the word but knitting blankets, teaching children up to the age of seven, that being the stipulation of the Bantu Education Act, and generally trying to hold together the remnants of a society steadily and deliberately undermined by apartheid, which is making successful inroads under Dr Verwoerd. The year is 1950. In Elim township a kind of suspicious friendship is offered by those who grew up when missionaries had educative work to do. This is no longer required.

Ralph and Anna have come from Norfolk, which plays a large part in this novel. Norfolk is icy cold: cold comes off the page. Relentless winds, stunted trees, mist, and a metallic sea create an atmosphere conducive to the rebarbative faith nurtured by Ralph's and Anna's parents, who can offer no legitimate objection to the departure for Africa, although they think it unnecessary. Africa is heat, abundant but no less rebarbative life, and multiple forms of treachery. The original treachery of his father predisposes Ralph to a form of compromise which takes a long time to reveal its flaws. In the meantime, he makes a very good job of being a good person. He is tireless in his loyalty to his flock, and thus runs into difficulties with the South African government. Elim township is unimportant, but a subversive white man is very important indeed. Ralph and Anna are given the choice of returning home or moving north to Bechuanaland. Here conditions are infinitely more primitive, as are the locals. There is a terrible incident, which will not be spelt out here, after which there is no longer any choice. They return to Norfolk, where Ralph becomes tireless in helping those who have fallen by the wayside. Their elder daughter, Kit, becomes an expert at disinfecting slashed wrists and cleaning the blood from the kitchen sink.

They are an exemplary couple; it might be argued that they always were. Anna, however, is no longer the obedient girl who took on her husband's burden. Anna discovers that she cannot forgive, and thus contravenes one of the central tenets of Christian teaching. The question now is whether doing good is the same as being good. Ralph has no difficulty is pursuing his charitable ends, even when it means housing malcontents in the family home. Icy Norfolk gives them no release from a sense of duty. When it all breaks down (as, some might say, it was bound to do) everything goes. The life of unavailing effort is seen to be inoperative in certain conditions. Thus the questions remain unanswered.

This is an unusual and accomplished novel, which might read like a tract from the distant past, were it not for the author's even-handedness. It is not her fault if we regard these lives as imperfect: she gives us no emotion to play with. What would now be regarded as simple morality, and which they regard as religious precept, most singularly lets them down. But it does not let down the reader. Whose was the original fault? Were the teachings unrealistic, as many have found them to be? Or was it the fault of those unyielding and complacent parents, who offered no choice? The precipitating tragedies have been envisaged in what could be seen as God's plan: this continues to be bewildering. The breakdown, when it comes, can be seen as a moment of honesty. But it also means the destruction of several lives, not only those of Ralph and Anna but of their children as well.

To turn one's back on God's plan presents all sorts of existential difficulties, as Ralph never quite finds out. That is why I disliked the sentimental coda. But I was enthralled to the very end, aided by the completely unsentimental style, as flat as Norfolk. The aftershock of this excellent novel is considerable, as considerable as the unresolved moral questions which Hilary Mantel is surely unusual among contemporary novelists in addressing.

Anna Vaux (review date 28 April 1994)

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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 laws of a universe which tends backwards towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show how we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.

It's not clear that Mantel agrees with him about this. Her opinion may be closer to that of Ralph's sister Emma, a doctor, devout believers are ‘safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses: their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them from the task of constructing a personal one.’ But she is going to test him in any case. She borrows lines from the Book of Job, as well as from Darwin, for her epigraphs—and in the course of A Change of Climate sends Ralph his apportionment of trouble.

Ralph is not Job, but he is a ‘professional Christian’. He works for a charitable trust, dealing with runaways and suicides, children who have been ‘in care’ and who hang around railway stations and amusement arcades. He has a wife. Anna, two sons and two daughters. They live in a large house in Norfolk, a farmhouse that has lost its farm, with bicycle sheds and dog kennels and wood huts filled with the detritus of family life. It is the beginning of the Eighties, and Ralph's world divides broadly into ‘Good Souls’ and ‘Sad Cases', as in ‘Your Aunt Emma's giving so-and-so a lift to her drugs clinic in Norwich—she's a good soul,’ or ‘So-and-so's a sad case.’

Good Souls are not always good souls. Anna's parents, for instance, who ran a shop, eschewed the cinema and determined that women who wore make-up were ‘not their sort’. They looked up to customers with big houses and accounts and down on customers who queued for their sugar. They were the first in their district to employ the useful deterring sign. ‘Please do not ask for credit as refusal often offends.’ They beat the drum for the Christian faith, ran jumble sales and flower shows and believed most strongly that ‘cold, poverty, hunger must be remedied because they are extreme states, productive of disorder, of psychic convulsions, of demonstrations by the unemployed. They lead to socialism and make the streets unsafe.’

Ralph's parents were pretty much the same. Printers who refused to give up rationing when rationing was over, they were as ‘clever in charity as they were in business’. They believed God made the world in a week, and practised an ‘active, proselytising, strenuous and commonsensical’ religion in dark houses, like Ralph's aunt's, where there were too many chairs, ‘as if preparations were constantly in hand for a public meeting’. ‘They saw no need to inquire into God's nature; they approached Him through early rising, Bible study and earnest, futile attempts at humility.’

Ralph thinks that he would like to write the history of his family. He can't, or doesn't—for reasons that become apparent—but there is a sense in which Mantel takes on the job instead. In particular she tells the story Ralph can't tell, about what happened when he and Anna were young and newly married, and went to South Africa to take charge of a mission in a freehold township which has wide roads, on a grid plan, neat brick houses, and is set on the heights looking down on the suburbs of Pretoria.

Places like South Africa suit Mantel's fictional habits. She likes systems that her characters can rub up against. Father Angwin in Fludd had the Roman Catholic Church. Desmoulins, Robespierre and Danton in A Place of Greater Safety had Louis XVI and the French Monarchy. Frances Shore in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street found herself pitched against the whole of Islam, whose more objectionable-sounding tenets were sweetly explained away by her forbearing neighbour Yasmin. Yasmin had no doubt that things were far worse in the West.

It is the mid-Fifties when Anna and Ralph arrive in South Africa, and there is much for them to dislike. Smuts is out, the Nationalists are in, the township of Sophiatown has been dismantled, and their own township may be next. The Church, in any case, is under special suspicion, as the Archbishop of Cape Town explains: ‘the churches have done everything, the government nothing. It is we who have educated the African. We did not know, when we were doing it, that we were going about to embarrass the government. All we have achieved, as they see it, is to create a threat to them.’

Anna and Ralph are not well prepared, and there is from the start something unnerving about the people they are to live among, like Mr and Mrs Bishop Kwakwa, from the ‘Zionist Mount Carmel Gospel of Africa. Not at all a real church,’ and the kitchen girl, Dearie, whose babies keep dying for no apparent reason. Everyone has a bad luck story, including the friendly Afrikaner doctor, Koos, who has some secret trouble of his own and a mysterious understanding of local lore. He keeps a native doctor in his yard, ‘Luke the dispenser', whose stock he has to check, ‘to make sure there's nothing human’:

A lot of his mixtures you don't swallow, thank Christ, you just put the bottle on a string and hang it round your neck … He does business by mail, too. Love potions. Maybe other kind of potions—murder ones—but I don't ask him. A man came in last week and said he had beetles in his bowels. I sent him straight through to the back. If he believes that, it's Luke he needs, not me.

Anna and Ralph worry about how to live. What is the best way? They want to be like those they live among. They go to matins and sewing mornings and busy themselves with those in trouble with the law. But this is a bad time. The police don't like them much, and one day at dawn the Security Branch comes, knocking politely on the mission house door, and conducting a search with ‘creepy-fingered care'—emptying wastepaper baskets, noting the titles of books, reading the mail—before removing them to prison.

They are suspected of hosting political meetings: ‘So what were you doing, Mrs Eldred, if you weren't having a political meeting? Just having tea and cake, were you? Perhaps reading the Bible together?’ This is something of an embarrassment both for the English mission society back in Clerkenwell who sent them out, and for the South Africans themselves (‘the fact is that we are not used to prisoners like you’), and a solution is looked for. Offered a choice of voluntary repatriation, or deportation further north to ‘a post, possibly a temporary one, in Bechuanaland, in the Bechuanaland Protectorate', Ralph and Anna go north to Mosadinyana (another fictional settlement). And it is here, in this ‘toehold in the desert', on a night of rain like metal drumming against the roof, that they get their final load of trouble.

What happens on that night should probably not be revealed in a review, for the story depends on this secret at its centre. Mantel herself saves it up for nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, though hints are laid down early that something went wrong for Ralph and Anna in the time that they were away. Why does the family dream such compulsive dreams and have memories that are strangely etched into their bodies? Why do the children appear to be able to remember things from before they were born? Coming back from university, the eldest daughter Kit detects some new atmosphere of unhappiness in the house and takes to her bed with an unspecified illness. There are times when Ralph and Anna can't meet each other's eyes: conversation about South Africa is quickly deflected. Some of these hints are like a nudge in the ribs. Aunt Emma's stage-whispered thought, for example: ‘in my family … we practise restraint and the keeping of secrets … But our secrets do not keep us. They worry at us; they wear us away, from the inside out.’

Mosadinyana is clearly, in any case, the setting for a disaster. Even the furniture in the mission house looks portentous—a couple of bookcases ‘indecently empty: a solitary picture on the wall, of Highland cattle splashing through a stream’. Here the air is so dry it seemed to burn the lungs,’ the landscape looks flattened, ‘as if it were always noon’. ‘When storms came, the downpour whipped garden snakes from their heat trances. Green mamba, boomslang, spitting cobra: after the rains the ground seethed like a living carpet. Six legs, eight legs, no legs: everything moved.’ Alone in the mission schoolroom, Anna sees her path in life ‘tangled, choked, thorny, like one of the cut-lines that ran through the bush and melted away into the desert’.

The tragedy is a large one, and prompts the kind of questions one might have expected from Ralph about the nature of his God and what it is he believes in. Is God a good God? Is one's will free? Will a final dispensation even up the score? Is there pattern and order in life, or is it all a question of chance? He sends off volleys of letters to his holy Uncle James in England, a man ‘sucked dry by the constant effort of belief', who looks out of his East End mission window at the waste paper and the cabbage leaves and can think of nothing particularly comforting to say.

Those who have least comfort are the people back in Norfolk. ‘Events were dubious matters, and often in bad taste. It was a form of showing off, to have things happen to you.’ And so the secret is buried, and repression gets to work. Anna develops a heart complaint, Ralph works hard for his Trust, firm in his belief that the past can be buried under ‘a weight of daily preoccupation’. He writes letters and fund-raises; he makes telephone calls and TV appearances; he gives interviews to newspapers on education and housing policy, drugs and the homeless. This is his new creed—though by the first summer of the Eighties, some twenty years later, neither he nor his wife seem quite to have adjusted to the change in climate: ‘English heat is fitful; clouds pass before the sun.’

