Thursday, 17 December 2020

More About The Writing of Hilary Mantel

 This is Hilary Mantel's latest book.


"Mantel Pieces" 


It's a collection of essays from the London Review of Books spanning a period from 1987 to 2019, with some reprints of emails and other communications between Hilary and the editor of the LRB. It's fascinating, among other things, to trace the development of communication from handwritten letters (1987 to 1997), through the invention of the fax (1994 to 1999) and finally the ubiquitous email from 2001 to the present.

There's much to say about this book. In numbered order of occurrence:

1. On the opening page, I burst into tears.  This intrigued me, as bursting into tears was the reaction HM reported on first encountering the inspiration for "Wolf Hall". 

2. On finishing the first few pages, the introduction, in fact, written by HM, I immediately asked for a subscription to LRB as a Christmas present.  Elder daughter was happy to oblige and I am now signed up,

3. HM's writing is incredibly good, and having delved (as I am now permitted to do) into the LRB archives, I can say it stands above almost everything else I have looked at.  I would go so far as to say that HM could write a comparative study of toilets and I would most likely find it readable, engaging, fluent and thought-provoking. 

4. The cover refers to a 'famous', and definitely controversial piece: "Royal Bodies, From Anne Boleyn to Kate Middleton" which was written in 2013. This alluded to Kate Middleton as more or less merely a clothes-horse, but in more unflattering terms; "a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung...." 

Like the other essays, "Royal Bodies" ranges widely, covering Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette, Princess Diana, Her Majesty the Queen. (At a Palace reception, HM hid behind a sofa for much of the party). There is also a cogent explanation for why Henry VIII needed to have six wives, and a summary of recent research which promises an explanation of why Henry VIII's wives could not bear him the son he craved.

The press, however, on its first publication, homed in on the Kate Middleton "insults". Journalists patrolled the streets of Budleigh Salterton trying to find HM's home so that they could attack her. She tell us that "The neighbours wouldn't help them - in Budleigh Salterton we don't engage with vulgarians." The Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition denounced her.  There was a brief firework display of outrage and misunderstanding before it fizzled out, eventually.  However, the editors, seeking sales, obviously thought it best to draw attention on the cover to what they clearly feel is the most striking essay in the book.  It's a pity, because if there is one thing HM is NOT, it's a sensationalist writer. This is not the most important piece in the book.

5. The collection lends extraordinary insight into the development of HM's novels.  It is really true, as I wrote in my previous post, that the work took fifteen years to write.  There are essays on characters from Wolf Hall: Jane Boleyn, Charles Brandon, Margaret Pole.  These are replete with the learning HM accumulated from her years of research, lending further insights for those, like me, who are suffering from withdrawal symptoms and cannot come to terms with the idea that the trilogy will not be followed by a fourth novel.

6. There are further insights into an earlier book, also  contender for the Booker Prize, but not a winner. "Beyond Black". This is a deeply dark, beautifully written and perfectly constructed work which I have read twice.  The first time, shortly after its publication in 2005, I had barely heard of HM, and read it as a page-turner.  Revisiting it recently, I realised that I had not fully understood the denouement, or the links between the devils and Alison's childhood, and had certainly been oblivious to much layered nuance about modern life.

The essay in 'Mantel Pieces' called "The Dead are All Around Us - Britain's Last Witch" (published as a book review in LRB in 2001) is a flag-waver and foretaste for "Beyond Black". Whether HM wrote it as she was researching the seedy world of spiritualists and those who conduct seances for a living, or whether, on being asked to review the book in question, she realised what an incredible story this was for a novelist to explore, I do not know.  As she follows the life of "Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches" by Malcolm Gaskill, (published 2001), she zones in to create a working construction of the character who will become Alison.  Alison is the protagonist of "Beyond Black", a lonely, overweight, unwell but strangely convincing professional medium who touts her trade around weekend "Psychic Fayres" in out-of-town motels, in "the banqueting annexes of steak-houses and the hospitality suites of non-league football clubs".  She has associates - these are a cohort of practicioners of the psychic arts: tarot card readers, palmists, purveyors of crystals for healing, with name cards like "Tanya, or Lilia" ... "all of Russian descent" although "it is true their accents often suggest an eastern derivation: Essex".  All these quotes are from the 2001 essay, but sound like a first draft and synopsis for the 2005 novel "Beyond Black". 

