The Mantel Factor

Hilary Mantel, Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing from the London Review of Books

4th Estate, 335pp, £16.99, ISBN 97800008429973

reviewed by Alex Diggins

Friday 12 February, 1993, Liverpool: an ordinary day, in an ordinary time, in an ordinary place. And here’s an ordinary sight: two boys, barely into secondary school, walking with a small child, a toddler really, in tow. Sometimes the child smiles, apparently content to bump along with the older boys; other times, he bursts into tears, eddying his feet on the pavement, and they tug him along roughly. Adults notice this strange threesome; they are hardly inconspicuous. But the boys are convincing: the toddler has lost his mother, and they are taking him to the police station. And so the trio trundle along, towards the city outskirts.

At this point, the novelist Hilary Mantel takes up the story, falling into step beside the boys:

They walk him two miles. Two miles away from the mother who momentarily took her eyes off him. They take him to open land, beside the railway line. They strip off his lower garments. They . . . what comes next, we do not know. They beat him to death. They leave his body to be cut in half by a train.

This passage – cool, matter-of-fact; gruesome, appalling – is vintage Mantel. It is characteristic of the writing collected in Mantel Pieces, a gathering of her writing for the London Review of Books between 1987 and 2019. It’s typical not only for its violence – though there is plenty of outré bloodletting in these pieces, featuring decapitations, shootings and saintly sadomasochism – but also for the acute proximity of the narrator’s perspective. She walks beside Robert Thompson and Jon Venables as they led James Bulger to his death; she witnesses the murder and its seismic aftermath. It’s a technique she used to bedevilling effect in her Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall trilogy. There, it was uncanny; she raised the dead. Thomas Cromwell, her Tudor protagonist, bent to his papers in the early hours, or knelt to his silent God, and she was behind him: close enough to lay a hand on his shoulder, to hear his muffled thoughts. Like ghosts — another favourite Mantel subject — her gaze passed through stone, flesh and bone.

The sensational murder of James Bulger is the subject of Mantel’s essay ‘Boxes of Tissues’. She is reviewing Blake Morrison’s As If, a lyrical, hand-wringing account of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables’s trial. The book prompts memories of her time as ‘a law student with a sort of social conscience’, and she recalls a day spent at the juvenile court:

They remain in my imagination, the 14-year-old shoplifters whose faces were stamped with a sneer. They were untouchable, those offenders . . . The adults in court were agonising over them, the lawyers, social workers, magistrates. But they were merely bored.

It’s a startling turn in her thesis. But she is not championing hang-em-high draconianism; rather she proposes that child offenders, especially those accused of horrific crimes, should be tried as adults: accountable for the full legal and moral weight of their actions. It’s a bold argument — and a humane one. After all, the alternative, she reminds us, is to judge these offenders as less than persons in the eyes of the law, as inhuman. Both Thompson and Venables were found guilty in the court of public opinion before the case reached trial. And both boys were subject to the lurid probings and speculations of ‘experts [with] theories to push.’ Background was important too: murderers and victim came from deprived areas of Liverpool. And, as the case ran on, ‘the lives of poor people were turned into public property’; poverty was pathologised. At the end of her review, Mantel steps back. Having been so intimate with the messy details of the story, she urges distance, composure: ‘I am not sure we that we should indulge ourselves in our favourite pastime of exploring the nature of evil.’

Mantel Pieces is full of such telescoping moments. It is a vivaciously eclectic collection of essays, reviews, memoir, and correspondence. Yet it is united by the same dexterous and witty intelligence: the Mantel factor. The word I scribbled most often in the margins was ‘poise’. Mantel likes to hold herself steady above a subject: centred, languid, indolent like a leopard on a branch. Then she flashes out, a blur of spotted movement, and there an idea will be – helpless, at bay, pinned by sharp claws. One of the pleasures of this collection is seeing one of our finest contemporary critics in her natural habitat.

But there is a joy too in the way it charts the development of Mantel’s career. Mantel Pieces is interleaved with correspondence between Mantel and the editors of the LRB, Karl Miller and Mary-Kay Wilmers. And so we’re treated to the wonderful sight of Mantel introducing herself as a potential reviewer to Karl Miller in a 1987 letter. She’s been ‘writing for the Literary Review . . . and The London Magazine’. But she has also found herself ‘writing The Spectator’s film column’, despite ‘know(ing) hardly anything about the cinema’. It’s quite the CV. And the subsequent back-and-forth points to a somewhat bijou literary life. She breezes between research on Tudor wardrobes – ‘The outfits, my dear! I wonder why we wear anything but scarlet’ — to the distractions of her Wolf Hall success: ‘Everything that’s happening – copy-editing, interviews, filming — is conspiring to stop me getting into a mediative frame of mind.’ Where, I found myself wondering, where all the rejected pitches? The long, anxious waits until the editor deigns to sift their inbox? Aside from one instance of an apologetic kill fee, it’s a bookish La La Land.