Still, Anna and Ralph are not the only ones in the book to have a secret, and metaphors of secrecy and occlusion have been at work from the start. They are there in Ralph's boyhood passion for fossils and geology (‘another secret, buried life', he thinks as he finds a flint arrowhead to take home and put on his mantelpiece); and they are present in the novel's setting. Mantel appears to have chosen Norfolk not just because of its abundance of churches, but also because of its abundance of ancient sites. The message seems to be the not particularly starting one that there is more to people's lives than meets the eye—or, as one character puts it, we don't know ‘the half of what goes on’. One of the tricks Ralph tries to perfect as a boy is to ‘look at a landscape and strip away the effect of man … Where others saw the lie of the land, Ralph saw the path of the glacier: he saw the desert beneath copse and stream, and the glories of Europe stewing beneath a warm, clear, shallow sea.’

This, of course, is the way in which we read about the lives of Ralph and Anna Eldred. As the story moves backwards and forwards and between Norfolk and South Africa, what is mysterious about them comes to light, and what they've kept secret is eventually disclosed. We are meant to see a connection too between the way Ralph thinks about evolution and progress and the way that lives work out in the book. It is largely an ironic connection, for life doesn't, on the whole, match up to the impressive success story that marches through Ralph's head, an evolutionary frieze that has the line of man improving, ‘edging nearer all the time to the summit of God's design', just as ‘society creeps forward, from savagery to benevolence’.

The novel ends on an optimistic note, however. There are symbolic bells clanging and the feeling that something large has been achieved or is about to be worked out. Salvation seems to be in the offing—though there is a further irony in the fact that this only starts to happen when the Eldreds shake off some of their saintliness and begin to behave in ways that they shouldn't. Godliness, it transpires, is more of an affliction than a boon.

Ultimately this is a morality tale without a moral. The heave of good and evil goes on (and in the South Africa chapters at a very great pace), but Mantel is a curiously invisible author, and doesn't make her affections and sympathies either clear-cut or clearly felt. The viewpoint switches round; questions about faith or free will are picked up and left off: and the dialogue is often woodenly pointful: “‘Sorry,” Kit said, “I know I'm contradicting what I said earlier, but I do see your point. Dad,”’ for example. A dutiful earnestness of tone occasionally overwhelms, as though the grand ideas at work in the novel demanded a certain reverence. But then, perhaps Mantel feels the Eldred family demand it too, since a short note at the beginning of the book informs us that cases similar to theirs ‘may be found in the Law Reports of Botswana’.

Judy Cooke (review date 24 February 1995)

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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 residence with Julia, a medical student from the same convent background, she studies law like one possessed. Repulsed by the food in the student canteen, and too poor to buy her own supplies, she lives below the bread line. Bitterly estranged from her mother—“at this late stage, she had aborted me”—she grows reliant on Julia, Sue, glamorous Lynette, even the hated Karina, who has trodden on her heels since they were packed off to primary school together.

The action takes place in 1979 the year Mrs Thatcher came to power not so long after being dubbed “Milk Snatcher.” In a lovely set piece, Mantel introduces Guest Night at Tonbridge Hall, when the girls from C Floor have the honour of sitting at High Table, next to the Secretary of State for Education. “She spoke slowly; she spoke as if she knew everyone except herself was stupid.” We sense that Carmel and her contemporaries have some tough years ahead of them.

How will they fare in the race for jobs and status when so much of their energies already pull them towards men, homes, babies? “I wanted to know if I could have one,” Sue explains, woefully pregnant and arguing, at first, against abortion. It is not only the girls with Catholic backgrounds who are going to find their moral values out of date.

Hilary Mantel is justly compared to Muriel Spark as a satirist; this cunning plot with its hidden agenda of violence and betrayal has something in common with Spark's elegant parables. David Lodge, too, comes to mind, although his hilarious study of the Catholic dilemma, How Far Can You Go, was rooted in 1950s optimism. By the time Mantel comes to scrutinise God's Experiment in Love the realities are that much bleaker. The climax of this novel is a fatal fire, possibly involving murder, but Carmel's own secret, gradually guessed at, is equally horrifying when it is eventually revealed.

Julia O'Faolain (review date 24 February 1995)

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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 Julianne and Karina, who went to the same convent school and are now with her in the Hall.

Early on, homage is paid to Muriel Spark with a reference to The Girls of Slender Means, whose plot Mantel proceeds to recycle, darken and adapt. The move alerts us to the parallels and differences between today's girls and Spark's who were “nice,” nobly poor—it was 1945—untroubled by awareness of any sort of ideology, and greatly worried about calories. “We haven't the class for Girls of Slender Means,” says Julianne, and adds that talking like characters in an Edna O'Brien novel “would become us.” There is a whiff of lost Irishness about these girls, who see faking it as a way of showing that they don't care if they do lack class. Its heritage is also seen as bleak. Thus Carmel's mother, a charwoman who left Ireland in her mother's womb, has knuckly, calloused hands “made to hold a rifle not a needle,” and Carmel herself wants to avoid “the common fate of girls who are called Carmel. … I wanted to elect pleasure, not duty.” Accordingly, while still in school, she takes a lover, only to feel an “up-rush of muddling emotion,” and finds herself, when in London, dutifully deferring pleasure until she can see him again. Anorexia has a double thrust. Food and sex connect, as when Carmel electrifies the Tonbridge girls by saying she can't eat parsnips because “They look like ogres’ penises.”

Julianne, who is middle-class, is less tormented. She has lovers and an efficiently managed off-stage abortion, while Karina, whose parents were refugees from Eastern Europe, wants nothing to do with the past. She and Carmel are scholarship girls, Angry Young Women, who seem, twenty years on, to have caught an envenomed strain of the 1950s virus. In the background, better-off girls, who went to boarding-school and have money to eat properly, are envied, despised and dismissed.

Carmel is hungry and angry. Poverty—she is living on an inadequate grant—triggers and masks her anorexia, and rage erupts at surprising moments. When a woman doctor, for instance, warns her against getting into “a pressure-cooker relationship” with her lover, she imagines herself pulling the woman's hair “until a part of her scalp was in my hand and her desk was awash and her notes were bobbing in a sea of blood.” This ferocity is all the odder because of her docility with her bullying mother and with Karina, whom the mother forced her to befriend. Karina—gross, gluttonous, envious and scheming—is a sinister presence, a monstrous anti-self to whom, however, Carmel comes to feel unseverably connected. This starts with a childish wrong which Carmel, aged four, does to Karina. She smashes her baby doll, then feels the need “to make restitution.” At the Hall, attention is drawn to the symmetry between her wasting away and Karina's bloating. The doll is being replaced. Meanwhile, Carmel's lover ditches her.

There are foreshadowings of worse to come. Julianne, who is studying anatomy, keeps a female skeleton; Carmel's head rattles with minatory scraps of verse, and the Spark connection touches off thoughts of hounds of heaven—or perhaps hell?—pursuing the inmates of Tonbridge Hall. Carmel has lost her faith. But, to quote The Girls of Slender Means: “a vision of evil may be as effective to conversion as a vision of good.” An Experiment in Love will provide an evil vision from which Carmel implies she will not recover.

Before this, however, the paradoxes which underpin the Hall girls’ sentimental education are narrowly observed. Guilty “at being so clever, wanting so much,” they pick inferior men. High academic achievers, who have come late to “the dangerous … knowledge of our own female nature,” they worry about this. Seething with “fertility panic,” they embrace servitude, iron boyfriends’ shirts and neglect to take the Pill. “FEMINISM HASN'T FAILED,” Carmel concludes, mimicking a slogan about Christianity, “IT'S JUST NEVER BEEN TRIED.”

This is funny and would be persuasive too, if it came from anyone but Carmel who, by the end of the novel, is sounding like a psychopath. She says of chatty Londoners, “I always want to smash their jaws shut; I realize the reaction may be excessive.” It is, and the novel suffers. A blend of satire and elusive fable worked beautifully for Mantel in Fludd, but this time the mix feels wrong. Perhaps didacticism is to blame. Carmel keeps intervening to tell us that this is not “a story about anorexia,” or that “Our convent was not like the convents that are generally described in novels.” Self-reflexiveness is meant to lighten the soufflé. Here, somehow, it has the opposite effect. Humbert Humbert did not, after all, aim to preach.

Anita Brookner (review date 4 March 1995)

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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 expectations for life.

This is a grey area. The sheer tolerance of young women for each other, before they know enough to form their own opinions, does not attract much attention in contemporary fiction. At the lower end of the market sisters or friends fight for the same man or for the presidency of multinational corporations: this is an effective and formulaic way of externalising those jealousies and conflicting ambitions to which women are not infrequently subject. By making her three friends hardworking scholarship girls, forced to exist on the penury of student grants, subject to pregnancy or anorexia, nourished on toast or black coffee, and instinctively if unwillingly bonded together by loyalties which will not stand the test of time (although memories will), Hilary Mantel succeeds in casting shadows not backwards but forwards, into a future in which plenty can be taken for granted and social position guaranteed. It could be that such a formation was the making of a novelist, for if this is not an autobiography it is a very clever imitation of one.

The narrator, Carmel McCabe, is a girl from a poor home, in which knitting and jigsaw puzzles are the approved recreations. By maternal decree she is forced to befriend Karina, who has an unpronounceable surname and unfortunate European peasant parents. Carmel is sharp, wry, and clever; Karina is fat, lethargic and unambitious. At first friendship is acceptable because the infant Carmel admires the lovingly handmade clothes. Later, as knowledge begins to make its inroads, she wonders why Karina lets boys approach her by the bus station. Yet the two remain attached when they pass the entrance examination for the Holy Redeemer convent; there they meet Julianne Lipcott, the smartest and most naturally endowed of the three. She is a doctor's daughter, and in later life becomes a specialist in the treatment of anorexia. Carmel, in that fast-forward time, reads about her in the newspaper. Only Karina is thus unaccounted for. But then Karina got lumpishly pregnant and vanished from sight, reverting to peasant type, one might say. No sympathy, let alone love, is expended on Karina, although she is the most consistent, even worthy member of the trio. But that is how female dissension shows itself, not in boardroom battles but in forgetfulness. Friendships are severed by the mere withdrawal of attention.

I take this to be Hilary Mantel's point, but as her tone throughout is dry and unsentimental it is difficult to distinguish between like and dislike. What is amusing—and it is very amusing—is also desolating. As the girls make other friends in their penitential Hall of Residence their bodies develop rather in advance of their affections. They tolerate each other, still in the way of schoolgirls, and one wonders what will be necessary to effect that final leap into adulthood. On this point the book is silent, with only that tantalising glimpse into the future to guide us.