Nell, (Helen Duncan, born early in the 20th century in Scotland, exact date uncertain ) first experienced clairvoyant experiences at the age of seven, and developed "crippling diffidence, timidity, and passivity" characteristics entirely appropriated by the fictional character of Alison, whose childhood likewise saw the first of her supernatural experiences. Both grew up to earn their living "as the mouthpiece of dead people: travelling the roads of Britain" .... Helen was "sustained by tea and endless cigarettes, her parasitic husband in tow" (for Alison it was her hard-as-nails business manager, Colette),  "her [Helen's] heavy body always sicker, and apt to take on the sicknesses of other people..." (In Alison's case, she was likewise very overweight, and unwell a lot of the time as she travelled). HM notes and uses in her novel, Malcom Gaskill's observation that "spiritualism was a theatrical spectacle that .... drew on farce, burlesque and vaudeville" In "Beyond Black" this makes for brilliant storytelling, as the medium, Alison, displays such a convincing blend of trickery (suggesting and planting ideas in her subjects) and realism, "Your mum likes your new kitchen units" and then arrows in with an insight which has you believing that she truly does have psychic powers.   There is much, too, to say on the subject of Helen's "spirit guides" - a dead person who returns in spirit and through whose voice the medium would speak.  Alison's range of spirit guides are truly awful ghouls, "the fiends", she aptly calls them, who haunted her childhood, committed unspeakable crimes, and make her life a misery until the end of the novel, when there is a redemption, which I missed the first time I read it.

By the end of the piece, it appeared to me that HM is already seeing Alison, when she writes: "It is a sad thing to see a medium hyperventilating, trembling, running with sweat, gasping out messages from the ancestors to the gormless deracinated teenagers of the Thames Valley, who are too ignorant to know their grandparents names or where they came from." (This exact situation occurs in BB). It is truly awe-inspiring to follow a creative mind at work in this way.

More to follow in a future post.



Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Wolf Hall Volume 3, Lockdown Reading

Lockdown reading, 900 pages
The long-awaited third, (and final) volume of the "Wolf Hall" trilogy.

I've written about "Wolf Hall" before.

Here is an account of an interview with Hilary Mantel, in which she described how she first got the inspiration for the book.

Here, I gave my experience of the difficulty of reading the original, the first volume, and some tips on how to overcome the difficulties.

My most important tip on how to read "Wolf Hall" is to start with the second volume instead of the  first.  The second volume is called "Bring Up the Bodies".
It's shorter (only 400 pages) and covers a more concise period of history, from the death of Katherine of Aragon to the execution of Anne Boleyn, (a mere four months) so the politics and the characters are simpler to follow.

Here is Volume 1, the original "Wolf Hall", weighing in at 650 pages,which covers the period 1500 to 1535.


The third volume "The Mirror and the Light" starts immediately after the execution of Anne Boleyn in summer 1536, and ends with the execution of Thomas Cromwell himself (no spoilers there, everyone knows he ended up a victim of Henry VIII.)  A period of almost exactly four years.

On finishing Volume 3, I immediately went back to Volume 2, BUTB, and started re-reading it.  It seems so much clearer now.  In fact, it becomes apparent as you progress through BUTB, that Hilary must have known pretty much exactly what she was going to include in Mirror.  Certain foreshadowing events now take on huge significance.  There are also numerous flashbacks to Thomas Cromwell's earlier life, as recorded in WH.

I will probably re-read WH again as well, after finishing BUTB.

Mirror is undoubtedly a work of genius.

If anyone is quaking at the thought, please let me recommend the audio version.  My local library supports three different platforms which enable users to download audio-books, completely free of charge. Fortunately I had already signed up for these a couple of years ago, and was therefore able to take advantage of them when lockdown closed all physical libraries.

You can also download e-reader versions, but I prefer either a book to hold in my hand, or the audio version.  I listen as I go for my daily walk (one hour in lockdown), while I do dusting or ironing, (not hoovering, too noisy), and some cooking activities (not clattering and banging ones).  I listen when I want to retreat to a separate room behind a closed door and make it absolutely plain to my husband that I am absorbed in an exclusive activity and don't want to chit-chat.

