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Why we need Hilary Mantel’s critical snark

In her new collection Mantel Pieces, Hilary Mantel’s critical voice is superior, unkind – and deeply enjoyable.

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The life of Maximilien Robespierre, ­Hilary Mantel writes, “is conventionally divided into 31 years that don’t matter and five that do”. It is tempting to say something similar about the author herself, who endured decades as a writer’s writer, more praised than read, before her instant elevation to national treasure when she won the 2009 Booker Prize for Wolf Hall.

For someone so attuned to the reductive power of myth-making, it must be odd to become an icon. These days, Mantel cannot even dare to notice that the former Kate Middleton is thin, or idly speculate on how Margaret Thatcher might be assassinated, without attracting anguished tabloid headlines. The pleasant surprise of this collection of her journalism is that she has not allowed the corrosive mask of fame to wear down her sharp edges, or flatten her nuances.

Mantel Pieces – the pun is so bad it makes me like her more – covers the period from 1988 to 2017, and includes the “Royal Bodies” lecture, in which she observed that the royal family, like pandas, are “expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment”. The Middleton sideswipe might have enraged the Daily Mail – an offence for which she offered no apology, saying, “I have absolutely no regrets. What I said was crystal clear” – but she is most acute on the subject of Henry VIII’s desperate search for an heir, which confronted an absolute monarch with the limits of his power. Call it the paradox of patriarchy: unlike a mere woman, this god-king could not create life. He could not control the bodies of his wives; he could only destroy them. Mantel is sharp on infertility from the ­female perspective, too. After all, a woman who gives birth is a solved equation. Her life makes sense.

Bodies are Mantel’s great subject. She once described herself as “skinless” – sensitive to spirits, the ghosts of the past; a writer who inhabits her characters rather than imagining them. She is also wombless, the result of a hysterectomy at 27, following a diagnosis of endometriosis. (A condition which, the female body being so stubbornly different to the male one, takes an average of seven agonising years to be identified.) And she is shameless: in a description of a long stint in hospital, she doesn’t have a good word to say about Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill”. “Virginia only has decorous illnesses… Virginia never oozes. Her secretions are ladylike: tears, not bile. She may as well not have had bowels, for all the evidence of them in her book.” Woolf was, however, ill enough to take her own life, which ought to count for something.

In the dozen “years that matter”, Mantel has written consistently about a man: Thomas Cromwell. But on the evidence of this collection, it is women who animate her. There’s Madonna, the “plain girl’s revenge made flesh”; Théroigne de Méricourt, the French revolutionary who ends up a “poor, starved body on the postmortem table”; Helen Duncan, “Britain’s last witch”, with her “self-punishing habit of ingesting carpet tacks and cigarette ends”; and Marie Antoinette, who employed a commoner as her hairdresser, and “thought so highly of him that she took him with her in 1791 when the royal family tried to escape over the border”. Her essays on male subjects – the murder of James Bulger, the Tudor duke Charles Brandon, Danton the revolutionary and John ­Osborne the playwright – are all accomplished. But they don’t sing, somehow.

Mantel is a “feminist critic”, if we give that phrase its only proper meaning. She is interested in women’s lives, their minds and their fundamental differences. And in their contradictions, too, their lies and their pretence of weakness. The earliest piece in this collection, a 1988 review of Shere Hite’s survey of American marriages, showcases the capacity for precision-engineered unkindness which is Mantel’s greatest gift as a critic. “There is a chilling quality about Miss Hite’s respondents which reminds one of all those people who say: ‘I’ve got a book in me.’ Of course, everyone has: what is a pity is that exercises like The New Hite Report give it the opportunity to come out.” Well, I gasped. On the left, the idea of unequal talent has become taboo. This is exactly the kind of nonsense a critic should be poking, sharply, in the eye.

Except, they don’t, very often, do they? A 2013 essay by Gawker’s Tom Scocca outlined the defining cultural shift of the 2000s, from “snark” to “smarm”. It was prompted by the announcement that Buzzfeed would not publish negative book reviews, replacing “the scathing takedown rip” with a warm bath of positivity. This was smarm, Scocca argued, “an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.” Yeah, guys. Why can’t we all just get along?