Forced to live in close proximity, the girls inhabit a schoolroom of the mind, although they are notionally students. They pay lip-service to the times—the Sixties—by wearing miniskirts and making love not war. Ordeals are undergone, yet it is an accident which propels them, literally, into the outside world. They grow away from home and its edicts, although the context in which they will eventually find themselves is barely adumbrated, even in their own imaginings. Their natures are more fragile than they realise:

If your parents don't teach you how to live, you learn it from books; and clever people watch you, to learn from your mistakes.

The novel, though expert, is unsettling. It is unsettling through its lack of affect, though this is also its strength. The weather is always cold, food is invariably filthy, and external nature kept at arm's length. An Experiment in Love differs from any other novel I can think of written to this particular formula, which has become a commonplace: although we are to assume a rite of passage this is never enacted. Perhaps the awful truth is that women are more like former schoolgirls than they would acknowledge themselves to be. That is why the novel is unsettling, or why the after-image of these girls is not of their respectable maturity but of their cramped beginnings, their undifferentiated friendship, and their growing separateness. A clear-eyed examination of female alliances may well be needed in these misleading times. An Experiment in Love may well be such an examination, cool, unsentimental, and unassumingly authoritative.

Dinah Birch (review date 9 March 1995)

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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 experiment in European history, must have been a magnetic subject. These diverse novels all survey the provisional. Mantel is unremittingly concerned with the multiple models available for a good life, the choices that might be within reach, worth a try, or even, conditionally, best.

This preoccupation may have obstructed her formal attainments as a novelist, for a restless cast of mind makes conclusion difficult. Her books close in suspension, undetermined possibilities circulating in final paragraphs. Mantel's earliest solution to this perplexity must have seemed obvious: the sequel. Her first novel, Every Day Is Mother's Day (an irresistibly grim study of family wrongs), was followed by Vacant Possession, with the same cast of luckless misfits. It was a device that enriched rather than resolved Mantel's fictional enigmas. Questions expanded, but were not answered. Mantel hasn't yet repeated the strategy of the sequel, though a further novel on the French Revolution is promised. She has, however, regularly returned to the radical mysteries contemplated in her first book. Where does evil come from? Can it be over-come by human good? For all her sharp-eyed social comedy, Mantel is consistently a philosophical novelist, and often a spiritual one.

In An Experiment in Love, Mantel thinks about such matters in terms of the experience of a generation. It is not autobiography, but it is written out of her own life, locating itself at the point where, as she noted approvingly in her recent review of Doris Lessing's autobiography in this paper, ‘fiction transmutes the personal to the general.’ Carmel McBain is the daughter of hard-working Catholic parents in a small Lancashire cotton town. ‘My father was a clerk; I knew this from quite early in life, because of my mother's habit of saying, “Your father's not just a clerk, you know.”’ Irish in origin, Carmel's family has acquired new aspirations with its new nationality. Urged by her dour and discontented mother, Carmel and her friend Karina pass the entrance exam for the rather grand local convent school (‘the first girls from our school—from any school like ours—to go to the Holy Redeemer’). In one sense, their breakthrough is a paradigm of social success, upward mobility as commended by post-war optimism. Carmel and Karina work hard, earn places at London University. They find themselves in the same hall of residence, just as the Sixties come to an end and ‘the miniskirt fell totally and decisively out of favour.’ The novel tells linked stories; what made the ambitions of the two girls, what then happens to unmake them.

The substantial pleasures here are those of recollection, sometimes of wry nostalgia, edged with detail. Described particularities of Carmel's childhood are neither soured by resentment nor softened with sentiment—the fawn socks and pixie hoods, women in the kind of solidly tailored suits that were called ‘costumes', the artificial roses that came free with detergent, made of ‘slimy, pliable plastic … scentless, accreting to themselves a sticky grey dust, as if the plastic petals leaked something that would attract it.’ If, like me, you remember those roses—or the comics (Judy, Bunty, Princess and Diana—Carmel, clearly not a deprived child, was allowed all four, which would have been unimaginable indulgence in our house), this novel has the immediate appeal of shared memory. Others will find social history with a light and witty touch. Neither fictional reward, though, is quite the point. The novel searches deeply into the motivation of a generation. Mothers and their displaced needs are its pivot. Carmel's mother, despising her own work as a domestic cleaner and vicariously hungry for her daughter's fulfilment, extends her insatiable appetite to include the life of Karina, whose parents were refugees from Eastern Europe. Their undefined wartime sufferings, leaving memories of a different kind of hunger, cast a long shadow over the events of the book. Karina, stolid and competent, must eat to assuage her mother's wants, just as Carmel must study. Potato pies, roast meat, damp sausages and glutinous pasta dominate Karina's life. Education and enterprise apparently form the parameters of the girls’ progress through adolescence, but the novel insists on the hidden relation with food that lies behind much of what happens to them. This is, after all, also the generation of Twiggy.

Once at college, Carmel signals her separation from her mother by developing anorexia. Karina, meanwhile, grows ever larger, devouring all that comes her way and more besides. Both find long-nurtured ambitions pushed aside by their obsessive and destructive manipulations of their own appetites, their own bodies. Carmel broods on what went so badly wrong for them, and thinks over the education that led to their troubled hall of residence. Women had been permitted the right to learning, but on the male plan. ‘Good’ schools for girls adopted the boys’ muddy team games and school songs and collars and ties. Forced to imitate men, they were bound not to succeed at it. ‘They forfeited today for the promise of tomorrow, but the promise wasn't fulfilled; they were reduced to middle-sexes, neuters, without the powers of men or the duties of women.’ Once out of their collars and ties, they found themselves torn in ways no one had prepared them for. Fulfilling their mothers’ ambitions, still working to win the high marks they had been trained for, they found themselves half-wanting, half-fearing, what their mothers had taken for granted or resented—homes, husbands, and especially babies. ‘The little women inside were looking out through our eyes and waving to the world.’ The violence of the conflicts generated by these divided desires disrupts all expectations, especially those of the reader. The unflinching dénouement of this book consumes the hostel in a murderous conflagration. Old arrangements are cancelled, but at great cost. Karina, self-sufficient, scornful and patronised throughout her life, turns out to be fertile and merciless in unsuspected ways, with energies previously hidden from observation. She remains, to the end, an inscrutable figure—a monstrously cruel victim of her mother's pain, but a robust survivor too.

Like its predecessors, this novel ends on a question mark, for Karina's nature can be revealed but not wholly explained, and her future is not disclosed. Here, however, a point of uncertainty takes a conclusive place in a confidently managed narrative design. The debates are historical and personal, but they are also explicitly fictional. Brooding on complicated relations with our mothers, An Experiment in Love is in part a confrontation with Mantel's own literary mother, Muriel Spark. The particular point of reference is The Girls of Slender Means, published in 1963. Parallels between the two books are specific enough, in terms of plot, style and narrative structure, to make the later work something approaching an act of homage to its distinguished ancestor. They function ‘like the fingerprints of those giants on whose shoulders we stand’. The definition of Spark's fingerprints in Mantel's new novel are the frank acknowledgment of a longstanding imaginative debt. But this close engagement, conducted on equal terms that reflect Mantel's achieved maturity and stature as a novelist, is also an act of measured rebellion.

Spark's novel, set like Mantel's in a London hostel for young women, also thinks back over the objectives of a generation. Her girls, too, are poor, perpetually hungry for more than the frugal rations doled out in 1945—more money, more food, more life. But they are also divided, for sexual success seems to depend on limiting the female appetite. They must confine themselves to slenderness to make it to the top as women. Spark, like Mantel, focuses on the pitiless pressures of women's hunger. Her hostel, like Mantel's, finally goes up in flames. Those thin enough to squeeze through a narrow skylight at the top of the building—the girls of slender means—are able to escape; while the most solidly virtuous (and naive) woman of the group loses her life in the fire. Spark's ravenous inferno generates a moment of shocking corruption which foreshadows the disconcerting climax of Mantel's novel—both novelists remind us that nicely brought up women can be far from nice. But Spark's Catholic concept of evil leaves no doubt of its transcendent existence, or of its capacity to generate eternal good. The deed of female savagery which is central to the action of her book leads to the conversion and eventual martyrdom of the man who glimpses it, appalled—‘a vision of evil may be as effective to conversion as a vision of good.’ For Mantel, who writes as thoughtfully here as elsewhere about the legacies of a Catholic upbringing, this won't quite do. Neither absolute evil nor absolute good can be determined in her humanly mixed and contingent world. Damnation is not final, salvation is never certain. The crime committed by Karina is worse than anything that happens in Spark's novel. Yet Mantel's vision is less fixed, and less bleak, than Spark's devastating certitudes. Karina is what her life has made her, a consequence of the harm visited on her parents years before she was born, but also stubbornly herself, a source of life, ambivalent, puzzling and persistent.

Gabriele Annan (review date 8 August 1996)

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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 high literary expectations—even though what she writes is “literary fiction published in hardback.”

The same thing could be said about Graham Greene. She has several points in common with him: she is the blackest of black comedians; she can make your flesh creep with horror and especially with the apprehension of it; and she often sets her story against a background of sinister political tyranny: South Africa under apartheid in A Change of Climate; Saudi Arabia in her creepiest and funniest book, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street; and in An Experiment in Love an evil regime of the more distant past. Another thing she has in common with Greene is an interest in redemption—and she sometimes puts in a character who is a saint of sorts. Greene was a Catholic convert; Mantel was brought up a Catholic though it is not clear whether she still is one; both of them understand about Original Sin.

An Experiment in Love comes on like a rites-of-passage novel. It has an autobiographical feel to it, and, being set in England, a fat element of class. Her first-person heroine Carmel McBain is an Irish Catholic working-class girl from a northern industrial town. She makes it to a middle-class convent grammar school, then to London University, where she has an unhappy love affair, develops anorexia, sees a friend die. It takes courage to go out on this well-trodden ground. Hilary Mantel does it deliberately, and makes that clear; Carmel jokes with her best friend Julia Lipcott (formerly Julianne, i.e., upwardly mobile) about whether they might fit into a novel by Edna O'Brien or Muriel Spark.

Muriel Spark is also cited in comparison by two of the reviewers quoted on the dust jacket. Like Spark's Girls of Slender Means, Mantel's young women live in a women's hostel, and both novelists make the most of the ironic echoes this setting produces—echoes of old-fashioned schoolgirl stories like Angela Brazil's, for instance. Besides, Spark and Mantel share a sardonic tone, a Catholic background, and an eschatological undertow in their writing.

Mantel begins and ends her book in the present with brief shots of Julia as a successful psychotherapist and Carmel as a suburban housewife in an architect-designed house. Carmel reads The Daily Telegraph over breakfast, so presumably she votes conservative, whereas at college she never missed a Labour club meeting. In between, the narrative flashes forward and back between school days in the Fifties and Sixties, and university days in the Seventies. The book's structure is unambitiously conventional. Its detail is brilliant. “I like to have you describe things,” Julia says to Carmel. “Descriptions are your strong point.” They are Mantel's too. “We toddled down Curzon Street towards the town centre, turning left down Eliza Street at the pub called the Ladysmith,” she writes about Carmel's walk to school in the Lancashire town where she was born.

