Mantel Pieces by Hilary Mantel

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Mantel Pieces is a selection of twenty essays and reviews which Hilary Mantel has written since her earliest experience with the London Review of Books late last century.

The first review focuses on Shere Hite’s “American Marriage”.  The value of Hite’s research into her subject is clouded by the widely held fact that such investigations always contain the element of subjectivity. Even scientists concede the rigid process of the Scientific Method is not immune. Mantel declares that Hite’s book presents a ‘higher form of gossip’ or ‘incomprehensible explanations for what everyone knows’.

She writes this review with verve and honesty, referring to the book’s tone as ‘dull and flat’. Yet admits its fascination.  She thinks it an uncomfortable book, and over several pages, gives it a detailed criticism, not always negative. However, her reaction overall discourages delving into the Hite’s conclusions on American marriage.

The difficulty of buying a bookcase in Jeddah is illuminating. Censorship is heavy – extending to magazines and journals and including photographs. Books are absent in shops and text books are supplied by an institution not purchased by students. The question of censorship aside, the thought occurred while reading this, that perhaps it is a shadow of the future? Younger people find books ‘slow’ and when the older lovers of books have died…….

An uncompromising review of John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’, the second volume of his autobiography, gives reason to avoid this man, whose art was driven by self-loathing and was known for his repulsive behaviour especially towards his string of partners. Mantel goes so far as to say that anyone required to read this may, if pious, need to pray, the queasy may vomit and the serious reviewer consult the libel laws!

Her review depicts a man so angry in a most unpleasant way, that it prevents our wasting time in actually reading about him further.

“Royal Bodies” is her most famous essay and caused a storm of outrage in the Press when published in 2013. She is an expert in Tudor history as is evident in her brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy. She takes a forensic view of Henry VIII, stating that from being a very attractive and charming young man, he evolved into an obese, diseased and disgruntled man in middle age.  His carrying a gene for Kell’s positive leading to McLeods syndrome probably accounts for the troubles with childbirth his queens experienced.

It was her references to Kate Middleton that drew the media frenzy, however. She writes that she is a cardboard figure, a hopelessly thin clothes horse with a very limited range of human sensibilities. Her mention of Diana is not as cruel but unflattering, nevertheless. This leads to a conclusion that it is the Monarchy itself which is in her fire.

Hilary Mantel writes with confidence and daring.  Any unpopular opinions add an interest that makes it difficult to ignore. Her choice of subjects too, offers remarkable variety.

The most heart-stopping essay is her ‘Box of Tissues’ published in 1992. It concerns the horrific murder of James Bulger, a two-year-old toddler, in Liverpool. Few can forget those blurred images captured on screen, as two boys led him away to torture and death.  The crime is discussed, then society’s role, and rights of children, in an attempt to understand the boys’ behaviour. She has examined Blake Morrison’s book on the subject thoroughly, and ultimately concludes by quoting Rousseau, ‘there is no man so bad that he cannot be made good for something’…… Wise, compassionate words.

However, it is the section that deals with John Demos’s history of the fate of Eunice, a seven-year-old girl, a minister’s daughter, at the hands of a Mohawk tribe in the early eighteenth century, in Canada, that is very powerful and deeply moving.

Mantel praises Demos’s approach, a combination of biography, psychology, sociology and history. In researching the events surrounding Eunice’s fate, it is revealed that the Indians refused to hand her over to the Settlers and refused to accept a ransom. The battle to win her back endured for nearly 80 years, and became “The Unredeemed Life”.  The French, Indians and English Canadians fought each other against the background of droughts, blights and epidemics.

The saga of Eunice, who lived to be 89, was one marked by constant effort to coax her away from the Mohawks. Mantel observes that Eunice’s life displays ‘an awesome study in psychological malleability.’

Her review is so glowing that it becomes mandatory to scrutinise this “exercise in scrupulous scholarship and imaginative sympathy”, in full.

In her fascinating choice of twenty pieces. Mantel presents a varied offering amongst them, the Tudors, including the lesser known Margaret Pole, the first meeting with her step-father and an account of England’s last witch. These, and others, get the benefit of her formidable intellect and her opinions and conclusions are reliable and brilliantly, fearlessly, honest.

An enormously stimulating and enjoyable read.

Mantel Pieces


by Hilary Mantel

Harper Collins

ISBN 9789008429973

$39.99; 330 pp

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