Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is writing the third novel in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.

We cannot approach her story from the inside. We know her, as we know so many of her contemporaries, through her inventories, through legal documents and official letters. Did she plot against the crown? Did she, as the regime alleged, burn the evidence that incriminated her? Or was there, as she claimed, nothing worth burning?

Story: ‘Kinsella in His Hole’

Hilary Mantel, 19 May 2016

The year we killed our teacher we were ten, going on eleven. Mitch went first, the terrier, a snappy article with a topknot tied with a tartan ribbon. The morning we saw him we hooted. He didn’t like us laughing and he flew to the end of his lead, and reared up snarling and drooling. ‘Hark at the rat,’ we said. Rose Cullan said: ‘Hark at Lucifer.’ He twisted, he screamed, his claws lashed out. The devil has several names and Lucifer is one.

Charles Brandon was one of a group of athletic courtiers employed to serve the leisure of Hooray Henry; they overlapped with, but can be distinguished from, the machiavels who served the policy of Horrid Henry, and the poets and priests employed to flatter the intellect and ease the conscience of Holy Henry. Henry came to the throne in 1509. Charles Brandon’s power as a court favourite endured till death removed him in 1545. A long run, on ground slippery with blood: how did Charles do it?

Story: ‘In a Right State’

Hilary Mantel, 18 February 2016

We sit there, slowly doing the quick crossword, noting as so often in institutions the presence of characters who seem habitués, knowing the procedures, familiar with the staff, A&E their scene.

Alan Bennett, LRB, 7 January

In the days​ when I had a reading lamp, I’d sit down with the papers at the weekend and make up answers to celebrity quizzes. Tell us your favourite food...

Story: ‘The Present Tense’

Hilary Mantel, 7 January 2016

‘Today we are going to have a nice lesson,’ I say. Twenty-nine faces, upturned: all dubious. I think, you don’t know how nice it will be, compared to the nasty lessons ahead. Next year is Cambridge Certificate, and we will have The Mill on the Floss till our brains bleed. I look around the classroom. ‘Today my question is – what makes a good story? Have you any ideas?’ If this were another country, and I were someone else, a luckier kind of teacher, they might say, ‘Suspense. Characters we care about. A cracking pace. Not too much description. Touch of humour. Smart dialogue. A twist in the ending.’

The floor of the panic room struck cold into Marcella’s feet. The salary promised was small, but she needed a roof over her head, and here was that roof: NW8, live-in, for flexible person must like dogs, with experience of specialist laundry and helpful attitude, non-smoker. At a good distance north of here, there was a room over a fried chicken shop, where certain of her countrywomen gathered and passed the Lady hand to hand, as if they had never reached the age of the internet: they were not digital, they could not recharge.

Royal Bodies

Hilary Mantel, 21 February 2013

Last summer at the festival in Hay-on-Wye, I was asked to name a famous person and choose a book to give them. I hate the leaden repetitiveness of these little quizzes: who would be the guests at your ideal dinner party, what book has changed your life, which fictional character do you most resemble? I had to come up with an answer, however, so I chose Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I chose to give her a book published in 2006, by the cultural historian Caroline Weber; it’s called Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.

Diary: Meeting the Devil

Hilary Mantel, 4 November 2010

Three or four nights after surgery – when, in the words of the staff, I have ‘mobilised’ – I come out of the bathroom and spot a circus strongman squatting on my bed. He sees me too; from beneath his shaggy brow he rolls a liquid eye. Brown-skinned, naked except for the tattered hide of some endangered species, he is bouncing on his heels and smoking furiously without taking the cigarette from his lips: puff, bounce, puff, bounce. What rubbish, I think, actually shouting at myself, but silently. This is a no-smoking hospital. It is impossible this man would be allowed in, to behave as he does. Therefore he’s not real, and if he’s not real I can take his space. As I get into bed beside him, the strongman vanishes. I pick up my diary and record him: was there, isn’t any more.