Most streets had a pub on the corner, and they were usually named after the younger children of Queen Victoria, or dead generals, or victories in colonial wars; we were too young to know this. We rolled downhill, guided by the mill chimneys and their strange Italianate architecture—yellow brick and pink brick and grimy brick—and everywhere black vistas fell away, railway embankments and waste ground, war damage and smoke; at the end of Bismarck Street we looked down on the puffing chimneys of houses below, ranged in their rows, marching down and down into the murky valley.

We passed the Irish club, and the florist's with its small stiff pink-and-white carnations in a bucket, and the drapers called ‘Elvina's’, which displayed in its window Bear Brand stockings and knife-pleated skirts like cloth concertinas and pasty-shaped hats on false heads.

The town's nineteenth-century past shows through its more recent past, and the recent past through the present. The mixture of social history and nostalgia haunts and pulls you in.

Not that Carmel feels nostalgia. Her childhood was miserable. She was an only child, her parents elderly and poor. They quarreled; mother dominant, father resentful, retreating into silence and jigsaw puzzles. Even the puzzles were not for fun; they had to be done properly, with discipline, from the outside edge inward. Carmel's mother expressed her sense of thwarted superiority by grimly enforcing her strict but idiosyncratic standards of cleanliness and sartorial respectability; and she nagged her daughter to do hours of homework, pass exams, get into the genteel convent school where they taught Latin and Greek instead of domestic science, and expected their pupils to go on to university.

When Carmel trundles down the hill to infant school, she has to pick up Karina, who lives a few doors down. Karina's parents are East European refugees—“Polish, Ukrainian, Estonian?” They speak broken English, work shifts in the mills, and are socially beneath even the McBains; Mrs. McBain enjoys patronizing them, and forces Carmel to befriend Karina, a fat, greedy little blonde. Karina helps with the housework more than Carmel does, so Mrs. McBain holds her up as a model. But even at the age of five, Karina is a pessimist with low expectations of life. Docile toward adults, she is full of envy and destructive venom toward other children, a baby sadist who enjoys belittling their achievements, and puncturing their dreams and ideals. Carmel hates her, and when they are very little, she kicks her plastic doll into the street. Karina weeps, and Carmel acquires a chronic feeling of guilt toward her. As a fictional character, Karina comes across opaque and mysterious, and her role in the novel's tragic climax is ambiguous. Clever Julia sums her up as a peasant; and in fact she could be a junior version of the sinister and malevolent peasants that lurk among the birch trees in Russian novels.

Carmel and Karina are eleven when they win places at the prestigious convent school. This is where Julia comes into their lives. She is still Julianne, a doctor's daughter from a well-to-do suburb. About the time she changes her Christian name, she sees the point of the dowdy, mouse-like Carmel, and takes her up. Julia is not only Carmel's social superior, but also self-confident, laid-back, attractive, bright, sexy, and funny. She is the classic liberator of rites-of-passage novels, but she does not actually liberate Carmel much beyond making her able to joke about her own “lower-class ways.”

Carmel Julia, and Karina all go on to London University and live in the same student hostel. Carmel and Julia share a room, Karina shares with Lynette, who must be Jewish because her surname is Segal. This is the clue to the novel's subplot—or rather, its subterranean main plot. It would be easier to spot if Mantel had called her Cohen or Solomon. There is no other clue, and reading through the reviews of the English edition, I suspect that most critics missed it. They praise Mantel's handling of the coming-of-age theme, her social observation, her wit, and her comic dialogue. But the big story, a who-dunit about evil—remains underground.

Mantel loves Lynette. The girl seems like a real Angela Brazil heroine, “bonny and blithe, and good and gay”—too good to be true, really—though updated, of course, and therefore sexually experienced; and rich, chic, and hugely generous to boot. Lynette hands out Bendick's Bittermint chocolates, lets other girls borrow her luscious fox fur coat, writes a check when one of them needs an abortion, and puts up with Karina because she feels no one else will want to share a room with her. Her glowing presence lights up the hostel episodes. They are almost shamefully enjoyable to read, with Mantel's descriptive talent applied to the mean furniture, inhospitable bathrooms, overpowering central heating, and parsimonious meals; and her gift for dialogue to the teasing, probing, character-dissecting gossip as the girls sit on their narrow beds and worry about the future, their friends, their figures, pregnancy, anorexia, and the pill.

Carmel's Lancashire boyfriend comes to see her in London. The visit is not a success and he breaks off their affair, her first and only: they have slept together since they were fifteen, Carmel is already starving herself in order not to overspend her government grant; now she becomes seriously anorexic. The nausea and weakness are conscientiously described, but like the coming and going of the boyfriend, these passages seem perfunctory and déjà lu, which, of course, they cannot help being. They do not grab you; maybe because they have no bearing on the main theme of Mantel's tale, which comes to a climax with a fire in the hostel.

The alarm goes off at night and the girls are herded out into the street in their dressing gowns and stand shivering on the pavement. As they watch the fire spread through the building, a figure appears at a third-floor window with flames coming out of her head and her ribcage; it is Lynette. There is no hope of saving her. Carmel notices Karina carrying Lynette's fox fur over her arm. The key of their room falls out of the pocket. Carmel tries to pick it up. Karina puts her foot on it. Her “expression was hooded, complacent. She knew I would not give her away. After all, I said to myself, I don't know that she is a murderer. Just because she has the key, it doesn't mean she turned it in the lock.”

So the past rises up behind the present once more, only this time it's a “Polish, Ukrainian, Estonian” past, with bodies burning. Suddenly one remembers the almost subliminal appearance of Karina's angry, reclusive father, who would never open the door to anyone. Is he meant to be one of the two or three octogenarian East Europeans tracked down in the incongruous setting of an English provincial town, and accused of wartime atrocities against the Jews?

Mantel is too cagey to confirm or deny the suspicion. She specializes in shock effects, especially aftershock, which is what her book ghoulishly delivers. Her approach is slow and stealthy; the hair on the back of the neck rises, not all of a sudden, but gradually. The effect depends, of course, on the incongruity between the ordinariness of Carmel's progress, and the horrors it skirts.

Charlotte Innes (review date 14 September 1997)

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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 humorous book (perhaps Hilary Mantel's best), encapsulating the push and pull between emotion and repression, self-sacrifice and self-deception, pragmatism and confusion, goodness and evil—in fact, all the complicated “business of being human”—that animates everything Mantel writes.

Ranging widely in subject matter from family conflicts to the dilemmas of modern Roman Catholic prelates, from the French Revolution to English expatriate life, Mantel's seven novels offer lessons in life's contrariness, in the tensions between free will, unfortunate accident and involuntary behavior. Thus a well-meaning but disappointed mother inflicts emotional damage on her daughter, while a good priest causes someone's death. Philanthropists bring succor to the world but neglect their own children; colonized Africans cause as much damage as their vicious masters.

In Mantel's world, a wolf lurks inside every cottage, or as Anna puts it in A Change of Climate: “In safety, there is danger. In tears, the awful slicing comic edge. In moments of kindness and laughter, the murderer's fist at the door.”

Even those chilled by the persistent downbeat of Mantel's vision will surely be seduced by her sharp humor, reminiscent of Muriel Spark or Edna O'Brien, and her nail-biting narration in which ambiguous political and religious concerns are wrapped in the brisk plotting of a suspense thriller, a la Graham Greene or Brian Moore. (What is it about writers with a Roman Catholic background—Mantel was convent-educated in Northern England—that they seem to have a special knack for combining powerful narrative with philosophical speculation and humor?)

This blend of dark and light, comedy and tragedy, heart-in-the-mouth narrative and a slow-working analysis of the human condition, is nowhere more successfully displayed than in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and A Change of Climate. They are Mantel's third and sixth novels respectively (published in England in 1988 and 1994), now available in the United States, along with Mantel's most recent novel, An Experiment in Love (1995), published here last year to critical acclaim. Also available is A Place of Greater Safety, a powerful historical novel about the French Revolution.

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and A Change of Climate are aptly paired for their American debut. Each describes the tribulations of a young British couple who live respectively in Saudi Arabia and Africa. (Mantel lived with her geologist husband in Botswana for five years and in Saudi Arabia for four before returning to England in 1987). Both couples, though basically well-meaning, are motivated by selfish reasons: one to make money off the Saudi oil boom, the other out of an apparent missionary zeal that really covers the urge to escape domineering parents. A Western sense of entitlement to the blessings of liberty makes them ill-equipped to understand cultures more authoritarian than their own, and their thoughtless naiveté is ultimately their downfall.

A Change of Climate weaves back and forth between the terrible past in Africa and the dreary present in Norfolk, England, where Ralph Eldred has inherited the family charitable trust whereby the couple continue their good works among the English rural poor, often taking depressed homemakers and drug-addicted teenagers into their own home when there is no room for them elsewhere. Bit by bit, we learn of the tragedy that beset Ralph and Anna in Africa and that they have kept secret from their four children “in the service of the great god Self-Control.” Instead, they teach their children that there are only “Good Souls and Sad Cases,” that the world has “no wickedness in it.”

Clearly this is a lie. From self-evasion to outright dishonesty, from kindness unmitigated by an awareness of malice to silence about the past, Mantel suggests that secrets of every sort can only warp our lives. Upon his return to England, Ralph (who has little intuition about people, only an instinct to help them) has a rare epiphany. Burying the past inside himself, he realizes, makes it “more potent,” not less. “No bad action goes away. Evil is energy, and perpetuates itself; only its form changes.”

But Mantel also suggests we have choices. In a double-edged crisis, in which Anna discovers Ralph's late-blooming love affair while a drug-addicted teenager staying in their house runs amok, there is the hint of possible healing in their lives: of real goodness, not just the numbed “professional Christian” sort by which they had been living, but genuine tenderness based on real feeling. Only in revelation (and that includes self-examination), Mantel suggests, can the rot of secrecy and self-deception be rooted out and a more honest life begin.

Revelation doesn't help the couple in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, however. In fact, the secrets uncovered here only make life worse, or nightmarishly reveal further secrets that can never quite be pinned down.

Andrew Shore has accepted an assignment as an engineer on a new building in rapidly growing Jeddah. His wife, Frances, joins him, only to find that her life in this country will be severely circumscribed; she can barely leave the flat they have rented without being harassed by leering Arabs who resent her unveiled appearance. “This is a private society,” she discovers. When one door closes, another slams shut.

Frances’ sense of estrangement is further embodied by her inability to find her way around (though she is a cartographer by trade), for this is a place where, in a frenzy of development, buildings disappear, roads change course, and even the coastline shifts as more land is reclaimed from the sea, a process that symbolizes, for outsiders, this alien country's ungraspable nature.

Not all is doom and gloom, however. Frances is a woman of some spirit. Her thoughts on the repressive Saudi life and the smug expatriate scene are bitingly satirical, culminating in one painfully funny section, a dinner party at which Frances’ newly purchased nonstick pans deposit black flakes of “Saudiflon” all over the food, to the accompaniment of racist and sexist remarks by her patronizing British guests. (The two American guests are more sensitive.)