(It's chit-chat that erodes a relationship in lockdown, not silence.  Silence strengthens a bond of 41 years, and reminds me that we have survived many challenges.  Chit-chat generally causes irritation, and often ends in an argument).

I started off by listening to a section on the audio-book (so as to make the best use of the time), and then carrying on from there with the printed version.  So interesting and addictive is the narrative, however, that very often I both read and listened to whole chunks in duplicate, to get the full impact of the writing.

The audio version of all three volumes in the trilogy is read by Ben Miles, who played the lead role, Thomas Cromwell himself, in the Royal Shakespeare Company stage version of WH and BUTB in 2014.  (Tickets sold out in minutes, the furore over the whole project was so great).

Ben Miles reads it beautifully, and fully enters into the mind and character of Thomas Cromwell, even giving him a faintly rough, common South London accent which indicates he was a blacksmith's son from Putney (although the accent would have sounded very different in 1530's). He even manages to make Cromwell sound like a burly, solid bruiser of a man, which he allegedly was.

Ben also reads Henry VIII exceptionally well, conveying perfectly the monarch's selfishness,  petulance, childishness, deviousness, insecurity, and cruelty.

At the end of the audio-book, a bonus section gives an interview between Ben Miles and Hilary Mantel.  This is illuminating.  In it she says she was planning and drafting the third volume as she sat in on the RSC's rehearsals in 2013.  And that the actors playing the parts influenced how she saw and heard the characters in Mirror. She said that the TV actors in the BBC version influenced her also.  That makes sense, as I found myself seeing them in my mind's eye as I listened.

Ultimately, in this bonus section, Hilary Mantel says that these three novels are the great project of her life, and took her fifteen years to complete.

Fantastic work.  Definitely genius.  I want it to go on. I want Thomas Cromwell's ghost to peer over the shoulder of the nasty Jane Rochford when she gets her come-uppance at last (she was executed for facilitating the sexual liaisons of Henry's fifth wife, Katherine Howard, who was likewise  executed, in 1542).  Jane Rochford had, in 1536, betrayed her husband, George Boleyn, (Anne's brother). She testified against him, thus helping secure his and Anne's conviction in 1536.  Jane Rochford went mad, apparently, while awaiting her fate in the Tower. Cromwell would have relished the spectacle.

I want to see Thomas watch the nasty Earl of Surrey (Anne Boleyn's cousin, eldest son of the Duke of Norfolk),  arrested. He put up a spirited defence at his trial but he, too, gets his come-uppance.  Surrey was executed for treason two weeks before the death of Henry VIII.  I particularly want to see Thomas enjoying the spectacle of wicked old "Uncle Norfolk" (the Duke,  uncle to both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, wives 2 and 5 respectively), sweating out his last night on earth in the same Tower, after his son's death.  Norfolk was due to be executed the next morning, but Henry VIII died in the night, and so he escaped his fate.  He did spend the entirety of the next reign (Edward VI, six years) in the Tower.  I suspect Cromwell would have haunted him there, just as Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More, previous victims of King Henry VIII, haunted Cromwell.

Then there's nasty Wriothesley, Cromwell's former friend and protege, who betrayed Cromwell and went over to the Duke of Norfolk's side, to help arrest Cromwell and secure a conviction.  He wasn't executed, but must have been terrified that he was about to be, when in 1546 he marched confidently into the King's presence to arrest Henry's sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr.  He was confident that he could have her executed for treason as well, and had already plotted to search her papers, and had tortured (illegally) on the rack a woman thought to be a supporter of the supposed treason.

Unfortunately for Wriothesley, Katherine Parr managed (unlike her five predecessors), to effect an affectionate reconciliation with Henry, and Wriothesley was sent packing. He must have feared for his future, but got away with it and survived into the next reign.

Hilary Mantel is very taken up with ghosts, they play a marked role in Thomas Cromwell's thoughts, particularly when he realises he is on the downward slope of the King's favour, and there is little hope that anyone or anything can save him.

Hilary Mantel's own memoir, a fascinating account of her childhood, is entitled "Giving Up the Ghost", and this is a book I intend to look at in a future post.