What is going on in there? Hypochondria

Hilary Mantel, 5 November 2009

Adopting for a moment the familiar, modern and derogatory meaning of the word, Brian Dillon consoles us that ‘hypochondriacs are almost always other people.’ The condition exists on a continuum, with fraud at one end, delusion in the middle and medical incompetence at the other end; he is a benefits cheat, you are a hypochondriac, I am as yet undiagnosed.

The Crowe is White: Bloody Mary

Hilary Mantel, 24 September 2009

Despite his careful and no doubt deeply felt disclaimers, it sometimes sounds as if Eamon Duffy is cheering on the executioners. Fires of Faith, powerful and interesting in its own right, is an addendum to his huge enterprise The Stripping of the Altars, published in 1992, in which he contended that ‘late medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse and vigorous hold over the imagination and the loyalty of the people up to the very moment of Reformation.’

He Roared: Danton

Hilary Mantel, 6 August 2009

If you put your head out of the window of the café Procope, almost everyone you needed to overthrow the regime was within shouting distance. The Revolution was dreamed here before it was enacted, beneath the dark corners of Saint-Sulpice. George-Jacques Danton lived here, and Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, Legendre the master-butcher, Fabre d'Eglantine the political playwright, and a dozen others who would make their names through the fall of the old order.

Diary: On Being a Social Worker

Hilary Mantel, 11 June 2009

I was a social work assistant, paid a very small sum by the NHS and meant to be learning on the job, pending some formal traineeship that never in fact materialised. No one knew what I was for or how I should spend my days. Sometimes the real social workers took me out with them to other hospitals in the group: the Home for Incurables, for instance, or the busy, modern general hospital where I once saw a young doctor looking at X-ray plates upside down.

In my Catholic girlhood she was everywhere, perched up on ledges and in niches like a CCTV camera, with her painted mouth and her painted eyes of policeman blue. She was, her litany stated, Mirror of Justice, Cause of Our Joy, Spiritual Vessel, Mystical Rose, Tower of David, House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven and Morning Star. Not a woman I liked, on the whole.

Someone to Disturb: A Memoir

Hilary Mantel, 1 January 2009

In those days, the doorbell didn’t ring often, and if it did I would draw back into the body of the house. Only at a persistent ring would I creep over the carpets, as if there were someone to disturb, and make my way to the front door with its spyhole. We were big on bolts and shutters, deadlocks and mortises, safety chains and windows that were high and barred. Through the spyhole I saw a distraught man in a crumpled, silver-grey suit: thirties, Asian. He had dropped back from the door, and was looking about him, at the closed and locked door opposite, and up the dusty marble stairs. He patted his pockets, took out a balled-up handkerchief, and rubbed it across his face. He looked so fraught that his sweat could have been tears. I opened the door.

Diary: In the Waiting Room

Hilary Mantel, 14 August 2008

At 6 p.m. on a damp late June evening, I look up from my book and see my husband across the room, faint and grey with pain. What to do? It’s Sunday, and whereas until recent years you couldn’t on a British Sunday buy a pound of carrots or see a play, these days you can’t be taken ill, unless you’re prepared for a long and uncertain wait for your GP’s deputising...

Frocks and Shocks: Jane Boleyn

Hilary Mantel, 24 April 2008

You may fear, from the title of this book, that they’ve found yet another ‘Boleyn girl’. The subject of this biography has already been fearlessly minced into fiction by the energetic Philippa Gregory. But there is no sign so far that another inert and vacuous feature film will be clogging up the multiplexes. In reworkings of the Tudor soap opera, Jane Boleyn is more often known as Jane Rochford, wife of George Boleyn, sister-in-law to Anne the queen. There are some lives we read backwards, from bloody exit to obscure entrance, and Jane’s is one of them.

Her name was Nicolette Bland, and she was my father’s mistress. I’m going back to the early 1970s. It’s a long time now since he was subject to urges of the flesh. She looked like a Nicolette: dainty, poised, hair short and artfully curling: dark, liquid, slightly slanting eyes. She was honey-coloured, as if she’d had a package holiday, and she looked rested, and...

