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Mantel, Hilary (Mary)

MANTEL, Hilary (Mary)

Nationality: British. Born: Glossop, Derbyshire, 6 July 1952. Education: The London School of Economics, 1970; Sheffield University, Yorkshire, B. Jurisprudence 1973. Family: Married Gerald McEwen in 1972. Career: Social worker in a geriatric hospital, 1974-75; teacher of English, Botswana, 1977-80; lived in Saudi Arabia, 1981-86. Awards: Naipaul Memorial prize, for travel writing, 1987; Winifred Holtby prize, 1990; Cheltenham fiction prize, 1991; Soultrem Arts Literary prize, 1991; Sunday Express Book of the Year prize, 1992. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1990. Agent: Bill Hamilton, A.M. Heath, 79 St. Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4AA, England.

Publications

Novels

Every Day Is Mother's Day. London, Chatto and Windus, 1985; New York, Owl Books, 2000.

Vacant Possession. London, Chatto and Windus, 1986; New York, Holt, 2000.

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. London, Viking, 1988; New York, Holt, 1997.

Fludd. London, Viking, 1989.

A Place of Greater Safety. London, Viking, 1992; New York, Athenaeum, 1993.

A Change of Climate. London, Viking, 1994; New York, Atheneum, 1994.

An Experiment in Love. London, Viking, 1995; New York, Holt, 1996.

The Giant, O'Brien. New York, Holt, 1998.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Poor Children" (as Hilary McEwen), in Punch (London), 21 February 1979.

"Something for Sweet," in Literary Review (London), December 1986.

"Alas for the Egg," in Best Short Stories 1987, edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes. London, Heinemann, 1987.

"A Dying Breed," in London Magazine, April-May 1987.

"Dog Days," in Encounter (London), May 1987.

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Hilary Mantel comments:

My first two novels are set in the north of England, in 1974 and 1984 respectively. Every Day Is Mother's Day tells the story of Muriel Axon and her mother Evelyn, two reclusive women who live together in mutual disgust, united only by their fear of the outside world. Their peculiar lives touch the lives of their neighbors at many points, but true contact is never made. Muriel Axon becomes mysteriously pregnant, and at the end of the story there are two violent deaths.

The mood of this book is comic and satirical, with excursions into the fantastic; at times it has the flavor of a ghost story. Some of the ideas come from a short period I spent as a hospital social worker. At a deeper level, I was interested by different theories of mental health and illness, and especially by Bruno Bettelheim's writings on autism. Muriel's internal world consists of a series of terrifying misapprehensions about the nature of cause and effect; but her major problem is that there is a gap where her imagination should be. Because of this gap, she cannot put herself in anyone else's place, or guess what their feelings might be. So she is equipped to evolve from a pathetic person into a wicked one.

Vacant Possession takes up Muriel's story ten years later. Released from a long-stay mental hospital, which is closing as a result of government policy, Muriel returns to her old haunts and begins to wreak havoc in the lives of the new owners of her mother's house.

Here I wanted to make some topical points about the hospital closures and the kinds of problems they might create; sadly, the points remain topical several years on. I also wanted to expand the character of Muriel to its logical limits. Since she had no centerno soul, reallyit is possible for her to assume other identities at will. In one incarnation she is a cleaning woman called Lizzie Blank; in another, she is a depressive hospital orderly called Poor Mrs. Wilmot. She has the knack of finding out the fears and vulnerabilities of the people around her, and dealing with them accordingly.

Vacant Possession is superficially less serious than Every Day Is Mother's Day. It has a faster pace, more jokes per page, and a more farcical plot-line. As epigraph to the first book I used a quotation from Pascal: "Two errors: one, to take everything literally; two, to take everything spiritually." When reading anything I have written, my ideal reader would hear that warning in mind.

My third novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a psychological thriller set in Saudi Arabia, where I lived for some years. My fourth novel, Fludd is a comedy set in the north of England in the 1950s in a fictitious moorland village. The main characters are nuns and priests. Here I used motifs, mishaps and miseries from my own Catholic childhood; but the book is not a satire on the Church. Its central device is the notion of alchemy. I wanted to explore what alchemy meant, as a liberating and creative process, and to see what form my own earliest memories would take if I worked to transform them into fiction.

* * *

British writer Hilary Mantel's oeuvre is distinguished by both its versatility and its singular fascination with the relationship between social and international politics. Mantel's eight novels offer an intriguing graph of a novelist's preoccupations and of her development.

Mantel's first two novels, Every Day Is Mother's Day and Vacant Possession, are unusual in that they deal with the same people and, up to a point, with the same events. In Every Day Is Mother's Day the madness, infanticide, and matricide in the Axon household are described mostly through Mrs. Axon's eyes (giving us some idea of her marriage to the horrible Mr. Axon, now mercifully dead), and in Vacant Possession the same events are recalled by her daughter Muriel in a flashback that asserts her hate for her mother, yet tells us nothing of the cunning ways in which Muriel reinforced her mother's belief in the evil spirits possessing the house (it is left to the reader to guess at these from Mrs. Axon's terrors in the first book). The action in Vacant Possession then moves forward to two more murders committed by Muriel and two by her mad landlord. There is a terrible neatness about the second book: multiple links never thought of in the first book are now established and explored. Coincidences abound, all part of a carefully worked out pattern, and what happens has the inevitability of a fairy tale. Mantel's preoccupation is with evil, with human wickedness that pursues its ends rigorously and appears to triumph, at least in the first novel. At the end of Vacant Possession, however, Muriel Axon is back in her old house: like a dreadful sorcerer's apprentice she has called up spirits that will destroy herretribution at last.