Saturday, 4 April 2020

100 Good Things About Growing Old #35 - Further Chances to Revisit the Icons of One's Youth

Years ago, in the sixth form (circa 1970) we read poems by Sylvia Plath.  I always found them rather too difficult, although I did buy my own copy of "Ariel", which surprises me somewhat, as these days I either borrow from libraries or look online, at Poetry Foundation.  I found Sylvia's actual life more interesting, and bought a copy of "Bitter Fame" (pictured below), in the 1980's.   

Since then, new material has been published which was not then available.
One item is this, my first "Lockdown Reading" book:


Lockdown Reading:  969 pages

This has been on my "to-read" list since it was published in 2018. I took it out of the library in late January this year, and had already renewed it three times, thus reaching my limit.  Then lockdown closed the library, and I have it for an indefinite further period.

The book is long, but easy to read.  In fact, it reads like an epistolary novel.  It follows the life of Sylvia from shortly after her marriage to Ted Hughes until the week before she took her own life (in February 1963).

The introductory piece by her daughter, Frieda Hughes, is touching and illuminating.

It's Sylvia's voice, though, Sylvia's story, and how mesmerising, how vivid, how kaleidoscopic her view of life.

Sylvia's phenomenal energy, her love of food, her love of life (yes, she does come across as having loved life), her love for her mother, for Ted, and for her daughter, Frieda, all shine like beacons.

Most of the letters are addressed to her mother, Aurelia, but with additions, and without the censorship practised in the original "Letters Home" (published in 1975).  Aurelia, (as the linked, quite horrible and extraordinarily scathing, reviewer points out), wanted to present a particular view of her late daughter. The new 2018 book is a no-holds-barred version.

Yes, Sylvia did have a difficult relationship with her mother, (who doesn't?)  and sometimes her selfishness is breathtaking.

She is at times sycophantically the small daughter, craving her mother's indulgence.  At other times she is variously patronising, dismissive, critical, extremely demanding, and even controlling.  (At one point she gives her mother a list of hints on how to make a living as a short-story writer).

At the end, her poor mother is absolutely desperate, forseeing disaster after Ted's departure, leaving the raw, wounded and vulnerable Sylvia alone with a baby and a toddler. Aurelia, anguished, telegrams to the midwife in North Tawton, (Sylvia being still in Devon in October 1962),  begging her to visit Sylvia "now, and get woman for her.  Salary paid here."  This is a voice of maternal anxiety with which, as a mother of grown-up daughters, I can totally empathise.

Sylvia replies to her offers of money and support with absolute fury. "Will you please, for goodness sake, stop bothering poor Winifred Davies!  You have absolutely no right or reason to do this, and it is an endless embarrassment to me .... Will you kindly leave her out of it?"  and more in the same vein.

Sylvia then goes on, in the same letter, to rant about Ted's "insanity and irresponsibility", reports that she has cooked roast beef and apple cake and entertained the bank manager's 14 year old son (who has read Ted's poems at school).  She thinks she is "well-liked here, in spite of my weirdness" and is convinced she will be able to achieve everything if only she can get a good nanny and a London flat.  Everything, energy, food, mania, delusion, it's all there, as it is in so many of her letters to her mother.

I think her mother knew best, but as with many mothers of daughters, she was told not to interfere.

Aurelia knew the real Sylvia, who, as others found to their cost, maintained a front of being the golden, all-achieving, popular American girl.  Underneath, as her poems disclose, she has sharp hurts which will never heal, and very dark thoughts on death.

In spite of it all, I like Sylvia.  I still find her poems on the difficult side, and this is because she was so much cleverer than me.  Had I met her at university, she would have terrified me.

But I like her a whole lot more than Ted.  I never was a fan of his work, and the revelations that have emerged over the years about his personal behaviour have made him even less appealing.  I've written before on this blog about how more recent work has revealed just how unpleasant Ted was.  At the time of Sylvia's death, the prevailing narrative, as exemplified in the biography "Bitter Fame", was that Sylvia was completely mad, and Ted a man provoked beyond endurance.