What an enticing prospect: A-Z elucidation, or at least the admission in print that most of life’s pressing questions are never answered. But won’t all the entries begin with ‘W’? Where has youth gone? Why dost thou lash that whore? Why are you looking at me like that? And of course the question that trails us from playgroup to dementia ward: well, if you will go on like that, what else did you expect? But of course we’re not dealing with that kind of unexplained. The clue is on the cover: a person with popping eyes, flying through the air. This dictionary’s greatest fans will be people more interested in the exception than the rule, and often, it must be said, ignorant of what the rule is.

Saartjie Baartman’s Ghost: The New Apartheid

Hilary Mantel, 20 September 2007

Where to begin? When we tell stories about Africa we can’t speak without an imported frame of reference, carving up the years into the pre-colonial, the post-colonial era: once upon a time in the golden age, once upon a time in the dark ages that followed. But in South Africa over the last two decades, story itself has been shortened, shrinking to the time-span of a truncated life – thirty years perhaps, enough time to have children of your own and leave them a memory box when you die. Puleng, from Alexandra township, aged 29, weight about 35 kilos, tells her story ‘in one breath’ and pro forma, as if she were part of the government’s initiative to tackle the disease biographically; storytelling has become an organised activity, intended to stem denial and ease stigma, with an exhibition of storyboard biographies travelling among the stricken.

Elizabeth Marsh was one of those shaken by the times she lived through, her personal ‘ordeal’ intimately connected with global forces beyond the grasp of any individual then living. Conceived in Port Royal, born in Portsmouth, she ‘travelled further and more dangerously by sea and in four continents than any female contemporary for whom records survive’. Her father was Milbourne Marsh, a carpenter from an English family whose fortunes were connected to the sea.

He expected it to end badly, and it did: a bullet from a pistol which shattered his jaw, a night of unspeaking agony, death without trial. During that night – ninth Thermidor, or 27 July 1794 – he made signs that he wanted a pen and paper. What would he have written? We cannot hope that it would have helped us understand him. He’d had his chance, you’d think: five years in politics. The historian George Rudé estimates that Robespierre made some nine hundred speeches. He had spoken, of course; but had he been heard?

What He Could Bear: A Brutal Childhood

Hilary Mantel, 9 March 2006

The lie is told to a man he meets on the road; it is America, fall, the mid-1990s, when he stops to pick up a hitch-hiker in Upper New York State. It is almost the day of the dead, and he is tired, tired of himself and his history, wishing on himself a sort of disembodiment, or perhaps the kind of paper mask that, as he mentions in one of his poems, he used to make at Halloween as a child in school.

“Neil Belton’s account of one year of Schrödinger’s life is bleak, judicious, thickly atmospheric. No kind of weather suits this latitude: winter is a raw season of privation – cold bathwater and rationing – and summer leaves the clerks and shop assistants ‘stunned and listless’ in their shirtsleeves on Stephen’s Green, while the smell of the river envelops the Georgian slums with their gaping doors and shattered fanlights. The city, censored and self-censoring, is constantly listening into itself, and testing the power of silence. Ireland’s citizens, like the physicists of the time, need to accommodate themselves to duality, coexist with paradox. Schrödinger is an honest and searching observer, but his role is limited; it is a brutal physical fact that he is losing his sight. His work does not progress. His home life is miserable; Hilde, for whose sake he endured sweating and chancy interviews with the Irish authorities, has become both emotionally and physically disengaged from him. He feels Ireland to be a sort of Limbo; Limbo, his unhappy wife points out, lies close to Hell.”

“In Accra, Hawa joins the ashawo life – part-time prostitute, occasional concubine, all round good-time girl and the life and soul of every party . . . The ashawo art of negotiation is a delicate one. She seldom knows, before the act, how much money she can expect from a client; by naming a price, she says, you can lose out, as he might want to show his appreciation . . . If the clients insult her with a paltry sum she throws it back at them, saying, ‘Keep it for your repairs.’ When the client says innocently, ‘What repairs?’ she says: ‘You wait.’ Then she smashes up their house or their car. Sometimes the clients try it on – beware the Lebanese identical twins, who try to go two for the price of one . . .”