Nevertheless, she finds herself sinking into despair and lethargy, obsessed by occasional noises she hears in the empty flat above. As it turns out, the sounds are not simply the product of her paranoia but of genuine clandestine activity. As Frances makes further discoveries about the flat, the Shores’ lives become endangered. The depressing message—“leave alone what you don't understand because the gaps between cultures can never be bridged”—is almost the opposite of the message relayed in A Change of Climate.

Though all Mantel's novels illumine societal evils—be it the British class system in An Experiment in Love, the malevolent interplay between personality and public events in A Place of Greater Safety, or colonialism in A Change of ClimateEight Months on Ghazzah Street is perhaps Mantel's most overtly political work. Her outrage against a society that virtually imprisons women, mutilates thieves, stones adulterers and disappears over-curious intruders is palpable. Both Arabs and Brits are hit hard for embracing greed and corruption, in such a sweeping indictment of unfettered capitalism, that the reader can't help but wonder if Mantel's guiding philosophy is that of the Boer doctor in A Change of Climate who says: “We're all barbarians.”

Yet even though the blinkered British expatriates in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street remain boxed in by xenophobic claustrophobia until the bitter end, and the altruists of A Change of Climate gain only the minutest grasp of the human state, Mantel is rarely dogmatic. Rather, she suggests, life is as murky as Frances Shore's state of mind as she grapples with the vagaries of Saudi culture. In more optimistic moments, she tells us that life's truths are sometimes perceptible.

Ralph Eldred, on the verge of leaving Anna (at her request), wonders whether to pack a fossil, a Gryphaea or “Devil's Toenail,” a souvenir from childhood, because cataloging old stones gave him confidence in “the order of the world.” Now he sees that the past is indeed as petrified as this ancient remnant. What's mutable is how we see it.

Ralph takes the fossil, a symbol of his childhood dreams for a happy life, but also, perhaps, a devilish token of the long-lived claw of unhappiness in his heart, and throws it into the wastepaper basket. Experience, Mantel suggests, may open up new layers of meaning, yet it never really provides an answer.

Paul Baumann (review date 5 December 1997)

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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.

Mantel doesn't waste a word or a gesture. My delight with Fludd sent me to her 1995 novel An Experiment in Love … an astringent coming-of-age tale. Carmel, the narrator/protagonist, is a bright and ambitious Catholic school girl from the north who ends up, along with two of her classmates, at university in London. It is 1970, the brave new age of the pill and legal abortion, and the novel follows the fitful progress of the three through the matter-of-factness of adolescent sex, and its not so matter-of-fact consequences. The narrative continually shifts from Carmel's now chastened perspective, to her childhood memories, to the searing story of the girls’ university years. Mantel is a deft conjurer of mood and psychology as she captures the superficial intimacy of many college relationships, a knowingness that often conceals profound isolation and loneliness. Caught between the disappointments and bullying of parents, the utilitarian morality of university life, and the utter indifference of the larger world, adolescents naturally cling to one another. Sex and love are something the young imagine they can possess completely, only to discover that nothing as powerful as sex is so easily commanded. Mantel is masterly in showing how nothing touching on human desire is quite what it appears to be at first blush. This is an unnerving book, especially in the way it reveals how careless our treatment of each other can be when personal morality finds little resonance in the forces that order the larger world. Mantel's A Change of Climate is next on my list.

David Nokes (review date 4 September 1998)

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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 supported by gilded ladies with wings, their upper torsos bare. The imagination swells to fill each vacant space with a new phenomenon vaster and more splendid than the last. Joe Vance, the impresario, tries out his patter: “Charles Byrne, the Surprising Irish Giant. The Tallest Man in the World.” But, after a few days basking in celebrity, this marvel joins a heap of others that were once the nine days’ wonder of the town. The Giant thereby learns a lesson, available to all though accessible by few—anything you can imagine, can exist.

There is another story here as well. Raised above the crumbling London alleyways where such phenomena buzz and flitter, is the consulting-room of John Hunter, scientist and surgeon. For him, one word has a special significance: experiment. Experiments in vomiting, in human conception, in bodily freezing—he is the hero of the experimental method. “See for yourself,” he says. “Experiment. Go in with the knife and lay bare and see what you see.” With his servant, Howison, he contrives methods to get bodies for dissection (until the Anatomy Act of 1832, these could only be stolen, or taken from the hangman). Alone, he fashions new and wondrous beings; he transplants a human tooth into a cock's comb; he feeds a pig on madder, so its teeth come out striped, red and white; he dissects a gibbon. He is famous, yet unsatisfied, and he wears himself out in endless experimentation. For the dead, being dead, no longer answer his questions. They defy understanding. He picks and hacks and dissects them, but they cannot tell him where they have gone.

Mantel blends fact and fiction, running together the stories of these two historical figures, the Giant and Mr Hunter. Much of the detail (Mary Tofts who gave birth to rabbits, William Harvey on the circulation of the blood) is true. And the prevailing mood remains one of defiant wonderment. The facts are bleak: people in Ireland and in England starve and die. Joe Vance runs off with the money the Giant was keeping by him in order to rebuild Mulroney's tavern, back in Ireland, with columns and marble fire-places, decorated with urns and wreaths. But the stories the Giant tells, which are known, finished, or adapted by his many listeners, are full of a wonder which does not cease. As he lies dying on a floor in London, with his toes bursting out of his shoes, the Giant reconsiders his life. He might have been a poet, a diviner, a poor scholar, but for all his worldly wisdom, he would have learnt no more than this: that unless we plead for history, on our knees, we are lost and done for.

It is a curious message for a novelist to tell; but Hilary Mantel sounds oddly serious. The Giant, O'Brien has a weary, off-balance quality that catches where we least expect it. Things are about to happen, or have just happened, and we missed them or waved them through.

Teresa Waugh (review date 12 September 1998)

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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.

There is something very funny about their arrival in England where they see for the first time houses rather than hovels. Pybus knows nothing about stairs and, ever gullible, believes Vance, who explains sardonically that Englishmen can fly. English women can't: they must remain on the ground floor.

Parallel with the story of O'Brien and his friends runs the story of John Hunter. Europe's most famous surgeon. From a deprived childhood in Scotland, the red-headed Hunter follows his one surviving brother to London to become a doctor. He falls out eventually with Wullie because of a disagreement about the placenta, and sets up on his own to conduct endless experiments—on animals, on paupers and on dead bodies, all of which are acquired in the most grotesque ways. The description of how Hunter is himself infected with the clap by a pauper on whom he is carrying out an experiment is particularly disgusting. A vivid picture of the event may remain with the reader on many a dark night to come.

Initially Vance and O'Brien encounter considerable success in London; they make money and begin to live with a degree of comfort. They eat green peas and strawberries and the giant washes with Castile soap, but before long things start to go awry; he begins to grow again and to sicken. Hunter comes to see him, and the two form a bond which leads to the unfolding of a particularly gruesome denouement.

Strangely enough, despite all the disgustingness, this is a very sad book. It is also one which gives a blood-curdling insight into the poverty, squalor, deprivation and misery of life in the so-called olden days when medicine was rudimentary, freaks were for staring at, bodies were for stealing and selling, and filth and vermin abounded.

The sadness lies not only in the fate of O'Brien, a wise man among so much folly, and a humble one, but also in the tragedy of Hunter's plight, for we must remember that, repulsive though his ways may be to us, he is a great scientist and, inevitably, a man who questions not only our bodily functions, but the meaning of life itself.

One of the most moving passages in the book is about Hunter:

It is the dead themselves who move him to tears. Numb to the scents of a hot summer's evening, deaf to laughter, blind to clouds.

He wants to know where they have gone, how the soul escapes and what it weighs. Both Hunter and O'Brien, competing against life's unequal odds, somehow exemplify man's perpetual struggle and leave us wondering.

Mantel moves her story on with a remarkable lightness of touch and there is nothing for it but to bow before the exquisite talent with which she has turned a sow's ear into a silk purse.

John Mullan (review date 1 October 1998)

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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 only what Reynolds saw, but how Hunter saw himself. He is dressed in the rumpled velvet suit of the intellectual in the privacy of his study. On his table the ink is uncorked; his right hand dangles, holding his pen. Hunter had been extremely reluctant to sit for Reynolds, but Sharp cajoled him into it. (The engraver's enthusiasm is itself a sign of Hunter's status: there was a good market for the two-guinea prints that Sharp sold of his copy of the Reynolds portrait.) Hunter finally seems to have been persuaded into taking some kind of interest in the enterprise, for he must have expressed his opinions about the details that the artist would paint in once the portrait was finished. On the table and in an alcove behind it are objects chosen with what can only have been the thoughtfulness of the sitter to declare his achievements.

Propped open is the anatomist's own drawing-book, displaying, on the verso, six fore-limbs, arranged in descent from the most specialised (the horse), through deer, pig, dog, monkey to the most ‘primitive', man. On the recto are six skulls, another ‘graded series’ running down from the skull of a European human to an aboriginal human, and then chimpanzee, monkey, dog, crocodile. Next to this folio are two manuscript volumes: a Natural History of Vegetables and a Natural History of Fossils, signifying the range of Hunter's researches, and both presumably intended for eventual publication. Under a bell-jar is a strange, plant-like object whose once delicate tracery is clear only in Sharp's engraving. It is a ‘bronchial tree’: a fragile cast made, with great skill, by injecting wax into a lung and corroding away the tissue to leave visible the injected passages. Perhaps its odd beauty appealed to the painter too, but it was undoubtedly included as evidence of the anatomist's technical accomplishment. Above is another jar, containing a specimen that only a few of Hunter's fellow professionals would have recognised: the metacarpal bone of an ass showing a successful bone graft. Here, for those able to recognise what they saw, was the work of Hunter the pioneering experimentalist.

In the top-right corner of the portrait are two skeletal human shins and feet. Dangling into the painting, their effect is now a little comical. All the more so when we know that they would have been recognised as the extremities of the skeleton of ‘Charles O'Brien', the Irish Giant. O'Brien's skeleton was one of Hunter's most famous specimens. From the first, there were dark stories about how it was obtained. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, bodies had to be procured either from the hangman or by grave-robbing. Before his death another, almost contemporary, ‘Irish Giant', Patrick Cotter, knowing that the anatomists would be itching to get hold of his corpse, prescribed measures to prevent the theft of his body from the Roman Catholic chapel in Bristol where he was to be buried. There were to be three coffins, the outer two made of lead, and iron bars were to be embedded in the concrete above the grave. For once, the defences against the ‘resurrectionists’ were successful. In 1906, exactly a century after Cotter's death, contractors laying dtainage rediscovered his undisturbed remains. O'Brien, however, who was supposed to have paid friends to bury him at sea, did not escape.

