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TIL: Interesting things about author Hilary Mantel and “Mantel Pieces”

Dame Hilary Mantel, author of the Wolf Hall trilogy, used to be a book reviewer. I did not know that, so this post is really a TIL (Today I Learned) reveal about Mantel, her writing, her views on books, and her personal life. She was not just any reviewer; she was a reviewer for the prestigious London Review of Books (LRB). She reviewed and wrote for that periodical regularly from the late 1980s, while establishing her career as an author. Twenty-two of these reviews have been collected as illustrated essays in Mantel Pieces.

How did she get started?

Her opening lines in Mantel Pieces are direct and candid:

“When my first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was published in 1985, I had been living abroad for some years. Its sequel came out a year later, and at that point, returning from Saudi Arabia, I needed to work out whether I could make a living as a writer. The advance for my first book had been £2000. For my second it was £4000 – a good rate of progress, but not an income. Apart from my agent and publishers, I didn’t know anyone in the media, or a single other person who was a writer. But I didn’t think I was equipped for any other trade.”

Mantel Pieces – Royal Bodies and Other Writing from the London Review of Books, by Hilary Mantel, Introduction, p. 1

Interesting how that sounds similar to how musician David Byrne describes the beginning of his career in How Music Works. Do you, budding author or musician, not feel exactly the same as she does? You need a “day job”, to make a living, to put the ramen noodles on the table while you build your career. But, being stuck in your own head, you are not connected to others who can get you work (because it really is about who you know not what you know). Yet, at the same time, you can’t see yourself doing anything but carrying on creating what you do. So, you’re between the devil and a hard place.

In the book, Mantel recounts how she found a way out of this conundrum: she got a paid job to write reviews. It was for the Literary Review, one piece per month, for £40 per piece, and it was a lifeline. The author Auberon Waugh, who had reviewed her novels, had invited her. Were it not for Waugh, who knows how Mantel’s career might have gone?

Mantel Pieces, by Hilary Mantel (Diary, Journal, Essays; HarperCollins, Oct. 6, 2020, 304 pages)

What can you learn from these pieces?

1. Good writing, whatever the genre

I learned a couple of things from reading the book: firstly, a writer’s talent does not change when they write something that is not a novel. If they are fluent, creative, eloquent, persuasive, or whatever, in their fiction writing, their writing in other genres will be as well. This is the case with Hilary Mantel – her writing is as readable and enjoyable in her reviews as it is in her novels. I could clearly recognize her voice in the reviews.

2. Writers review differently

Second, a reviewer who is also an author does look at books in a different way. They notice things that ordinary readers would not. Mantel certainly made me consider aspects of writing that I had not thought of before.

And, while looking into Mantel’s biography, I discovered this delightful tidbit about her: Mantel’s husband, Gerald McEwen, was a Geologist before he took over managing the business side of her writing. Being married to a Geologist myself, I know that dealing with rocks affects your view of life and the way you think: anyone who is involved in Geology develops a very different view of the passage of time and the way the world works. Even at arms’ length, you become aware of how small and mortal humans are in the history of the planet and how the minerals in the earth will outlast us all. The science of it is all-encompassing. The epochs and ages surround you, if you know where to look. Human history? Bah! It’s a mere dribble in the ocean of time.

3. Reviewing is a tough gig

Third, producing a well-argued and balanced review takes time and effort. In the book, Mantel has included records and copies of communications about her commissions from the LRB. The reviews were sometimes the result of long studies and coincided with events in Mantel’s personal life, and she did not churn them out like hamburgers. Each one is very, very carefully considered and worded, and through all of this there was regular communication between her and the LRB editors. There wasn’t this thing these days of simply airing your opinion and the faceless social media consumers taking it in. Each review reads as if she, as a good, critical, informed reader, is co-creating little chunks of the book in her review.

4. Some of Dame Hilary’s inner thoughts

Fourth, the essays and reviews expose her inner thoughts. The pieces, published over more than two decades, include some of her “Diary” entries, and the latter are deeply personal. If you ever wanted to know more about very famous Dame Hilary and how her head works, read this.