“’Ecstasies are unforgettable, and they are tyrannical. Those who experience them helplessly shape their lives in order to create the possibility of another encounter with the holy.’ Like all mystics, Gemma is terrified that God will turn his face away. She wants to love God, but is baffled: how do you do it? Her confessor cannot help her. Jesus says to her: ‘See this cross, these thorns, this blood? They are all works of love . . . Do you want to truly love me? First learn to suffer.’”

Diary: Hilary Mantel meets her stepfather

Hilary Mantel, 23 October 2003

Let us say, life changes at a glance. Let us say you’re walking forward, you turn your head to look over your shoulder, and behind you the landscape has changed. One life, a life you might have led, is snatched back into the shadows. A different life begins.

This is the day I meet my stepfather; it is the day he meets me. I must not take for granted that you know the topography. You...

“He sank into apathy and for a time became mute, lying curled up on his bed, sometimes refusing food. The story is so distressing that it is not at first clear whether it is moral or useful to pick it apart. Is it cruel in itself, to try to discriminate between degrees of cruelty? It may be so, but we should try to do it, if only to illuminate the dark and blood-stained country we have moved into – the terrain of folk-tales, where monsters and devils dwell in caves and holes.”

Memories of Catriona: her memoir concludes

Hilary Mantel, 6 February 2003

When I left St George’s Hospital, I imagined that aspects of my past had been excised, cut cleanly away. My long scar would knit and the memory of the pain would fade. For a time I went backwards and forwards, between England and Africa, and in the end I tried to put down roots in the colder climate, and make my way alone. But by 1982 I was sick again, pain slicing through my vital...

Little Miss Neverwell: her memoir continued

Hilary Mantel, 23 January 2003

By the time I was twenty I was living in a slum house in Sheffield. I had a husband and no money; those things I could explain. I had a pain which I could not explain; it seemed to wander about my body, nibbling here, stabbing there, flitting every time I tried to put my finger on it.

When I packed my bags for London, at 18 years old, I went to live in a women’s hall of residence in...

Giving up the Ghost

Hilary Mantel, 2 January 2003

The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me. It resists finishing, and partly this is because words are not enough; my early world was synaesthesic, and I am haunted by the ghosts of my own sense impressions, which re-emerge when I try to write, and shiver between the lines.

This is what history feels like, under the hand, under the microscope: the manuscript’s cloth binding is broken, but all its numbered pages are intact. The paper is machine made, of linen and cotton fibres, not wood pulp, and has blue guidelines to write on; the pen that touched this paper was a goose quill, and the pigment was acidic iron-gall ink, which leaves faint mirror-writing on the facing page, fluorescing traces like a ghost of the text. The handwriting is serviceable rather than elegant. The manuscript has been corrected in various ways: most simply, by wiping off the ink and writing over the error, a technique which works with smooth paper; or, if the mistake was discovered after the ink had dried, by scratching off a word with a small knife. If the correction was longer, a paragraph perhaps, the writer attached a slip of paper to cover the unwanted text. These correction slips were cut, experts suggest, with sewing scissors, and the paste wafers that made them adhere to the page have been pressed down with a thimble. Visitors to Jane Austen’s cottage at Chawton notice that Jane’s sewing box is bigger than her writing box. It may have been the same with Hannah Crafts.

April 1944. Winston Churchill sent a memo to Herbert Morrison at the Home Office:

Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern Court of Justice. What was the cost of this trial to the State, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London, for a fortnight, and the Recorder kept busy with all this obsolete...

Story: ‘How Shall I Know You?’

Hilary Mantel, 19 October 2000

One summer at the fag-end of the 1990s, I had to go out of London to talk to a literary society, of the sort that must have been old-fashioned when the previous century closed. When the day came, I wondered why I’d agreed to it; but yes is easier than no, and of course when you make a promise you think the time will never arrive: that there will be a nuclear holocaust, or some other...