Anatomists had to be at least tactful and often secretive about their activities. Hunter's brother William, a famous fellow surgeon whose portrait now flanks John's in the College's Council Room, advised his students in the anatomy hall that, in order to ‘avoid giving offence to the populace', they should ‘out of doors, speak with caution of what may be passing here’. To ‘the populace', their researches seemed fearful, particularly because of their hunger for recently dead bodies. In 1871, John Hunter testified, as an expert witness in a trial, that he had dissected ‘some thousands’ of human subjects. He is said to have acknowledged his procurement of the Giant's fresh corpse by announcing, without further explanation, in one of his lectures to fellow anatomists: ‘I have recently acquired a tall man.’ They would have known that he had been after it. Acquisition was deviously done and Hunter had agents to supply him. Presumably their means were their own business.

Yet in the Reynolds portrait Hunter's possession of the Giant's skeleton is a matter of pride. It is emblematic of his curiosity about the nature of human growth and development. Believing that the explanation of the Giant's stature was in his bones, he had boiled away the flesh and ‘articulated’ the skeleton (a simple matter for a man who had successfully articulated the skeleton of an elephant from George II's menagerie). We now know that Charles O'Brien was a pituitary giant, his abnormal height, just short of eight feet, the result of a tumour in the pituitary gland leading to over-production of growth hormone. To Hunter, the exact causes remained a mystery. Still, this singular specimen retained its value, held in Hunter's private museum in Leicester Square, where gentlemen who shared his unaffrighted curiosity about the mechanics of life might sometimes inspect his matchless collection.

The appearance in the portrait of the Giant's remains—or a bit of them—says something about the gap between the experimental scientist and the public in the late 18th century. Seeking to show himself in the tireless pursuit of enlightened knowledge, Hunter chose an image that combined two popular aspects of his reputation (and that of others of his trade): the anatomist as body-stealer; the anatomist as monstrosity-seeker. This is all the more striking now. Hunter's collection, as much of it as has survived the centuries and the bombing of the Royal College in 1941, is today part of the College's Hunterian Museum. The Giant's skeleton is still on display there, a freak of nature, but part of a scientific account of the workings of the human body. Our knowledge of the man who left his collection to science, however, is still tangled in apocryphal tales. The fullest biographies, John Kobler's The Reluctant Surgeon (1960) and Jessie Dobson's John Hunter (1969), give us extraordinary narratives about his strange experiments and his pursuit of specimens with what Kobler calls ‘an avidity verging on mania’. Yet it is difficult to know how reliable many of these stories are. The most recent biography, George Quist's John Hunter (1981), confines itself to ‘known and established’ facts and is a much thinner book.

Most of Hunter's papers, including all those depicted in the Reynolds portrait, were burnt after his death by his brother-in-law and first biographer, Sir Everard Home. Home, knighted after successfully treating a sore on the Prince Regent's head, was himself a successful society surgeon who rose to become vice-president of the Royal Society. His prestige as a researcher rested largely on the papers he read to the Society; it seems certain that many of these drew, without acknowledgment, on Hunter's unpublished writings, which Home destroyed in order to cover his tracks. What survived was the Hunter myth: the idea of the ruthless, obsessive experimenter, the collector of freaks and abortions, the monster-man. It outlived his work as a practising, and apparently humane, surgeon. It is a myth that returns in a new and haunting form in Hilary Mantel's latest novel [The Giant, O'Brien] where the stories of Hunter and of his Giant tell us of the horror, rather than the wonder, of life. The imagined lives of these two characters are interleaved, as history draws them together. And it is Hunter, in Mantel's imagining, who is the true freak, his sensibilities misshapen in his deforming quest for knowledge. The biographical captions in the Hunterian Museum locate him in ‘an intellectual climate of free-thinking, rational, unsentimental humanitarianism’. Mantel's novel finds him a cold and terrible spirit. He buys the corpses of babies by the inch. He is hungry to understand life but able to live only among death.

The Giant also comes from myth. For him and his progress through the book, Mantel has invented an odd, fabular prose, half-lyrical and half-perplexed, as if he were moving through some fairy tale and the narration were adapting itself to him. Indeed, fairy tales are what he tells to those who accompany him from rural Ireland to London, where he and they seek their fortunes by exhibiting this prodigy of nature. In the poverty of Ireland and the squalor of London—each just suggested by the novel, most evident in the shrunken aspirations of its characters—his tales seem to transport these desperate men to worlds of luxury and sensuality and mysterious reward. As they listen, the Giant's supporters (‘friends’ they turn out not to be) throw in their own cruel or cynical comments, guessing at the stories’ outcomes. Invariably, they fail to foresee the shades of darkness that overwhelm wonder at the end of each of the Giant's narrations. The freaks of London are ‘the characters set free from these stories’. Life replicates their premonitions and their horrors.

The person who was ‘the Giant, O'Brien’ was from Littlebridge in Ulster. His real name was Charles Byrne. Oddly, Mantel has this the other way round, making O'Brien his real and Byrne his stage name—and losing the interesting historical point that Patrick Cotter, the successor ‘Irish Giant', also renamed himself O'Brien. Her Giant is whimsically intelligent and can play with the meaning of a Latin aphorism as well as weave a magical tale. She acknowledges in an afterword that the real O'Brien ‘bears little resemblance’ to her character. He may well have been mentally retarded, though newspaper puffs declared that ‘the ingenious and judicious who have honoured him with their company have bestowed the greatest encomiums on him, and on their departure have expressed their approbation and satisfaction.’ (The supposed gentlemanliness of such a ‘curiosity’ was a characteristic 18th-century fascination. The most interesting freak was a freak with good manners.) But it is important for Mantel's fiction that, although she has invented her giant, he did exist. Just as there was, among an educated few, a covert rage for anatomical experiment at the time, so there was a popular passion for freaks and prodigies, particularly for giants and dwarves. We must believe, and the novelist must herself believe, that there is a history behind the fiction, a history that is there to be glanced at or touched on. Most who read the novel will not know anything of the research that went into it, but many will be able to sense the evidence of the novelist's intelligence: the way that research then gets left out of what she writes.

When he comes to London, Mantel's Giant encounters other strange beings, those characters from macabre fairy tales, exhibited for money. She has got most of them from advertisements of the time. The Collectanea of the clergyman and antiquarian Daniel Lysoms, huge volumes of cuttings from contemporary newspapers which are now in the British Library, has a whole section devoted to giants and dwarves. ‘It seems as though we should have a war of the giants,’ observed one London newspaper in 1785. Patrick Cotter was also exhibited as ‘the Irish Giant', and we do not know for sure whether he or Byrne is depicted in Rowlandson's sketch, made into a print, of the Surprising Irish Giant at St James's Street. Mantel makes grim comedy out of the pressures on the Giant and his companions from all the other prodigies clamouring for the public's attention in Georgian London. Rowlandson depicted The Wonderful Learned Pig performing in the room where one also paid to see the Irish Giant. A contemporary newspaper advertisement declared that this ‘entertaining and sagacious Animal’ could count and spell, and ‘likewise tells any Lady's Thoughts in Company’. As ‘Toby, the sapient pig’ this creature reappears in the novel along with other beings from the ‘exhibitions’ of the period. Mantel imagines stiff competition in ‘the freak racket', between the pinheads and the Spotted Boy, the man with ‘flippers where others have arms and legs’ and the ‘What Is It, dragging its chain in the next room’. ‘Nature's curlicues and flourishes’ is how the Giant thinks of them, ‘the fruit of God's absent-mindedness’.

No wonder the mob hates anatomists; their appetite for nature's misbegotten forms is a theme in this novel. Before they sell his corpse to Hunter's ghoulish, ever-present agent, Howison, the Giant's companions take part in an enjoyable riot against these feared predators. An ‘anatomy', says one of them, struggling with a word for a new kind of monster, is a man ‘who cuts up persons after they're dead and pulls out their hearts and eats them’. Mantel, too, imagines the anatomist as well worth fearing. Stalking alone ‘by the crepuscular Thames’ in hope of suicides, ruminating among his copper vats and nameless specimens, Hunter nurtures an appetite that can never be satisfied. ‘I'll go barefoot for knowledge.’ It was rumoured that he deliberately infected himself with what he thought was gonorrhea, but was in fact syphilis, in order to collect observations for his 1786 Treatise on the Venereal Disease (avidly read by James Boswell). Even Mantel cannot quite believe that curiosity would be so unflinching, and writes a gruesome little scene in which the surgeon is stabbed with an infected scalpel (just where it hurts most) by one of his resentful ‘subjects’ (paupers on whom he experimented for meagre payments). In fact, the myth of Hunter's self-inoculation was scotched by George Quist in a 1979 paper. The story, designed to fit the image of the inhuman experimentalist, was fabricated by a pupil of Hunter's, Jesse Foot, who had become a disgruntled rival.

One of Hunter's biographers wants to root his researches in an early wonder at ‘the glories and complexities of the natural world', and another to celebrate ‘his desire to promote truth and progress in all branches of science’. Quist, a fellow surgeon, tells us that he ‘worshipped Nature with profound humility’. Like those before her who have made a myth of Hunter, Mantel has decided that his dedication was disturbing enough to license her tale of a dark quest for enlightenment. (‘The Scotch nightman', Horace Walpole called him.) For the surgeon, as for the doomed Giant, she invents a strange and suitable prose, self-tormenting and tireless, restive with theories and suppositions that cry out to be tested. It is no surprise that one of many legends about John Hunter suggests that Robert Louis Stevenson based Dr Jekyll's laboratory on Hunter's house in Leicester Square, Jekyll having ‘bought the house from the heirs of a celebrated surgeon’. Hunter remains a figure as legendary as his Giant. Myth can make for cliché, but Mantel brings her chosen legends to new life.

Jean Richardson (essay date 5 October 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2098

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 package. The one constant is that all the books are driven by ideas and passionately concerned with politics.

Although her novels have been widely acclaimed in Britain, they initially received less attention in the U.S. But due to the indefatigable efforts of Mantel's editor, Marion Wood, who has issued four of her books in trade paperback under her own imprint at Henry Holt, Mantel's name has become more familiar to American readers. This month, thanks, in part, to the sterling reviews of Mantel's previous books, Wood will release her new novel, The Giant, O'Brien (Forecasts, July 13), as a hardcover original.

Set in the 18th century, “the period where I feel myself to be located,” Mantel says, The Giant, O'Brien describes the lives of two historical figures, the Irish giant Charles Byrnes and the Scottish anatomist John Hunter, who vied for his corpse. It was inspired by a footnote in a book on neurology that Mantel happened to be reviewing about eight years ago. “I knew immediately it was something for me, that this was my book,” she says. She discovered that there was a lot of material on Hunter, who she thought would be her main character, but that little was known about the giant himself—though his bones can be seen today in the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum in London.