How untrue that was, is revealed by Professor Sir Jonathan Bate, in his "unauthorised" biography I refer to in that post.  I'll give just two examples:  Ted's sexual adventures with the woman for whom he left Sylvia, Assia Wevill, were so extreme that he ruptured her.  And on the night that Sylvia died, he was in bed with a third woman.

It's always been known that Assia killed herself in the same manner as Sylvia, and, far more shockingly, also killed her four-year-old daughter, Shura.

How toxic does a man have to be, to have that happen twice in a lifetime?

Even after all that, Ted managed to maintain his status as the woebegone, bereft husband, and became the poet laureate.  The women who scratched out the name "Hughes" on Sylvia's headstone in Yorkshire, were dismissed as mad feminists, further examples of what a decent man has to put up with.

As far as I am concerned, however, Ted is most damned by his own words.

Another book that wasn't available in my long-ago youth, is a collection of his own letters (pictured above, published 2007).  I actually bought my own copy of this book, some years ago, but have not been able to read all of them.  Unlike Sylvia's letters, which amuse, grip, enthral and describe, Ted's are much less interesting.  In many he comes across at times as a lacklustre individual.

(To Sylvia, various letters October 1956):  ..."I have done nothing.  Almost nothing. I composed a rather silly plot for a TV play ...."  "What I have done today.  A great deal of nothing..."  "This afternoon, stupefied, I lay on my bed in a half dream from three until seven ..."

Later, after the split, he is cruelly matter-of-fact to his sister Olwyn. (Late summer 1962):
"The only help I need is cash - in an account of my own ....my only concern is to swell a private account" .....   

As two of my friends now in their late sixties have attested, a private bank account in which to salt away an escape fund is the first requirement of the errant husband.

And even more cruelly to Olwyn, September 1962:
" Yes, it's just like her to employ a snoop ...(on his affair with Assia).

Then, tragically, in view of what actually happened:
"You're right, she'll have to grow up - it won't do her any harm".

That did it for me.

I have sifted through his later letters, but not with the enthusiasm I have for Sylvia's.  His long missive to Anne Stevenson, giving his own version of many of the events written about in her biography, "Bitter Fame", is interesting as an alternative view, but does not exonerate him from being damned with his own words in places.  His letter to his son Nicholas, dated 1986, when Nicholas would have been about 24, is astonishingly black and gloomy about life.  Nicholas took his own life in 2009 (two years after the collection of Ted's letters was published).

I find my attitude to Sylvia's poetry has not changed since my sixth-form days: it is still difficult, and dark.  But my attitude to her as a person has had much light shed.

To go back to the idea of what it would have been like to have been her contemporary at university: yes, she would have been scarily energetic and bright, but how bracing, and what good advice she gave!

Here is her letter to her friend from Wellesley, Lynne Lawner, dated October 1957. Lynne has arrived in Cambridge (England, not Massachusetts) in October,as Sylvia did two years before, and she has complained that she is "freezing, sick and uncertain". 

Yes, anyone who arrives at Cambridge in that season feels frozen, and the first term at a new university does leave one sick and uncertain.  Sylvia is bracing; "Well, so was I. Cambridge is worth this ....."

Sylvia remembers the feeling of being out of one's depth:   "If you are now feeling as ignorant, unread, unintellectual as I did ... you would do well to discipline yourself .... simple discipline helps a bit...." 

If only someone had told me this in October 1972, when I arrived at a different university on the freezing Eastern side of England, feeling ignorant and out of my depth.  I failed to discipline myself, and have paid the penalty throughout my life since. 

Her final words are even better:  "Practical advice about the miserable cold. Wear stockings ... and wool kneesocks over them .... Get a hotwaterbottle and pre-warm your bed at night ..." 

And don't skimp on the gas meter, and go out and buy proper food, don't rely on the ghastly college offerings.  Wonderful stuff.

But maybe in real life, such a laser personality ("death-ray", as Ted unkindly described it) would be too much.  Anyway, fifty years later, and without the need to discipline myself to respond academically, I have a second chance to visit this literary icon.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

100 Good Things About Growing Old, # 34 - I stop throwing out books

I've realised it doesn't matter if I don't continue to clear out my books and I don't get rid of any more of them.
 At first, I took photographs of the piles I was about to take to the charity shop, in case I missed them, or wanted to remind myself of why I was chucking them out. The pile above was one of my very early disposals, and I have never missed any of them.
 Similarly, this second pile of disposals has never been missed.
The Martin Amis dual biography, with his father Kingsley, did make me pause a little, hence it got its own picture, centre stage.  However, I have never thought of it since disposal.  I can't even remember which charity shop I took it to. There is more to say on this subject.

