Hilary Mantel Takes On Royals and Rebels in a Book of Essays

Royal Bodies and Other Writing From The London Review of Books
By Hilary Mantel

The person we meet at the beginning of Hilary Mantel’s collection of essays is 35 and has already published two novels. She’s immensely ambitious, but she’s had some obstacles to literary success: She’s female; she’s the daughter of Irish Catholic millworkers; she comes from a village in England’s industrial North; she has had to support herself as a barmaid, medical social worker and department-store assistant; she is married to the boy she met at 16 and has followed him to postings in Africa and the Middle East; she’s dogged by a chronic illness. And finally, most damning: Her chosen genre, historical fiction, is considered down-market. All of which means it will take her a bit longer to become herself — or rather, to persuade the world of her prodigious powers. She’s still a long way from becoming Dame Hilary, internationally renowned author of the “Wolf Hall” trilogy.

“Mantel Pieces,” which includes nearly 30 years of Mantel’s essays for The London Review of Books, accompanied by facsimiles of her correspondence with its editors, is the story of an outsider finding her literary home. When the book opens, it’s 1987, and Mantel, with exaggerated self-deprecation, is offering her services to a magazine she considers the finest in Europe. “I was in awe of my paymasters,” she confesses in her introduction, and had decided to say “‘yes’ to anything, especially if it frightened me.”

Fear is a running theme — and essential motive — in Mantel’s makeup. The chosen subjects of her novels and essays are frankly hair-raising: child murders, ghosts, the French Revolution and the Tudor monarchy — a period, as she writes, that signifies “terror in the name of the church and torture in the name of the state.”

As a child, “I was often very frightened and the imprint of that fear stays with me,” she has said in an interview. Fear alternates with a formidable though somewhat specialized curiosity throughout this collection, as if knowledge — the child’s need to decode the system of “pipes and drains, culverts and sewers” beneath her feet — is the only thing that will keep her alive.

In the early pieces, we see a working critic accepting assignments that don’t so much frighten as bore her. Her riffs on Madonna and “The Hite Report” offer the kind of acid one-liners English critics can reel out in their sleep, whereas what we need her to do is explain the world to us. Her true province is history, and it’s only once Mantel-as-reviewer digs down hard into its rich soil, delving into biographies of Tudor aristocrats or Danton or Robespierre or Marie Antoinette — fortune’s darlings who end up headless in the Tower or the Tuileries — that she truly warms up, moving into a prose whose rhythmic and allusive range, whose nonchalance, bite and wayward erudition are always surprising, often thrilling. A Mantel essay will take you from the Children’s Crusade of 1212 to the Liverpool supermarket where a toddler is lured to his death. Is the author teasing us? Is such magic legal?

A good third of “Mantel Pieces” is devoted to kings and queens and courtiers, another third to the revolutionaries who are out to string them up. It’s clear where Mantel’s sympathies lie: Royals are mythic, archaic, “both gods and beasts,” but it’s their assassins — the stiff-backed, lawyerly, provincial fanatics — whom she loves. (It’s revealing that in her “Wolf Hall” trilogy she manages to spin her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, not as courtier but as revolutionary: radical Protestant, protocapitalist numbers-cruncher.)

“Mantel Pieces” includes the author’s most celebrated essay, “Royal Bodies.” When The London Review published it in 2013, there were death threats, practically, from Britain’s right-wing press. Mantel’s offense was to compare Kate Middleton, Prince William’s wife, to a plastic doll. But actually the essay’s most incendiary moment is when Mantel, at a Buckingham Palace reception, finds herself staring at the queen: “I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones.” “The force of my devouring curiosity,” she writes, was enough to make Elizabeth II look back over her shoulder with an expression of “hurt bewilderment.”

Mantel doesn’t hate the queen; she’s just curious about the hole in her center, the fact that monarchy has made her “a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed.”

This anti-institutional bent is what drives Mantel’s imaginative intelligence, flaming out in unexpected places. It drives her to describe the Virgin Mary statuettes that haunt her Catholic girlhood, perched in niches like CCTV cameras, watching her every move with “painted eyes of policeman blue.” It drives her in “The Hair Shirt Sisterhood,” a brilliant disquisition on eating disorders, sainthood and the church’s misogyny, to a defense of young girls who choose anorexia: “It is a way of shrinking back, of reserving, preserving the self. … For a year or two, it may be a valid strategy; to be greensick, to be out of the game; to die just a little; to nourish the inner being while starving the outer being; to buy time.”

The origins of her resistance to institutional power, her sympathy for the unsympathetic, Mantel has examined in an earlier memoir, “Giving Up the Ghost.” She describes the first day of school in her industrial Derbyshire village: “I thought that I had come among lunatics; and the teachers, malign and stupid, seemed to me like the lunatics’ keepers. I knew you must not give in to them.” Education is the traditional leg up for clever children from rackety working-class backgrounds like hers. Mantel, however, from her first glimpse of a classroom, recognized “the need to resist what I found there.”

She might say the same of her experience of the medical establishment, as glanced at in “Meeting the Devil,” an essay in “Mantel Pieces.” Riven since puberty by agonizing period pains and torrential bleeding, Mantel is gaslighted for decades by (male) doctors who palm her off with antidepressants and, yes, antipsychotics. Even after she has correctly diagnosed her own endometriosis and undergone an operation removing her ovaries and uterus, as well as part of her bladder and bowels, the pain and exhaustion are unrelenting. The drugs Mantel will need to take for the rest of her life cause gargantuan weight gain. The author of these essays, you are reminded, is someone in chronic pain, someone whose own body has become unrecognizable to her. What she’s left with is the ferociously lucid mind, the unruly delight of her mocking and self-mocking humor.

My favorite sentence in this book is uncharacteristically quiet, almost plaintive, let fall sotto voce in the middle of a hospital-bed memory: “I wonder, though, if there is a little saint you can apply to, if you are a person with holes in them?”

I suspect we all are people with holes in them, and there are many saints to apply to. For those who feel compelled to examine not just their own “perforations” but the world’s, St. Hilary is your woman.

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