Mantel thought it would be another big historical novel, but her ideas often change in the writing, and she's ended up with quite a slim volume, succinct and intensely lyrical. She makes no concessions to the reader, who is asked to accompany the giant—a metaphor for the Irish body politic—on a journey through the squalor of Georgian London. He is a storyteller, a touching, childlike freak who finds that his immense height is only a five-minute wonder, and that he is worth more dead than alive. Underlying the story is the conflict between England and Ireland, between poetry and materialism.

PW meets Mantel at her immaculate home on a new housing estate on the outskirts of the small town of Working, about 30 miles from London. She does most of her creative writing here in the early evening, and her study is a neat, simply furnished little room with a view over the rest of the housing estate. She acknowledges that it doesn't offer either distractions or inspiration. Pinned up on the wall are a series of cards on which she is planning a screenplay for her French Revolution novel, published in 1992 as A Place of Greater Safety. Her voice is soft, with only a faint trace of a north country accent. Her mind may be intimidating, but outwardly she has an appealing gentleness and a delightfully mischievous smile.

Mantel was born in a small town in the High Peak region of Derbyshire in the north of England in 1952. She was the oldest of three children of Irish Catholic immigrant parents. When she was 11, the family moved to the neighboring county of Cheshire. Like Carmel McBain, the heroine of her novel An Experiment in Love, Mantel attended a convent school and, at age 18, went to study law at the London School of Economics.

She had no plans to become a writer. “I was the first person in my family to go to university,” she says. “And in my teens I believed I could do anything:’ Mantel entertained the idea of becoming a barrister and entering politics but finally took a job as a social worker in a geriatric hospital in the northwest of England. “Then,” she recalls, “after about a year, I began to see what I really wanted to do, and I started writing.”

Her choice of a subject was dauntingly ambitious: a novel that centered on the French Revolutionary leaders Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins, but which also included a cast of thousands. “I was 22,” she says, “and I knew it was an enormous research project, but at that age, life seems to stretch before you. It was impossible to combine writing with a job that I had to bring home and think about at night, so I decided to quit the professional world and instead took jobs selling clothes in department stores. Although it was very tiring physically, it left my mind free. My favorite thing was to get into the sheepskin department in August. I was left alone for hours and hours and I could form up my sentences and marshal my thoughts.”

Mantel married her high-school sweetheart, Gerald McEwan, against considerable opposition from her parents who thought the couple were too young. “You have to cut your moorings,” she remarks. McEwan, who was very supportive of her research, became the long-suffering recipient of a monologue about the French Revolution that flowed on from day-to-day. Then, in 1977, his work took them to Botswana, which brought an end to her research.


They stayed in Botswana for five years, living in a small border town where she taught in a secondary school. It was a quiet, dreamy, cut-off life in which much of the real world seemed shadowy in contrast to the world inside her head, the world of the left bank in the 1790s.

Then, in 1982, they moved to Saudi Arabia, and Mantel decided that she must put aside her book-in-progress and try to write something contemporary with more commercial potential. “I really only wanted to write one book, and I saw myself as a documentary writer rather than a novelist, but gradually I came to realize that it might be possible to write something else.”

The “something else” turned out to be the black comedy Every Day Is Mother's Day, based on her experiences as a social worker in 1974. It was followed by a sequel, Vacant Possession. Agented by Bill Hamilton at A.M. Heath, the books were published by Chatto & Windus in 1985 and 1986, respectively.

Both were well received. “Hilary Mantel's wit is wonderfully and startlingly nasty,” wrote the Sunday Times, while the left-leaning New Statesman described her writing as “filled with fiendish glee.”

She returned from Saudi Arabia in 1986 with a stack of notes about her life there that was to become Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. The story of a young woman who accompanies her engineer husband to Jidda and, like Mantel herself, lives in a city center block apart from the expatriate community, it re-creates with menacing brilliance the chilling isolation of life in a drab fiat where the mysterious goings-on of the neighbors hint at adultery and ultimately murder. It is, perhaps inevitably since it is written from the point of view of a Western woman, critical of Saudi culture, especially its obsessive secrecy. Although the book didn't bring a fatwa down on Mantel's head, neither she nor her husband are likely ever to return to Saudi Arabia.

The realization that she could earn a living, though a rather precarious one, by her writing was reinforced by the award of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 1987. The prize was sponsored by the Spectator magazine, an influential right-wing weekly, the magazine's film critic. Thanks to Auberon Waugh she also began reviewing for the Literary Review and found herself with a respectable income, a widening readership and a degree of visibility invaluable to an aspiring writer.

Her next book, Fludd, mined a more gentle, happier vein and led the Guardian to hail her as being “in the front rank of novelists writing in English today.” Set in a fictitious village in the north of England, it draws on childhood memories in its account of life in a bleak Catholic community that is transformed by the arrival of Fludd, a curate who is part angel but also perhaps part devil. Her experiences in Botswana were to surface in A Change of Climate, the disquieting story of two former missionaries who return to Norfolk after their infant son has been murdered in Africa.

Despite her growing success, Mantel's French Revolution novel remained unpublished. “I'd put it away in a cupboard’ she says, “and I was afraid to take it off the shelf in case it wasn't any good.” But she mentioned the manuscript to a friend who was writing an article about the fate of first novels, and once word of its existence got out, there were offers to publish it. After an initial feeling of panic, she set about revising the novel. “I didn't need to make any great changes, apart from building up the characters of the women, who were rather shadowy. I think this reflected the change of attitude towards women that had taken place between the 1970s and 1990s, and made it a funnier, more balanced book.”

A Place of Greater Safety (published in the U.S. by Atheneum) won the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award and raised her profile on these shores. “Riveting. … The book overflows with a natural storyteller's energy',” said the New Yorker, while the Chicago Tribune called it “Brilliant, edgy historical fiction that catches the jittery, violent flux of the French Revolution.”

In 1988, with the publication of Eight Months, Mantel left Chatto & Windus for Viking (all of her books had already appeared in paperback from Penguin). The Giant, O'Brien, was published by Fourth Estate, a small house with a formidable fiction list that Mantel discovered when she was one of the judges of the Booker Prize in 1990. “Over the past two years, the team I'd always worked with has broken apart,” she says of her decision to leave Viking. “I also had a feeling that it was time for a fresh start. My perception of myself as a writer had changed, and changing my publisher reflected this.”

Pressed to explain how her view of her craft has changed, Mantel describes the experience of writing the short story, “Terminus”—published in the London Review of Books in 1997—while traveling to London by train. Told in the first person, it's a disturbing ghost story in which the writer thinks she has seen her dead father in an adjoining train and then searches for him at Waterloo, only to realize that perhaps he was traveling incognito and didn't want, on this occasion, to meet her. The combination of practical details—might her father want a coffee, a paperback, something from Boots the Chemist?—and her reflective insights gives the story a haunting dreamlike quality.

Mantel says the opening sentences came to her while en route to “an interminable meeting about Arts Council awards, and all the time I was thinking”—she laughs at the memory—“I wonder if they'd mind if I got out my pen and started writing, and then they could actually see a writer in action. When I got back to Waterloo, I bought myself a new pen and started writing on the train. I finished the story when I got home, and when it was done I knew that I didn't need to change a word. And I'd never written like that before.

“I've never found writing very easy,” she says. “But this story seemed to arrive by extraordinary means, and when I'd finished it I thought, now I'm a writer. It was as though I'd achieved a kind of breakthrough.

“That was phase one before,” Mantel reflects. “And now it's phase two.”

John Bayley (review date 8 October 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3314

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 delirium of restlessness so graphically noted by the young Wordsworth in a line that later went into The Prelude. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” with a sense of life that would not let one keep still, but was like “an uneasy place” in one's own body.

The Giant, O'Brien offers a different and more bizarre glimpse of unquiet history. More like Swift than Scott, its dazzling technique has Swift's way of taking the extraordinary for granted, while demurely drawing our attention to some silly spectacle that attracted the crowds. To London in 1782 came the Irish Giant, a freak well over seven feet tall, spied out in the bogs by an unscrupulous agent who lures him to the rich center of the civilized world, a place where poverty can be even direr than it was among the Irish cabins, and injustice still more commonplace. With the Giant O'Brien and his minder, Joe Vance, come young Jankin and Pybus, children from the same village, whom the giant has entertained with countless tales from Celtic myth, and the deeds of Irish kings and fairies. When they arrive at the quayside of an English port, their first unexpected view is of a lordly negro.

On the quayside, Jankin leapt in the air, pointing. He was swelling with excitement, bubbling at the mouth. The black man he had seen strolled calmly towards them. He wore a good broadcloth coat and clean cravat, being, as he was, employed at the docks as a respectable and senior kind of clerk. He was young, his plum-bloom cheeks faintly scarred, his eyes mild.

Jankin danced in front of him. He gave a shriek, like one of the parakeets the Giant had heard of. His grubby hand shot up, massaging the man's face, rubbing in a circle to see would the colour come off. Jankin stared at his grey-white, seamed palm, and clawed out his fingers, then rubbed and rubbed again at the fleshy, flattened nose.

“Get down, dog,” Joe Vance said. “The gentleman is as respectable as yourself.”

The black man reached out, and took Jankin's forearm in his hand. Gently he removed it from himself, pressing it inexorably into Jankin's chest, as if he would fuse it with the ribs. His mild eyes were quite dead. His mouth twitched, but it did not speak. He passed on, his tread firm, over the cobbles and towards the city he now called home.

The Giant said, “People are staring at me.”

Vance said, “Yes, they would. I should hope so. That is the general idea.” He rubbed his hands together. “Sooner we get you indoors and housed, the better for us all. We don't want them gaping for free.”

The Giant saw the parakeets, green and gold, flit and swoop in a hot tangle of deeper green, and heard the alarm shrieks from their beating throats, and felt rope cut into skin and smelled the sweet, burned, branded flesh.

He called out after the black man, “Poor soul, you have a brand on your body.”

The man called back, “Shog off, freak.”

Things are not what they seem, or rather they do not appear as our conventional imagination of the past is accustomed to present them. This negro happens to be a sober citizen, a trusted overseer of bourgeois activities. The Irishman, enslaved as a freak, is a creature whose myth-stored mind, no less than his outlandish size, makes him far more exotic than the scornful black. The world at a given moment is how Swift sees it, as well as Sir Walter Scott, and Hilary Mantel has contrived to add her own unique and special slice of vision, one to arrest and delight any inquisitive reader.

Her method has relations with that of Peter Ackroyd in Hawksmoor, Chatterton, or Milton in America, where the past has been transformed into a scholarly fantasy of equal originality. But Mantel's vision is the more oblique and economical, the precision of her language—a language appropriate to an Irish giant and his myrmidons—as sharp-pointed as poetical, leaving the reader to rejoice in a continual dance of subtle inference. The brave pathetic voyagers, drawn helplessly as by a magnet to the metropolis, are already adapting themselves on shipboard to a new set of myths, as well as to a new mirage of expectation.

London is like the sea and the gallows. It refuses none.