For a time, early last year, there was no trace of Robespierre to be found on the street where he lived in the days of his fame. The restaurant called Le Robespierre had closed its doors, and after a while its portrait sign was removed from above the entrance of the house on the rue Saint-Honoré. Once again, the plaque on the wall had been smashed. The marble was shattered, the letters gouged away by a vindictive chisel. Just before the Bastille celebration, on a day of misty heat, a new plaque appeared. In the interim, only the staff of the new patisserie were able to confirm that it was true: Robespierre lived here.

Fatal Non-Readers: Marie-Antoinette

Hilary Mantel, 30 September 1999

In June this year the BBC showed a documentary called Diana’s Dresses. It was about the auction which took place at Christie’s in New York two months before the Princess’s descent into the Paris underpass. The purchasers spoke reverentially of Diana when she was alive, but her death turned glad rags into relics. ‘I wanted to have a part of royalty,’ one explained. ‘I am in awe of the dress,’ said another.‘

We have seen her at the edge of crowds, dwarfed against public buildings. We have seen her in woodcuts, a naked sabre in her hand, the tricolour cockade pinned to her cap; in drawings, with her wooden clogs and apron, her basket over her arm, her knitting in her hands: click, click, through the debates of the Assembly, in the gallery of the Jacobin Club, and each day at me foot of the scaffold, where the tumbrils bring up their freight of dying flesh. She is the ‘fury of the guillotine’, given to a habit of ‘atrocious vociferation’. She is at once an ultra-revolutionary, bloody and unrestrained, and a destroyer of radical will, priest-ridden and superstitious. For the historian Michelet, she is honest and spontaneous, but credulous, a victim of her own sensibility. For the historian Mathiez, she is stupid. For more recent scholars, she is a very defective sort of feminist, or an armed and violent housewife, less concerned with liberty than with the price of sugar. And though this latter concern is seen as legitimate, it does not fail to detract from her status.’‘

Number One Id: Idi Amin (Dada)

Hilary Mantel, 19 March 1998

When in the mid-Eighties I lived in the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, I lived in a city policed by gossip and run by rumour. While its citizens, flapping in white robes and black veils and wrappings, glided through the streets like formal ghosts, its guest-workers crept through their contracts, guided by intuitions as evanescent and mysterious as those of spiritualists. Perplexing questions hung in the still air. Some hung there year after year: who killed the nurse Helen Smith? Some were of immediate import: where has the main post office gone this week? Some were insoluble, questions almost too puzzling to pose: where, oh where, is Idi Amin?

Story: ‘Terminus’

Hilary Mantel, 22 May 1997

On 9 January, shortly after eleven on a dark sleety morning, I saw my dead father on a train pulling out of Clapham Junction, bound for Waterloo.

Boxes of Tissues

Hilary Mantel, 6 March 1997

Blake Morrison begins his account of the murder of James Bulger with a delicate diversion into the story of the Children’s Crusade. The year 1212: at Saint-Denis, a boy of 12 begins to preach. He has received word from God that it is the mission of Christian children to free the Holy Land from the infidel. He draws crowds, draws followers: boys and girls swarm from street and field. God is their Pied Piper. They march the roads of France, exalted, unstoppable, expecting a miracle at every turn in the road. They reach the sea and set sail for-what?

Faraway Train

Hilary Mantel, 23 January 1997

The title of this writer’s autobiography is taken from Easy-to-Make Old-Fashioned Toys. ‘Flip-books, or Flickerbooks … a series of sequential pictures or photographs put on separate pieces of paper, one after the other. When the book was flipped quickly through, the pictures would provide the illustration of a moving picture.’ That word ‘illustration’ ought, surely, to be ‘illusion’. One wonders how often a successful Flickerbook was achieved, even by the patient child. The theory’s fine, but in practice there would be great gaps in the sequence. It may be that all those games and tricks demanding superhuman patience, all those artefacts with tabs and slots and letters of the alphabet, requiring glue and paste and three right hands, all those infant pastimes which allegedly were easy enough for a previous generation, were in fact designed specifically by grown-ups to bring home to the young the shoddy, sloppy nature of adult life. They bore a message for you, those cardboard models that folded at a breath, those home-made ingenuities that wouldn’t stand up, or which disintegrated even as you applauded them. No matter how carefully you follow instructions, no good result is guaranteed: what you have on your hands may turn out to be wastepaper and blighted hope.