I had, initially, been taking them to my nearest charity shop, which I can walk to.  After a few trips, I noticed that none of my books were actually on the shelves. I enquired about this, and was told that, unless the books were in pristine condition, and particularly if paperbacks, as new. they would not be sold in this charity's network of shops.  What would happen to them, I asked, aghast.  If of vintage interest (I did not bother to find out what qualified as vintage, being so disgusted with what followed), they would go to the vintage branch shop. Everything else would be sent to poor foreign countries that need books, or be pulped.  That was my last visit to this charity, and henceforth I have favoured Oxfam, which takes anything and is grateful.  I have seen my books on their shelves, and they put their books in order properly.



This is what my downstairs bookcase looked like before operations commenced.  It's still pretty much the same.  Some books have gone upstairs  - that brown one, third from right on middle shelf, is a case in point.  It is a biography of Lord Mountbatten. I read about a third of it, lost interest, but thought I might come back to it later, so it has gone from immediately opposite my desk to upstairs in the spare bedroom.  However, others have replaced it, so the shelf is still double stacked.  I am proud to own copies of historical biographies of Edward I, Edward II, Edward III and Edward V.  These are all now in the gap shown above.  I volunteer at a historical property which was built in the reign of Edward I, and occupied by the same family through the reigns of Edward II and III.  Edward V is not part of this collection, and I intend at some point to donate this book to the Richard III visitors' centre in Leicester, but as yet I have not felt ready to let it go.

Above, this is what my upstairs bookcase in the spare bedroom looks like.  It contains four sets of shelves like these, all floor to ceiling, all double stacked.

I have given some away to charity shops. The above biography is beautifully written, and I read and enjoyed it, but knew I would never need it again because I can't be bothered to actually read any novels by Trollope.  I find them too long and boring.  I might have persevered in my youth, when how to occupy the long hours of the day seemed a problem.  Now that I am not even working, but no day seems long enough for all I want to achieve in it, life is too short for Trollope.


Here are the three novels which I gave away with the biography, all completely unread, and never regretted.

However, after several months of sorting and disposing, I realised I was becoming rather sad and unhappy.  Nothing else having changed in my life, I came to the conclusion that it was because I had chucked out enough, and should stop.  In fact, I concluded that I do not NEED to chuck out any more books.  I was scraping on a sore nerve by trying to find more books that I could do without.

I've got rid of all the ones which were completely painless, and the next tranches which I thought to get rid of were causing me pain, and making me feel regretful in anticipation.  Enough is enough.

This afternoon, I took back to the upstairs bookshelves three armfuls of books which I had brought downstairs ready to give away, but had found I couldn't get as far as doing so.  I already feel much better.  It's sort of the opposite of a purge. 

If anything, what has been purged is the guilt about owning so many books, and the accompanying thought that I should reduce my collection. I feel a calm sense of satisfaction.


Thursday, 31 October 2019

100 Good Things About Growing Old, #33

It's OK to go about the hedgerow, picking fruit for jam.


Not quite sure whether these are wild cherries or small plums, but anyway, the results are tasty!


Unfortunately, I didn't take the stones out before bottling the jam, so have had to issue warnings to recipients of the largesse, not to break their teeth on them!

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

100 Good Things About Growing Old #32

When you realise that going to see a solicitor about commencing divorce proceedings might not be such a good idea.

The likely conversation:

"So what is it that has become intolerable about your life together?"

"Well, the absolute last straw was an argument about his insistence, in following a new-fangled recipe, on mixing parmesan cheese into the spaghetti bolognese sauce."

"And this was enough to convince you that after 42 years together it's finally time to call it a day?"

"Yes.  It's about control.   He wants to mix it in so that none of the people who are going to eat it have any choice or control over the matter.  I said it is traditional to allow people to sprinkle if they wish."

Umm, maybe not worth spending £168.00 an hour discussing this.