Another TIL moment was when I realized that while I had only ever read and focused on the Wolf Hall (or Thomas Cromwell) trilogy, she is a prolific writer and has written many novels, short story collections and a memoir. So I have been amiss and have a lot of reading to catch up on.

5. Want writing advice? Read this.

Fifth, and most importantly, if you want valuable advice about how to write, and how not to write, read this. The only thing the book lacks is an index. There are so many useful ideas, interesting facts and though-provoking references, that I would have appreciated an index so that I could easily go back to those things, as opposed to filling the book with sticky notes, folded-over pages, margin notes, and plastic tabs. (Please, HarperCollins, for the next edition, how about it?)

Style of reviews

The reviews are a blend of critique of the author’s writing style, analysis of the context of the book as a creative product, and the reporting of her experience of reading it. At times I waded through a review wondering: at which point is she going to talk about the quality of the writing rather than reiterating what the story is about?

There is, however, justification for her approach: For instance, in her essay on the 18th century revolutionary figure, Théroigne de Méricourt (p. 50), who was infamous, ferocious and quite mad, Mantel goes into detail to justify her conclusion that various biographers had, over time, depicted this woman according to accepted social norms and done quite a bit of convenient reinvention of her. In fact, it is possible that Théroigne de Méricourt, despite all the writing about her, had not actually existed.

Some tempting quotes

Here are quotes from the essays that I found most memorable:

“It’s good to remember, as every page of Tudor history is turned, the misogyny involved in repeating uncritically the age’s judgments. Jane’s villainy may come out of the same deep drawer as Anne Boleyn’s deformity – the extra finger, the one that no one saw during her lifetime.”

Mantel Pieces, by Hilary Mantel: Frocks and Shocks – On Jane Boleyn (2008), p. 211. Review of Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford, by Julia Fox

Bet you didn’t know that, did you? I had no that Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England, had six fingers on her right hand. These minuscule details are what Mantel put into her Historical Fiction series, Wolf Hall, so she was writing the review with a critical and enquiring mindset. As you can see by the date of her email to the editor at LRB (left), Nov. 18, 2003, that prefaces the chapter, at that time she was already busy writing the first book in the Wolf Hall trilogy. The killing off of Cardinal Wolsey! Ha! I like that it worried her, because it sure worried her readers afterwards.

PS: Interesting that she refers to her book as a “product”.

“Is there any point in trying to write about Madonna’s life in the conventional way? One thing everybody knows about the woman is that she has invented herself: it is a commonplace. When constant revisionism and reinvention is under way, what does it profit a biographer to drag the weary ‘facts’ before us? Something sterner is required: whole blank pages, paragraphs of exclamation marks.”

Mantel Pieces, by Hilary Mantel: Plain Girl’s Revenge Made Flesh (1992), p. 41. Review of Madonna Unauthorised, by Christopher Anderson (Left: Cover of Papa Don’t Preach, by Madonna, 1986)

Judging by this comment, Anderson tried but failed in his representation of Madonna, since his conventional style, regardless of his good intentions, simply didn’t fit his subject. Therein lies a lesson.

A Better Class of Person is written with the tautness and power of a well-organised novel. It is a ferociously sulky, rancorous book, remarkable for its account of a lower-middle-class childhood on the fringes of London, and for its vengeful portrait of a mother who had ‘eyes that missed nothing and understood nothing’.”

Mantel Pieces, by Hilary Mantel: Looking Back in Anger – John Osborne’s Memoirs, p. 31. Review of A Better Class of Person, Vol. 1, by John Osborne

Doesn’t that description tempt you to read his memoirs? It sounds so deliciously awful. If someone called my writing taut, powerful, ferociously sulky, and rancorous, I suspect I might feel complimented. (Left, John Osborne, handsome, and horrible by reputation.)

“Novelists have various tricks for concealing what they are about. If they want to use a real person as a character they can, if competent, cover their tracks well enough to avoid being sued for libel. If critics call their work ‘brutal’ or ‘offensive’ they can smirk and say that they were spinning a metaphor, forging a conceit, creating an allegory.”

Mantel Pieces, by Hilary Mantel: Diary – Bookcase Shopping in Jeddah (1989), p. 25

Handy advice, if you ask me. Always be aware of the separation between authors and their creations, when you write, read and, especially, when you review.


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