Are we now free to criticise Hilary Mantel?
Some critics have been as unkind about the novelist as she is about Kate Middleton, says Nigel Horne
WHEN you next have a snoop at a friend's bookshelves, see if you can find Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall – you can’t miss it, it's dark red and twice as fat as most novels – and turn to Page 17. Is the corner turned down? Or perhaps there's a Daunts or Waterstone's bookmark resting there?
That's where many of us gave up, at the end of Chapter One, deciding life was too short to devote any further effort to Mantel's historical tome.
The Week has held back until now from rounding up the bad reviews for Wolf Hall and Mantel's sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. First, it seemed churlish, given that the damning critiques are very few compared with the glowing notices. Second, with all those awards – two Bookers and the Costa Award for book of the year, to name but three – surely the judges couldn’t be wrong?
But there are serious people who don’t rate the sainted Hilary. And now, given her extraordinary attack on the Duchess of Cambridge, it suddenly seems, well, reasonable to bring it up.
Mantel let rip in a lecture organised by the London Review of Books earlier this month – a lecture which presumably was not attended by many grubby hacks or what she said would have come out before now.
In short, she described Prince William's wife as "a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung ... with no personality of her own". Kate's only purpose, said Mantel, was to give birth – a phenomenon she had first spotted in her research of the Tudor period: "a royal lady is a royal vagina".
Kate Middleton, she went on, "appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture".
Unlike Diana, it seems, Prince William’s wife "appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished".
So, if Mantel feels free to have a go at Kate, let’s have a look at what the less friendly literary critics think of Hilary. I call as expert witnesses Andrew Holgate, literary editor of the Sunday Times, and Joan Smith, critic and novelist.
Holgate's first complaint is that Mantel has been seduced by her central subject, Henry VIII's fixer, Thomas Cromwell. In Bring Up the Bodies, "great swathes of text are devoted to Cromwell's idyllic domestic life, his generosity, his admirably far-sighted plans for the country. The result is that, instead of being explained, he is often excused, and remains as unknowable as the 'sleek, plump and densely inaccessible' man Mantel mentions coyly in her author's note."
Then there are problems of pace and detail. "Bring Up the Bodies is, if anything, even more mired in historical material than Wolf Hall — and also subject to some glaring repetitions (about the diplomatic situation, say). The result is a book that is curiously flat and leaden, and one whose central ambition, to explain its chief subject [Cromwell], is frustratingly unfulfilled."
Joan Smith, in a recent column for The Independent, questioned whether Mantel deserved to win the Costa Award for book of the year. "Let me be frank about this," wrote Smith, "I find the success of these books totally perplexing...
"Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are ... soap opera in period costume, piling up events with such speed that the overall effect is emotionally blunting. They're like plotlines in The Archers, where one drama grips everyone until something just as compelling pops up to take its place, whether it's Nigel's fall from the roof or Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon (Katherine in Mantel's spelling).
"The disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's repudiation of Catherine, his break with Rome, his hasty marriage to Anne Boleyn; all of these canter past like the latest episode in a long-running drama series, beautifully costumed and with as little emotional impact."
In short, it's OK to be rude about Hilary Mantel's books in polite society. Though be warned - it will probably make you about as popular as those who would attack the Duchess of Cambridge.