- Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing from the London Review of Books, by Hilary Mantel. Fourth Estate. $39.99.
Mantel Pieces brings together 20 essays written by Hilary Mantel for the London Review of Books since 1987, after its editor, Karl Miller, asked her to make regular contributions. Mantel was then 35 and, as she indicates in the introduction, sales of her two published novels were not sufficient to generate a regular income.
Writing for the LRB meant that "everything changed", although she acknowledged to Miller that "I have no critical training whatsoever, so I am forced to be more brisk and breezy than scholarly". The articles are eminently readable, but are often underpinned by considerable research. We all know about Mantel's Wolf Hall Thomas Cromwell trilogy, but she also covers other Tudor figures, such as Jane Boleyn, Christopher Marlowe, Margaret Pole and Charles Brandon, in a period which represented, "terror in the name of the church and torture in the name of the state".
Another turbulent period, the French Revolution, Mantel covered in her huge 1992 novel A Place of Greater Safety, in which "she worked to bring the revolutionaries out of obscurity and into the light of history". Essays in Mantel Pieces cover Marie Antoinette, Robespierre and Danton.
Other essays cover issues for women in Saudi Arabia; Britain's last witch, the "stout and ailing Scotswoman", Helen Duncan; critiquing the American feminist Shere Hite, whose Hite Report is described as "an uneasy blend of prurience and pedantry", outlining "the sad, sour, sober beverage" of American marriage; "In Bed with Madonna", for whom, "energy can be a substitute for talent", and taking down the "faintly deranged" playwright John Osborne, particularly for his comments on women.
The nature of evil is probed in her essay on the murder of two-year-old James Bulger, who was abducted and killed by two 10-year-old boys. Mantel's own life has had its dark sides. "Meeting My Stepfather" recalls her troubled family history, more fully outlined in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2002).
A number of the essays reflect on the place of women, and particularly the female body, throughout history. Mantel's own body has long been a battleground. Her chronic endometriosis remained undiagnosed for decades despite many medical examinations. In 1979, aged 27, her pain was seen as illusory by doctors, who placed her in a psychiatric ward, before, ultimately, Mantel had "a surgical menopause", with her womb, ovaries and part of her bowel removed. She reflected, on "what a rough deal women were getting from the medical profession: their pain wasn't being controlled and they weren't being heard. And it's always been like that: either 'she's in our way', or 'she complains too much', or 'she talks too much'."
In a later 2010 major surgery, documented in the essay "Meeting the Devil", her body "like a watermelon with a great slice hacked out", the morphine induced an exchange of "heated words" with a curly haired devil, wearing "a lambswool V-neck with a T-shirt underneath". Here, Mantel argues writers must "turn weaknesses into strengths, and transform your deprivations and material for your work".
Mantel, for whom coronavirus is currently a high risk, believes writing "makes for a life that by its very nature has to be unstable, and if it ever became stable, you'd be finished". Certainly, the characters in Mantel Pieces have turbulent lives or live in turbulent times. None more so than royal women over the centuries. Her 2013 LRB lecture, published as "Royal Bodies", caused a media sensation in Britain over her comments on Prince William's wife, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.
Kate, she writes, "appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished". Mantel responded to the media, who camped outside her house for days, that she was "simply describing the perception of her (Kate) which has been set up in the tabloid press".
Mantel, in the same essay, provides a surreal moment when she hides behind a sofa at a Buckingham Palace reception, reflecting on the evening and denouncing the the "grisly" kebabs being served. The waiters refuse to take back the kebab sticks, "so the guests had to carry on the evening holding them out, like children with sparklers on Guy Fawkes' Day night".
Earlier this year, she reaffirmed her belief that royal women's bodies were "still perceived as public property", and must have reflected on all this past history when she was awarded her Damehood in 2015 by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace.
Mantel Pieces is a welcome bringing together of her perceptive essays, reflecting a restless intelligence, illuminating major issues from the past and of the present.