Her actual writing is — thankfully — altogether less rarefied. In essays which step between Robespierre and Kate Middleton, Madonna and the Virgin Mary, Mantel jumpstarts the ideas which thrum through her fiction. Sometimes the influence is obvious. Her expertise about the French Revolution – gathered during the 18-year gestation of her novel A Place of Greater Safety – is displayed in writing on Théroigne de Méricourt, Danton and Marie Antoinette. And it’s excellent fun to see scene-stealing minor characters in the Wolf Hall trilogy — the chuntering, General Melchett-like Charles Brandon, the wintry, calculating Margaret Pole — given their time in the sun through substantial standalone pieces on their lives.

Largely, though, these pieces mirror the concerns of her fiction. Take her glittering essay on Helen Duncan, tried for witchcraft in 1944 – the last person to be found guilty under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. Duncan, Mantel judges, was someone ‘whom few people loved and many exploited’. Her conviction was a matter of political expediency, not devilry. Duncan was a medium – one of thousands who plied their trade in the early decades of the twentieth century when empty chairs were found around every table. Her misfortune, though, was to summon the spirit of a young sailor drowned when HMS Barham went down. The catch was the Admiralty had not yet admitted the ship had sunk. So this threadbare woman with the ‘corpses of the Western Front packed into her knickers’ was humiliated. Beneath the dark glamour of her alleged crimes was a hardscrabble, tawdry existence: ‘travelling the roads of Britain, sustained by tea and endless cigarettes’. It’s a world Mantel memorably summoned in her novel Beyond Black in which a contemporary medium is persecuted equally by vengeful spirits and her poverty. But on Duncan, Mantel pulls no punches: ‘She was a performer in the pornography of her age.’

Indeed, in many of these pieces, Mantel is strikingly alert to the dynamics of inequality: how power, and its lack, is written into the body. In her incendiary lecture ‘Royal Bodies’ she foresaw Kate Middleton ‘becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung’. It kicked the hornet’s nest of the tabloid press. (Inadvertently, if we are to believe Mantel’s coy protests to the editors.) But in the same piece, she also proposed that ‘Marie-Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks.’ In the end, she observes, the female body is always consumed. Whether you are elevated above the common mass of womanhood by rank (as with Middleton), fame (Madonna), sanctity (the Virgin Mary), or the fickle lusts of a king (Anne Boleyn), the result is the same: diminishment, dismemberment, your parts scattered and jealously held.

One of the strongest pieces in this almost uniformly impressive collection is the diary Mantel wrote after major surgery in 2010. Blurred with pain and medication, in the terrible flickering anteroom before recovery, her mind wanders. Writing and being elide; ‘my life compresses into metaphor,’ she records.

When I sit up and see the wound in my abdomen, I am pleased that it has a spiral binding, like a manuscript. On the whole I would rather be an item of stationery than be me.

Mantel observes that real life — such as it is — is lived in the imagination as much as the body. We apprehend ourselves only shakily: a pale face glimpsed in the tail of the eye, the torso’s familiar geometry rendered strange and wondrous by surgery.

The LRB is notoriously generous with copy. Word counts are mirages, ever receding to the horizon; the book under consideration a far-off pole star. Sometimes this expansiveness is exhilarating; other times, it makes you wish the contributor had packed GPS. Mantel’s ‘brisk and breezy’ approach is usually successful — and to the point. But some of the essays, especially those on the knotty chronology of the French Revolution, billow alarmingly. Tighter editing might have helped keep everything more shipshape.

Nonetheless, Mantel Pieces is one of the sharpest and most coherent collections I have read in years. It’s become a cliché of reviewing Mantel to point out that before the success of Wolf Hall she was a writers’ writer. Now, though, she is emphatically public property: keep off the grass, it’s preserved for posterity. But the achievement of this book is to remind us that history, that experience, that literature, is infinitely malleable and contestable; it is always up for grabs. No one does it quite like Mantel.
Alex Diggins is a journalist and critic based in Oxford. He regularly contributes to the Economist, the Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement, among others. He is currently working on a book about holy islands and climate change.