Mantel's third book, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, is a very different kind of novel. Presumably based on personal experiences, and written out of the shock and outrage of living in a society that has little time for Western liberal ideals and none for Western women, it is a mixture of a thriller (with no clear-cut solution of the mystery) and a record (some of it in diary form) of the heroine's progress, or disintegration. Frances Shore comes to Saudi Arabia to join her husband, a civil engineer. A cartographer, she is not permitted to work in the Kingdom, finds the expatriate society uncongenial, and tries to make friends with two young women neighbors, one a Pakistani, one a Saudi. An Englishman is murdered and there are hints of Fundamentalist plots and gunrunning. The end of the novel finds Frances and her husband silent, defeated, waiting to leave for good. There are no real villains, just a clash of two worlds, two cultures, two moralities, and, ultimately, a deep dislike of the hot, dusty city and its ways.

In Fludd, Mantel once again focuses on the vagaries of good and evil. Fludd, who seems to be a reincarnation of the 16th-century mystical theosophist and alchemist Robert Fludd, comes to the northern village of Fetherhoughton as curate to the Roman Catholic priest, Father Angwin. Like a catalyst in a chemical process he brings change to the village: the traditional old faith is reinforced; the cruel Mother Perpetua of the local convent apparently meets the devil and is burnt; a young nun, Sister Philomena, escapes with Fludd, spends the night with him and is left to face the unknown world with confidence born out of love. There is perhaps a devil in the shape of the local tobacconist, and there is a miracle: the priest's housekeeper is cured of a disfiguring wart. There is some unexpected kindness, another miracle perhaps (the old nuns help Philomena to run away), and in the end the message is reassuring: "the ways of the wicked shall perish."

The political paradigm of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street a clashing of two distinct culturesserves once again as the model for Mantel's 1994 novel, A Change of Climate. Truly a work obsessed with memory and secrets, and with how these private concerns interact with the larger political environment, the story involves the domestic trials of a modern Norfolk family. Ralph and Anna Eldred are former missionaries to Africa and people who have not only spent time in a South African prison but, in Bechuanaland, have had their two babies abducted. Their story is obviously novel-ready but Mantel avoids pandering by inflecting the Eldred's terrible "secrets" with descriptions of the equally terrible realities of an apartheid South Africa, and, as the Eldreds return to England, with a portrait of socially torn 1980s Britain. What makes Mantel's novel so fascinating is her bold grafting of the everyday with the internationalA Change of Climate, like Nadine Gordimer's finest work, concerns itself with the nature of faith and social commitment in the face of hostile, predictably bigoted forces. While the Eldred family leans towards chaos, they also come to terms with their past and the novel is resolved on a constructive, if precarious, note of reconciliation.

Even in her lengthier novels there is a trademark quality of concentration in Mantel's prose that affords many of her works the tight power of fine short stories. Unmannered, lucid, and always realist, Mantel's fiction-writing perhaps owes much of its style to her background as a literary, political, and cultural studies essayist. She captivates, in both her fiction and criticism, and then often startles a reader with a no-fuss, vivid journalism. Consider the opening line in A Change of Climate: "One day when Kit was ten years old, a visitor cut her wrists in the kitchen." The same kind of ominous, seemingly ho-hum descriptions of suffering are also notable in An Experiment in Love, Mantel's seventh novel. This first-person fiction is essentially a coming-of-age story about Carmel McBain, the daughter of a rather disinterested working class English family. Carmel eventually escapes her unsupportive household and attends London University. Mantel broadens a typical college novel to explore the political territories of gender and class. An Experiment in Love, set in the 1960s, is a knowingly feminist workcontrasting Carmel's goals (and sometimes self-destructive frustrations) with the frustrated desires of her mother and her mother's generation.

The fascination with "the wicked" that is a clear preoccupation in Mantel's novels explicitly marks her historical fictions, A Place of Greater Safety and The Giant, O'Brien. A Place of Greater Safety is an ambitious re-telling of the French Revolution, and Mantel's principal characters are historical figures now associated directly with the TerrorCamille Desmoulins, George-Jacques Danton, and Maxmilien Robespierre. This is a massive novel that, like so much of Mantel's fiction, is obsessed with the origins and then the necessary unions of social and political power. We follow the three characters from their prosaic provincial beginnings to their ultimate destruction at the hands of a world-changing, anarchic force that they were directly responsible for inspiring. Mantel is able to infiltrate the consciousnesses of her subjects and so, in the best possible way, she renders these historical lives immediate and palpable. But if A Place of Greater Safety is a sprawling and rather grand study of the workings of power, Mantel's most recent novel The Giant, O'Brien manages the same investigation in a much more compact frame. An at times rollicking tale of an actual 18th-century Irish giant, Charles Byrne, the novel is distinguished by brilliant dialogue and by effortless transitions between the first and third person narrative voice. Mantel has created a first-rate adventure taleByrne travels from Ireland to London, with a group of good fellows, to make his fortune as the tallest man on Earthbut she's also crafted a macabre meditation on nationhood and social justice. Byrne's counterpoint is the Scottish experimental doctor John Hunter, who must resort to grave-robbing to ensure the subjects necessary for his radical biological experiments. As Mantel develops the two protagonists, what we are offered is two distinct but complimentary portraits of marginalized geniusesmen who struggle to "make it" to the center only to be, in the end, consumed by their own originality.

It should be stressed that there is much to amuse the reader in Mantel's novels, surprisingly so given the grim events that take place. She has a wicked sense of the absurd and a sharp eye for detail. This latter quality she shares of course with most present-day novelists, but in her descriptions of the present-day world, evil, banal but powerful, is caught and held for the reader to inspect and recognize.

Hana Sambrook,

updated by Jake Kennedy

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