Sometimes on the journey, trapped in the ship's stink and heave, they had talked about the premises they would have at journey's end. They should be commodious, Vance said, and in a fashionable neighbourhood, central and well-lit, on a broad thoroughfare where the carriages of the gentry can turn without difficulty.

“My brother has a lodging in St. Clement's Lane,” Claffey said. “I don't know if it's commodious.”

Vance blew out through his lips. “Nest of beggars,” he said. “As to your perquisites and your embellishments, Charlie, they say a pagoda is the last word in fashion.”

“A pagoda?” The Giant frowned. “I'd sooner a triumphal arch.”

“Let's see when we get there,” Vance said. “I think we'll call you Byrne, Charles Byrne. It's more select.”

A lurch of the timbers, a fresh outswell of mould and fust; Jankin was sick—he had the knack and habit—on Claffey's feet. Claffey kicked out. Her words flew in the stinking space.

“Will you have a story?” the Giant soothed them. For the time must be passed, must be passed.

“Go on,” Vance said.

The Giant did not stop to ask what kind of story they would like, for they were contentious, like fretful children, and were in no position to know what was good for them. “One day,” he began, “the son of the king of Ireland journeyed to the East to find a bride.”

“Where East?” Vance asked. “East London?”

“Albania,” the Giant said. “Or far Cathay.”

“The Land of Nod,” said Claffey, sneering. “The Kingdom of Cockaigne.”

“Wipe yourself, stench-foot,” O'Brien said, “then pin back your ears. Do you think I tell tales for the good of my soul?”

“Sorry,” Claffey said.

“One day the son of the king of Ireland journeyed to the East to find a bride, and he hadn't gone far on his road when he met a short green man. The strange gentleman hailed him, saying—”

“I don't like a tale with a short green man in it,” Jankin said.

The Giant turned to him, patient. “If you will wait a bit, Jankin, the short green man will grow as big as the side of a hill.”

“Oh,” Jankin said.

The wind moaned, the boards creaked and shifted beneath them. From the deck the world appeared no longer solid but a concatenated jumble of grey dots, sometimes defined and sometimes fusing at the margins, the waves white and rearing, the clouds blackening en masse, the horizon crowded with their blocky forms and their outlines unnatural, like the sides of unimaginable buildings, set storey on storey like the tower of Babel.

Conversing with the sailors—who cowered away from his bulk—the Giant found he had regained his command of the English language. One day, he thought, we will be making tales out of this. Our odyssey to the pith of London's heart, to undying fame and a heavy purse. Rancour will be forgotten, and the reek of our fear in this ship's dark hole. In those days Jankin will say, Do you remember, Claffey, when I was sick on your feet? And Claffey will clap him on the back, and say, Oh I do indeed.

Hilary Mantel and the Giant between them have begun to show us, as many an Irish writer has done before them, the truly marvelous powers—to adapt the old Roman proverb—of lingua inglese in bocca irlandese, the English tongue in the mouth of an Irishman.

As well as the Irish, London does not refuse the Scots. John Hunter, whose background was almost as humble as that of the Giant O'Brien, but whose reading had already been more worldly and more practical, once quoted Dr. Johnson's dictum to a friend. “Sir, let me tell you that the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to London.” John Hunter had found it so, and so had his brother Wullie. The pair quarreled later over the structure of the placenta, but in early days they were friends as well as rivals. John forsook a safe post in St. George's hospital, and a little house to go with it, in favor of a job as army surgeon. “A step retrograde, I'd have thought,” mocked the superior Wullie, who by now “had got his dainty fingers up to the wrist in the cunt of the Queen of England … puffing and squeezing out of her innards a Prince of Wales.”

But John had the last laugh, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, the greatest scientific honor London had to offer, a full three months before his brother. This was on account of his greatly respected treatise on gunshot wounds, after which he embarked on a treatise on the teeth, hundreds of which he had been able to extract for research purposes from the corpses that lay about a battlefield (many of which, incidentally, later found their way, suitably mounted, into the mouths of the rich and toothless). In the absence of battlefields Dr. Hunter later required a reliable supply of dead bodies, and so called in the services of the London grave robbers, or Resurrection Men. Mantel's mordant style enjoys deploying the expertise on this topic which her historical investigations have produced. In a crowded cemetery—crowded not only with the dead but with the tenements of the living—it is essential to make no noise, and a wooden shovel should always be used.

The scene is set now for the meeting of the Irish Giant (his impresario Joe Vance has given him the more poetic name of Byrne) and the diminutive Scottish doctor. It is, symbolically, a confrontation of science with the old beliefs, of steely inductive progress with gentle magic and superstition. The Giant, alas, has only limited success as Giant, and most of what he earns as a nine-days wonder goes into the pocket of Vance and other hangers-on in the stews and hovels they find to live in.

His first audience, it is true, was full of an admiration not altogether edifying.

“Sir Giant,” said a second man, “are there any more at home like you?”

“Alas, my upbringing was solitary. There were some few paltry fellows—two in particular, the brothers Knife, conceived on top of a haystack in our parish—who had a conceit they were tall, and who used to extort money from the credulous; but I know nothing of their lineage, and look upon them rather as sports of nature than as what I am myself, a descendent of the ancient native lords. And there is a lad named Patrick, Patrick O'Brien, who has sometimes claimed kinship with me—who has indeed, I hear, sometimes claimed to be me—but he is no more high, sir, than you are a Chinaman.”

“So accept no substitutes,” Joe said brightly. “Charles Byrne, Tallest Man in the World.”

Claffey said to Pybus, under his breath, “I wondered when they'd mention Pat O'Brien.…”

“Picture his snuff box,” one fellow said. “It would be like a soup-plate.”

“Picture his linen bill! It will be like the national debt.”

“Picture his …” And the speaker choked; the whole room fell back as one, and opened its eyes wide, and fanned itself with a hand. …

The Giant leaned forward, causing the front row to sway back. “As you suspect, gents,” he said, “my organ is proportionate.”

A new sound filled the room: wistful, sibilant, yearning. The Giant sat back while it played itself out, melted sighing into the corners of the room. A young fellow spoke up, gathering his courage: “Yet women say, the women I know … they say size don't count.”

“Do they?” The Giant held up his hand, scrutinised his fingernails. “And they say that to you, do they? Ah well. One can imagine why they would.”

A little laughter, edgy. “I see, gentlemen,” the Giant said, “that you wish me to enlarge. On the theme. On the subject. It is proportionate, as I say. Will I stand up again, so you can appraise my proportions? No; there is no need, I perceive; you can view my assets while I recline. A Tower of Ivory,” he explained, “at the base of which they fall, stunned. Not but what they do not recover themselves; the fainting, I think, is out of politeness largely. And then, gentlemen, their rhapsodical sighs and moans—but I see by your faces that you already know those sounds, albeit only in your imaginations. First they try to scale this tower—the ambition is natural to them—with their slick little tongues like the tongues of kittens. When I am satisfied in that way, I put out my little finger and flip two or three of them on their backs. When I say ‘two or three,’ when I say ‘them,’ I speak advisedly—for I have about me every night an eager set of the female sex. They fear … they fear indeed—but oh, it is their fear that delights them! … And when you, at some stale hour, are rolling from your mattresses, and roaring for your piss-pots, and grinding the yellow pills from your eyes—and when, I say, your foetid molls are trolling forth, booted from your couches, unwashed, fishy, chafed between the thighs, slowly dripping your lukewarm seed—my douce delights are receiving their bouquets, with pearls of pretty laughter. Each one carries within her a giant baby. How can she not conceive? My seed is propelled within her like a whirlwind. I do not spill forth, like little men—I come like the wrath of God. When the years have flown, and my dear delights are grandmas, they will need only to think of the business we transacted, and their dried parts will spin like windmills in a gale.”

The Giant is sufficiently famous for John Hunter to hear of and examine him, and when the rumor goes round that he has fallen sick Hunter lays his plans accordingly. An eight-foot skeleton (the giant has waxed even taller among the teeming refuse and ginshops of Cheapside) would be a real feather in the cap of the College of Surgeons.

But when offered money, which in London buys anything, the Giant proves unexpectedly adamant. He will not leave himself here: his bones belong to the misty land of song and story from which he comes. The surgeons’ pleas are in vain, but the giant's health is fast failing. The giant begs Jankin and his other young followers to bury him at sea in a casket of lead if they cannot contrive to get him home to Ireland. In a last outburst of grieving he rocks himself to and fro, and thinks: “No person rocked me, I was a giant child. The cradle would have burst.” Such moments of pathos are unemphatic, beautifully done; Mantel's prose is too exquisitely sure and confident to need the services of a Dickensian death scene. “As the evening cools, he rallies a little. He says ‘There was once a race of people called the Astomi. They had no mouths. They lived on the smell of apples.’” The others are “standing in the shadows, waiting for him. … But he dies to the sound of What Is It, dragging its chain in the next room.”

We see at once how “What Is It” got its no-name. The giant lives and dies in a houseful of hideous human curiosities, doomed while they live to be exposed to the public in booths and at fairs. A week later, “when the Giant's bones, boiled brown, were already hanging in the workshop of the impoverished John Hunter” (for Vane and his following have driven a hard bargain), “Pybus and Jankin were crossing Drury Lane, on their way to becoming drunk at the Fox Tavern.” Science has won the battle: but is science in its elementary impulses so much more than these lowest instincts of human curiosity, the instinct to peer and to wonder at what is strange?

Hilary Mantel has felt herself into the poetics of history with singular intensity. Although her novel is in one sense a brilliant pastiche, drawing on Swift and on Joyce, deploying all the tricks of understatement and of what the great Russian formalist Shklovsky called “making it strange,” it triumphantly justifies and reanimates these well-worn methods. It becomes her own style, as acute and arresting as is her vision of history. At the book's end the dreams and tales that were natural to the Giant begin to mingle indistinguishably with the insatiable curiosity of the scientist, John Hunter himself. “I want knowledge. I want time,” he is heard saying. He cannot get a large porpoise for love or money, nor a bittern “to hear it boom, and to learn how it makes that noise.” To learn … But the Giant's last dreams may have been of King Conaire and his singing sword. “He was the son of a bird-god. His head spoke after it was severed. Thank you, it said. Thank you for listening.”

Today the Giant's bones are still to be viewed by any curious stranger who passes through London's Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. For modern science there is nothing very remarkable about the poor Giant, whose size, and his death too, were probably due to a disordered pituitary gland. He was likely to have been mentally retarded or, as we should say, have had learning difficulties. His wonderful speech, even his dreams, are not his own but those of the author who fashioned and dreamed him, for as she says in her preliminary note, “this is not a true story, though it is based on one.” In 1937 an article in The Lancet pointed out that “Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait of John Hunter … is gradually disappearing. … The whole picture is progressing towards extinction.” And so in a sense the Giant, and his bones and his dreams, have won in the end. A true story can fade into nothing, but an art like this retains its brightness. And as history says—it is all in the end that it can say—“Thank you for listening.”

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