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.
The essays in this collection explore subjects – France’s ancien régime and the revolution, Tudor England and the court of Henry VIII, illness and the body, spiritualism and visionary experience – that the double Booker winner has made her own in her fiction and her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003). What sets Mantel’s novels apart is also what sets her critical writing apart: an unerring eye for the telling detail, the clue that will unlock what she calls “the puzzle of personal identity”.
Re-reading it, I find it hard to understand what the fuss was about. But I found it hard to understand the first time around. In her deft and authoritative prose, Mantel moves effortlessly through 500 years of regal flesh and blood letting, from the womb of Anne Boleyn, the beheading of Marie Antoinette, and the self-harm of Diana, Princess of Wales to the “machine-like” Kate Middleton, another woman assumed to be “a jointed doll”.
It is only when her essays are laid out like this that we can see the inside of Mantel’s huge head, bulging with knowledge and a million connections. Scribble, scribble, scribble, Ms Mantel.
The volume’s standout essay, Royal Bodies, was the subject of some outrage in 2013 because it raised uncomfortable questions about the nation’s voyeuristic relationship with the monarchy. But it has aged well, and will remain pertinent for some time to come.
Occasionally, the manner in which Mantel articulates her thoughts can be inattentive (she has a weakness for phrases like “swat a book like a fly”; “droning on and on”; “cut their losses”). But on the whole this is a work that is brisk and breezy, and further enhanced by her capacity to examine our hearts, register our feelings, and bring up with tenderness the enduring question of our frail and vulnerable bodies.