Hilary Mantel, 4 April 1996

On the day after Kate Atkinson’s first novel won the Whitbread Prize, the Guardian’s headline read: ‘Rushdie makes it a losing double.’ Thus Rushdie is reminded of his disappointments, Atkinson gets no credit, and the uninformed reader assumes that this year’s Whitbread is a damp squib. But read on. ‘A 44-year-old chambermaid won one of Britain’s leading literary awards last night.’

Pointing Out the Defects

Hilary Mantel, 22 December 1994

Perhaps it is the timing of her birth which has refined her sense of scale, has made her able to see how the single ant works and worries in the social heap. ‘That was important,’ Doris Lessing says: to be born in 1919, when 29 million people died in the influenza pandemic. Important, too, the blue marks left on her face by the forceps. She was a child of damage, ‘one of the walking wounded’.

Eunice’s Story

Hilary Mantel, 20 October 1994

The Indians attacked in the dead of winter, before dawn. The first the minister knew of it was the sound of axes breaking open his windows and doors. Moments later, twenty painted savages were in his house. Bound and helpless, he watched them kill his six-year-old son, his new baby of six weeks and his black woman slave.


Hilary Mantel, 13 May 1993

It was Renault, pronounced Renolt, not as in the car: this is one of the many things her admirers will not have known about the low-profile, best-selling author of some of the most remarkable historical fiction of the century. David Sweetman met Mary Renault in 1981, when he interviewed her for the BBC; he had been under the spell of her books since he read them as ‘an awkward, insecure teenager’. He brings to the art of biography a well-intentioned gentleness that is rare; but it is odd and unfortunate that by the end of his book one admires his subject less rather than more.

Blame it on the Belgians

Hilary Mantel, 25 June 1992

‘You don’t want to see him,’ said the porter at Corpus, when Charles Nicholl went to Cambridge to look at the portrait that is probably Christopher Marlowe. ‘He died in a tavern brawl.’

Rescued by Marat

Hilary Mantel, 28 May 1992

In 1817, at the asylum of La Salpêtrière in Paris, a long-term inhabitant died of pneumonia. Her malnourished, oedematous body was taken away for autopsy. For some years before her death she had been intractably and violently psychotic. She had crawled on the floor like an animal, eaten straw. She stripped off her clothes in freezing weather, and did not mind (her keepers noted) if men saw her naked. She threw icy water on her bedding and her person, and on the floor of her cell.

Plain girl’s revenge made flesh

Hilary Mantel, 23 April 1992

Christopher Andersen’s book begins, as it should, with the prodigal, the violent, the gross. But what do you expect? Madonna’s wedding was different from other people’s. The plans were made in secrecy, and backed by armed force. ‘Even the caterer … was kept in the dark until the last minute.’ You also, you may protest, have been to weddings where the caterer has seemed to be taken by surprise. But we are not talking here about a cock-up with the vol-au-vents. We are talking about something on the lines of Belshazzar’s feast: but more lavish, and more portentous.

How long?

Hilary Mantel, 27 February 1992

Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s favourite novel is a 16th-century Chinese work called Chin P’ing Mei. This book, she believes, was written as an act of vengeance. The author imbued each of the 1600 pages of his manuscript with poison, and presented it to a politician against whom he had a grudge. He knew that the minister, who had a huge appetite for pornography, would lick and turn each page, and so do himself to death. The 415 pages of this anthology won’t kill you – nor will you go blind – but you may from time to time feel queasy. An anthology of sex is something of a bathhouse, back-alley enterprise. Here are passages without antecedent or consequence, brief, sometimes anonymous; sometimes gratifying enough, in a casual sort of way.’