This collection is an extended argument against smarm and for snark, otherwise known as criticism. In the introduction, Mantel notes that she had no formal critical training. After a law degree, she worked in a hospital, and a department store, and then followed her husband to Botswana and Saudi Arabia. Like all the best critics, she is an outsider: a heretic, a hermit, a devout hater of parties. (This is why women have prospered in the role – Janet Malcolm, Pauline Kael, Emily Nussbaum.) The critic is not here to make friends. The authorial persona on display in Mantel Pieces is confident to the point of arrogance. In a world where many journalists, broken and exposed by the internet, write with a flinch in every sentence, that is deeply enjoyable.

Ah, the internet. There is no Instagram here, no selfies, no contouring or Mrs Hinch or anti-vaxxer “moms”, and so the collection feels like a time capsule, both in content and style. Mantel’s apologetic postcards become faxes, and faxes become emails, but nowhere else is there a suggestion that she shares the quintessential condition of the modern writer: strapped to the hellish rollercoaster of social media, forced to navigate the Goodreads hall of mirrors – so many opinions, stretching to infinity – and encouraged to cultivate a “personal brand”. Thanks to age or fame or temperament, Mantel has escaped all this, cocooned away in the Devon town of Budleigh Salterton, closer to the 16th century than the 21st. On this ­evidence, it’s to be recommended.

****

The internet has made everyone a critic, and therefore no one. Mantel’s longform journalism is enabled by the feudal structure of the London Review of Books, whose editor and owner are the same person. (Handy in budget meetings.) The kill fee she received for a piece spiked in 1988, some £150, is three times what the Literary Review pays 32 years later. Magazine books pages do not generate lucrative advertising revenue; they attract little traffic online. They are a public service, creating and nourishing an intellectual culture. And look how out of touch that sounds in 2020.

For writers, this incentivises smarm over snark. Who can afford to make enemies by publishing casual brutalities like this, from the Théroigne de Méricourt review? “Throughout the book, errors and inconsistencies pass without editorial intervention; the index is waste paper.” Mantel, however, is pitiless, in both senses of the word. Her 2004 essay on “holy anorexics” is the best of the bunch. “Some Girls Want Out” declares the title: Mantel considers a spate of self-denying penitents, such as Gemma Galgani, who died of tuberculosis in 1903, at the age of 25, and was canonised by Pius XII in 1940. Fasting wasn’t the half of it: “St Maria Maddalena de Pazzi lay naked on thorns. Saint Catherine of Siena drank pus from a cancerous sore. One confessor ordered Veronica Giuliani to kneel while a novice of the order kicked her in the mouth. Another ordered her to clean the walls and floor of her cell with her tongue; when she swallowed the spiders and their webs, even he thought it was going too far.” And it gets worse: “What St Francesca Romana did, I find I am not able to write down.” (Saved you a click: Google reveals that she poured boiling pork fat on her vulva before sex.)

Such behaviour only seems extreme when you consider the alternative, which is becoming an everyday woman. In Mantel’s novel Beyond Black, the psychic Alison starts her show by addressing an audience member called Gillian. In a breathless monologue, she tells Gillian her life story: “You’re the one everybody depends on…you’re the Rock of Gibraltar, aren’t you, but then you have to say to yourself, hang on a minute, who do I go to when I want advice? Who’s there for Gilly, when it comes to the crunch?” She invites Gillian to consider what she might achieve if she put herself first for once. The cold-reading works, of course: “In Alison’s experience there’s not a woman alive who, once past her youth, doesn’t recognise this as a true and fair assessment of her character and potential.”

Mantel makes connections across time, comparing the 19th century’s starving saints with the teenage anorexics of the Noughties. Today, looking at the pale normalcy of womanhood, some girls still want out. In the essay on the “witch” Helen Duncan, she writes that “it is not difficult to see how mediumship liberated its more genteel female practitioners. They could flirt with their audience and mock them; in deep trance, they could behave aggressively and with an overt sexuality.”

Bad girls. Ecstatic masochists. Housewives with hidden depths. Revolutionaries who rebelled all the way to the madhouse. These unruly women are her enduring ­obsession. Read those lines again and think of Mantel, smiling serenely in a billowing kaftan, sitting at her little desk near a tearoom town, inside a body which has betrayed her. This is a woman who gets her kicks, alright – on the page. 

Mantel Pieces
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, 352pp, £16.99

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 23 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic