I had written this post before last week's Hilary Mantel kerfuffle, which if you were on Mars and missed you can catch up with the definitive version here, and thence everywhere else you can possibly think of.
It has been fascinating to watch the debate rage, see opinions divided, judgements passed and generally much foaming at the mouth. Those in support post links to favourable commentary, whilst those agin fire of a salvo of links to all the agin pieces, and it's been a bit like watching a long rally from the baseline at Wimbers, or perhaps Royal Tennis would be more apt. Anyway, our 'ilary served the ball and went home and we have had all that slugging of shots back and forth with the occasional person (the Prime Minister... I ask you) running to the net for a poorly-timed volley.
Just for the record and if, just supposing, I was Kate Middleton, I'd get HM onto my team instantly for more wise counsel and sage non-sycophantic, honest base-line-serving opinion and guidance. More likely, judging by the reaction, I suspect our 'ilary has said farewell to her Dame-hood and will be cast into the metaphorical dungeons of the Tower. But there are silver linings, can you think of more authentic mental territory from which to write the final book for which we are all agog.
In the end my own opinion matters not a jot, I'm just a little ball-girl of no consequence in the match because, as you will see, my bias in favour of Hilary Mantel is entrenched, immoveable and utterly pig-headedly stuck on the Adulation/Can Do No Wrong setting.
So here's what I wrote and I promise you I haven't changed a word...
It is no secret that when it comes to Hilary Mantel, that any objective critical faculties in my possession swiftly depart these shores, in fact I think I might be enjoying the rising tide of our 'ilary's success as much as I hope she is. A word-grafter and a word-crafter at the top of her game, this is absolutely her moment and I for one am revelling in each success.
I have had to check back in my hand-written reading journal to see when I first encountered the name and the writing. It wasn't until 1996 and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, read inbetween Moo by Jane Smiley and Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson I discover. These were the days of a rather erudite monthly book group that I had been invited to, I hardly knew anyone there and Hilary Mantel had been suggested by one very well-read member when none of the rest of us had even heard of her....so I didn't feel quite so daft. I knew instantly that I was reading something very different, something very new to me and that I couldn't quite grasp in the way that I usually understood a book. I knew I wanted to read much more like this for the challenges it offered. That difference perhaps confirmed by Hilary Mantel's response to the question 'What, or who, made you a writer?'
'Circumstance and chance; poor health, unfitting me for more active trades; the desire to read books that didn't seem to exist, unless I wrote them.'
I see that later that same year I read A Change of Climate and Fludd but for some reason I didn't go back to the beginning and seek out any of the earlier novels, though I have bought every one subsequently and you don't need to ask...of course our 'ilary has her own shelf.
Seventeen years on and I decided it was about time I did go back to the beginning. I am sated with current contemporary fiction with the Fiction Uncovered judging at the moment, and whilst I am enjoying the process enormously I am currently having to seek fiction reading for pleasure that diverts from the very immediate present. Zola is filling one slot very nicely, but I have space for something more recent, I needed another.
So wouldn't it be interesting, I decided, to do what I had done some years ago with Margaret Atwood and go right back to the beginning and read Hilary Mantel's books through in chronological order.
Every Day is Mother's Day (1985)
Vacant Possession (1986)
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988)
A Place of Greater Safety (1992)
A Change of Climate (1994)
An Experiment in Love (1995)
The Giant, O'Brien (1998)
Learning to Talk (2003)
Giving Up the Ghost - a memoir (2003)
Beyond Black (2005)
Wolf Hall (2009)
Ink in the Blood - A Hospital Diary (2010 - digital only)
Bring Up the Bodies (2012)
Those highlighted in red I have read, most recently Every Day is Mother's Day, and I clearly remember giving up on Beyond Black, so that will be an interesting revisit given my current state of unbridled adulation.
I have been trying to decide why I enjoy Hilary Mantel and her writing so much, and not just her fiction but also her pieces for the London Review of Books and the newspapers, as well as essays I catch hither and yon and on that subject might it be too much to ask for a book of Collected Writings??
I am far too devoted to be critical and that was all defined and affirmed a little by the fiesty speech our 'ilary gave after winning the Costa Prize recently... and the way she came out and faced up to those who said it wasn't fair, she was winning too much (can you believe it) and that she would not say 'sorry' she would say 'thank you.'
And this Guardian podcast interview...'There isn't a quota system for winning prizes,'
But also in that interview some wonderful insights into how she not only writes history, but I think I am seeing now, having made a start on the early novels, how Hilary Mantel approaches any writing. To see what they saw, wear what they wore...not costumes, these were their everyday clothes, eat what they ate....just to 'be' there where they are.
The key to reading success likewise perhaps to be found in that total immersion rather than detachment. I know I felt part of the furniture as I read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, whilst Every Day is Mother's Day has been a real revelation. I had no idea that Hilary Mantel had been a social work assistant in a previous life, bringing that experience to bear most fruitfully in her first two novels and I will write more about them soon.
But perhaps too it was reading this recently republished extract from Giving up the Ghost - A Memoir, about body image..
'When I was thin I had no notion of what being fat is like. When I worked in a department store, I had sold clothes to women of most sizes, so I should have known; but perhaps you have to experience the state from the inside, to understand what fat is like. When you sell clothes, you get very good at sizing people, but I had sized my customers as if they were fridge-freezers, or some other unnegotiable object, solid and with a height, width and depth. Fat is not like this. It is insidious and creepy.'
and for this...
'I am a shabby old building in an area of heavy shelling which the inhabitants have vacated years ago...spriit needs a house and lodges where it can, you don't kill yourself just because you need loose covers rather than frocks.'
What is not to love about someone who has the courage to think and then to say that about themselves, and though it may be simplistic thinking, but what depth of understanding and compassion are they perhaps subsequently more likely to bring to their characters, even their least likeable ones, and as a result write brilliant and insightful books??
So things are starting to add up for me now. Every Day is Mother's Day has I think proved me right in my own mind on all fronts so far, more about it soon, and had I nursed any doubts then Vacant Possession would have dispelled them in an instant.
Anyone else in my Hilary Mantel Fan Club then??