Looking back in anger

Hilary Mantel, 21 November 1991

One of the more extraordinary revelations in A Better Class of Person, the first volume of John Osborne’s memoirs, was the fact that the author was proposed as the leading man in the 1948 film The Blue Lagoon. The teenage Osborne by his own account had a hollow chest and acne, and a loin cloth would not have shown these off to advantage; the opportunity to loll among the palms with Jean Simmons went to the Welsh actor Donald Houston. Houston was blond and wholesome, and had a long career, much of it in B-movies; it’s interesting to think that John Osborne might have enjoyed it in his stead. Osborne as the fourth intern in Doctor in the House, alongside Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More and Donald Sinden … Osborne as a Spartan, as a rugby fan, as Dr Watson … He would, you feel, have snarled a hole in the screen.


Hilary Mantel, 7 December 1989

Edwina had her date with destiny on 10 September 1986. A TV crew were camped outside her house in her Derbyshire constituency, and were shining lights through the windows. Edwina waited for the phone to ring. When it did, it was a man’s voice, telling her to get along without delay to Downing Street. ‘And so, into my battered Maestro… ’ – a nice populist touch there. But as she drove towards her appointment with the Prime Minister, as she fumed and itched in the London traffic, a horrible thought struck her: what if it was all a practical joke?’

Surviving the Sixties

Hilary Mantel, 18 May 1989

Once upon a time there was a Tory grandee who owned a house on the Costa Brava. Venturing forth to an art gallery one day, who should he meet but a hippy. The hippy was a beautiful young lady, rather thin but very clean, and she was known to her friends as Shoe. Shoe had wandered in many lands, pursued various trades and callings, sampled most of the religions of the earth and most of its banned substances. Sometimes Shoe sold lavender bags, or performed as an acrobat. Sometimes she was seen looking in dustbins. Sometimes she visited Salvador Dali.

Diary: Bookcase Shopping in Jeddah

Hilary Mantel, 30 March 1989

When the Salman Rushdie affair broke, the first thing I thought of was the day we tried to buy a bookcase in Jeddah. Jeddah is Saudi Arabia’s most sophisticated, cosmopolitan city. Compared to the capital, Riyadh, it is liberal and lively. It is also of course very rich. Its shopping malls, with their icy airconditioning, are temples of marble and glass, of lush greenery and tinkling fountains. They are something like the Muslim vision of Paradise; only the houris are missing. You can buy a fox fur, if you like, or a portrait of King Fahd, or an American-style donut; a king-size sofa with a stereo built in, if that takes your fancy. But you couldn’t, in 1983, find a bookcase anywhere. No call for them.

Women in Pain

Hilary Mantel, 21 April 1988

Scribble, scribble, scribble, Ms Hite: another damned, thick, square book. Shere Hite is a ‘cultural historian’. She has already given us The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality and The Hite Report on Male Sexuality. Her work is an uneasy blend of prurience and pedantry; an attenuated blonde woman with curious white make-up, she has offended US feminists by making money out of sisterhood. She lives in some style, and has a young husband who, she tells us in a preface (there are many prefaces, a sort of philosophical foreplay), ‘fills my life with poetry and music, more every day’. Well, that’s all right then.

The Way to Glory

Hilary Mantel, 3 March 1988

‘The Great Wall is the symbol of our nation,’ says one of the speakers in this extraordinary book. ‘It’s falling to pieces, ruined by people and by the elements like a dragon hacked apart.’ China is accessible now, in one sense: you can go on a tour. No doubt the Chinese will develop new layers of opacity, and a souvenir culture to keep the West happy; there would be plenty of precedents. The vast incomprehension between the Chinese and ourselves makes us inclined to study them through their artefacts, as though they were a vanished people. It is a way of dealing with them, now that the Great Wall is crumbling. A current tour brochure offers ‘a kaleidoscope of temples, tombs, bronzes, jades, pagodas, old city-walls, lacquer-work, terracotta figurines, frescoes, painting on silk, ceramics, porcelain, calligraphy and monumental sculpture.’ Yes, but who are they? What do they think?

No Place for Journalists

Hilary Mantel, 1 October 1987

Foreign news organisations are not invited to operate in Saudi Arabia. The journalists who are permitted into the Kingdom by the Ministry of Information operate under severe constraints. It’s not that the Saudis mind you saying bad things about them: it’s that they mind you saying anything at all.


Royal Bodies

21 February 2013

I’m indebted to Gerald Smith for his expert take on the health of Henry VIII (Letters, 21 March). I don’t in fact endorse the Whitley-Kramer postulate that Henry was Kell positive and went on to develop McLeod syndrome; I just throw it on the table, because it’s an interesting idea that encourages us to think again about the unhappy pregnancies of Henry’s first two wives and...
Alex Fox takes Ian Hacking to task for describing John Kennedy’s sister Rosemary as ‘severely retarded’ and suggests the LRB adopt ‘currently widely accepted labels’ (Letters, 8 June). Hasn’t he noticed how fast euphemisms date? And do they help much anyway? Rosemary Kennedy seems to have had mild brain damage from birth, but was capable of travel and a social life,...

Colonial Ills

8 August 2002

Polly Hope (LRB, 8 August) does less than justice to Carolyn Slaughter’s harrowing memoir, Before the Knife. Hope says that the book describes ‘not so much an African childhood as a miserable childhood which happened to take place in Africa’, but one could argue that Slaughter portrays an old-style expatriate mentality which allowed all kinds of moral squalor to flourish. Men who,...
Charles Swann (Letters, 27 April) accuses me of an injustice to Thomas Carlyle, perpetrated in my piece on Robespierre. I am guilty as charged. It is true that I haven’t the facts about precisely how the housemaid – I shall call her, from now on, ‘the legendary housemaid’ – lit the fire with the first draft of Carlyle’s manuscript on the French Revolution. It is...

At moments Mantel might have heeded the words addressed by her Wyatt to Cromwell: ‘Be careful . . . You are on the brink of explaining yourself.’

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Bring Up the Bodies is not just a historical novel. It’s a novel with a vision of history that magically suits the period it describes. Its predecessor, Wolf Hall, the first part of what...

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How to Twist a Knife: Wolf Hall

Colin Burrow, 30 April 2009

There was no shortage of bastards in the early 16th century, but Thomas Cromwell stands out as one of the biggest bastards of them all. His surviving correspondence shows the energy, efficiency...

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Hilary Mantel’s dark, unsettling and gleefully tasteless new novel about spiritualism, Hell and the condition of contemporary England is part ghost story, part mystery, and as alarmingly...

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Freak Anatomist: Hilary Mantel

John Mullan, 1 October 1998

In the Council Room of the Royal College of Surgeons hangs the portrait by Joshua Reynolds of the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. It has been much darkened by the bitumen content...

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The Little Woman Inside

Dinah Birch, 9 March 1995

Women of my age, born in the early Fifties and now in our forties, have reached the season of retrospection. We have become – or have not become – wives, wage-earners, mothers,...

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A Form of Showing Off

Anna Vaux, 28 April 1994

‘If God knows our ends, why cannot he prevent them, why is the world so full of malice and cruelty, why did God make it at all and give us free will if he knows already that some of us will...

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Falling for Desmoulins

P.N. Furbank, 20 August 1992

When Sarah Orne Jewett sent her friend Henry James a copy of her latest work, a historical novel entitled The Tory Lover, he told her it would take a very long letter to ‘disembroil the...

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Looking for magic

Dinah Birch, 14 September 1989

It’s not long since the fairy story seemed the least political of genres. Not so today. A preoccupation with transformation and escape, coupled with a repudiation of the sober certainties...

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You bet your life

Margaret Walters, 21 April 1988

Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda is a tall story, as elaborate and fantastical as any of the yarns spun by the trickster hero of his last novel Illywhacker. For one thing, it’s a...

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Belfast Book

Patricia Craig, 5 June 1986

The first of these writers, M.S. Power, has a searing metaphor to describe the effect of Ireland on certain people, those native to it and others: nailed to the place, they end up as in a...

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