Judging from photographs, Hilary Mantel appears destined to have become her generation's pre-eminent English historical novelist. Beadily observant, she often seems sceptical of the camera, and rather too fond of an Elizabethan-style cloak.
But Mantel could wear buckled shoes and a ruff to the supermarket and we'd all still bow low. Internationally renowned for her darkly political Tudor novels, she's a master of the language and seems to live in a dreamy place half in, half out of her imagination.
Mantel has 15 works of fiction and a memoir to her credit, with Booker prizes for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Now comes Mantel Pieces, a selection of reviews, essays and diaries published in the London Review of Books. Interleaved with scribbled notes and emails to her editors, it follows Mantel over 30 years as her opinions gain influence and gather speed.
"I have no critical training whatsoever," she underlines in a handwritten letter in 1987, "so I am forced to be more brisk and breezy than scholarly."
Her "plain English", astringent tone and ravenous sort of intelligence must have appealed to editors and readers alike. By the 2000s, we see that hers is a marquee name above the masthead; in 2013 she makes international news with the controversial lecture Royal Bodies, included here.
The essay examined how we objectify, sanctify and abuse royal women's bodies, as we've no access to their thoughts or personalities ("What does Kate read? That is a question," Mantel wonders). Her remarks ("Kate Middleton…with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished") stirred a tabloid wasps' nest for her perceived unkindness to the Duchess of Cambridge. The lecture, in fact, empathised with the Duchess. "The Daily Express is sitting outside my house," she emails her editor, in the wake of the outrage. "These are sad days for irony."
Mantel Pieces reveals the essay was in fact tame, compared to other searing pieces of criticism. Of John Osborne's bitter second memoir, Almost a Gentleman: "He is not loveable, he knows; very well, he'll be hateful then."
Of Madonna: "The received wisdom is that even if you have talent, you still need luck; even if you're lucky, without talent you'll still be found out. Madonna shows that energy can be a substitute for talent; and she has made her own luck." And a swift little kick at the beginning of a piece on Jane Boleyn: "The subject of this biography has already been fearlessly minced into fiction by the energetic Philippa Gregory."
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Mantel's standards are exacting. Some writers satisfy them, like historian John Demos, whose book about a settler child captured by Native Americans is reviewed in 1994. "He has drawn the meaning from what few facts we have about Eunice Williams, by an exercise in scrupulous scholarship and imaginative sympathy." If it's well done, it's okay by Mantel if you fill in the blanks.
Others fail to meet them, like Blake Morrison's mawkish 1997 account of the James Bulger murder trial. He condescends to understand the motives of the accused working-class boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who are worthy objects for dissection because they are poor. This is disingenuous, concludes Mantel. "What if your understanding looks to me like interference, like expropriation, like colonisation? I am not sure that we should indulge ourselves in our favourite pastime of exploring the nature of evil." In this case, if yours is an inferior sensibility, filling in the blanks is a fresh crime.
The essays range across subjects: Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, the flourishing of spiritualism amid the bereavement of war, censorship in Saudi Arabia, the link between anorexia and religious hysteria, and rather too many Tudors for my liking. The most powerful pieces are personal: in Meeting my Stepfather, she writes with a mixture of innocence and prescience from the perspective of her preschool self. "Let us say, life changes at a glance," it begins, and continues in a narcotic style. You feel yourself sucked backwards and down, experiencing her confusion of adult motives and the powerlessness of childhood.
Mantel claims that as a reviewer, "I stand in for the general reader". Well, if she's the average person, I'm the Archbishop of Canterbury. This collection gleams with gem-like observations, laid out in a colourful pattern, as illuminating as any stained-glass window. This, you're left to think, is what it must be like to have a fine mind.
Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing from The London Review of Books by Hilary Mantel (Harper Collins, $45)