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A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Viking, 1992, 878 p, plus ii p Contents, ii p Author’s Note, viii p Cast of Characters, ii p Map of Revolutionary Paris.

A Place of Greater Safety cover

There is a view in certain circles which questions the legitimacy of authors describing milieux and inhabiting characters of which they have little or no direct experience, of writing, as you might say, outside themselves. This attitude focuses on the potentially dubious aspects of what is sometimes described as cultural appropriation; what some might go so far as to call exploitation. It is not a new issue: authors – aspiring authors at any rate – have over the years frequently been advised to write what they know. (There is a similar debate in the acting profession over who ought to be allowed to play certain roles. While in this context I recognise the point about adequate representation and lack of access by some actors to particular parts in a production or film it seems to me to be slightly off the point. An actor’s job after all is and always has been to pretend to be someone else. Who actually gets to do that, though, is a different challenge.) For writers an opposite problem exists though, that if they do write outside what is deemed (by others) to be their experience they could be ghettoised or even ignored, barred from any acceptance. Both the extremes are best avoided. In the best of all possible worlds they would be. This is not, of course, the best of all possible worlds.

Hilary Mantel is not a French Revolutionary, that turbulent era – one of many to try to seek the best of worlds – is well outside her experience, yet had she stuck to her lane readers would have been deprived of a very fine work of fiction indeed. In A Place of Greater Safety she has produced perhaps the most convincing novelistic account in English of what those times were like. That this was effectively her first novel is astonishing. All the hallmarks that made her Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell so compelling – getting into her character’s minds, formidable research, attention to detail, sympathetic portrayals of people who in most respects were far from admirable – are here.

The narrative focus of the novel lies mainly with three principal revolutionaries, Camille Desmoulins, good with words, making him a highly successful pamphletist but afflicted with a stutter, the charismatic Georges-Jacques d’Anton (later Danton) marred by a facial disfigurement, and the reserved and ascetic Maximilien Robespierre, but also encompasses their respective households and acquaintances. Desmoulins and Danton are more or less serial womanisers, Robespierre’s reticence means he is a reluctant lover when it comes to the point.

As Wolf Hall began with incidents in Cromwell’s childhood so too does A Place of Greater Safety with those of its three main characters. The background political situation, the slow tipping into insurrection, is dealt with mainly by asides, rarely carrying the thrust of the story. History unfolds in the margins of these lives – as it does more generally, to all of us. In particular Mantel shows us the daily concerns and thoughts of Desmoulins’s and Danton’s wives, respectively Lucile, and Gabrielle then Louise. There is a comment on another woman’s appearance, “she had employed one of those expensive hairdressers who make you look as if you’ve never been near a hairdresser in your life,” that has no doubt occurred to many.

The scenario inspires a few sardonic exchanges. Someone asks, “‘Would they kill the king?’” and is replied to with, “‘Heavens, no. We leave that sort of thing to the English.’” The same topic arises later in an exchange between Camille and Fabre d’Églantine when the latter asks, “‘Do you think that Mr Pitt really cares whether we have Louis executed?’
‘Personally? Oh no, no one gives a damn for Louis. But they think it is a bad precedent to cut off monarch’s heads.’
‘It was the English who set the precedent.’
‘They try to forget that.’”

The changes and dislocations revolutions entrain are summed up by, “Because of the changes in the street names it will become impossible to direct people around the city. The calendar will be changed too, January is abolished, goodbye to aristocratic June. People will ask each other, ‘What’s today in real days?’” Camille says acidically, “The situation of the poor does not change. It is just that the people who think it can change are admired by posterity.”

The Terror comes on bit by bit, apparently without anyone consciously willing it, but has its own momentum. The characters ride the times as best they can, while they can, towards the end under the increasingly looming menace that is Saint-Just.

The best advice is given by Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville to Lucile, “‘Concentrate on surviving yourself, my love. I do.’” Not that it can necessarily be followed.

A Place of Greater Safety is not perhaps for the faint-hearted reader, but it is brilliantly achieved.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Cast of Characters; “a delicatessan” (delicatessen.) Otherwise, “about the price of a woman’s hats” (strictly that should be ‘prices’,) epicentre (context did not imply ‘off-centre’; so, centre,) Champs-de-Mars (Champ-de-Mars,) uncurably (usually incurably,) “if the crowd let the police take him” (the crowd is a single entity here; so, ‘if the crowd lets’,) “M Soulès eyes were drawn” (Soulès’s,) “kicked around like a football” (football, as such, had not been codified in 1789.) “A Bodyguard” (no need for the capital ‘B’.) “The crowd cheer” (The crowd cheers,) “Georges’ mother” (Georges’s,) publically (publicly,) stongly (strongly,) “to his army command the frontier” (at the frontier is more natural,) “as they stoved in the door” (stove in, or, staved in,) “stray voices in the street that call – line break from the middle of a line, next line starts – pass on.” “‘I’ll tell it you when I get back.’” (‘I’ll tell you it’ is more natural,) “and accusation drip from unseen mouths” (accusations,) “he called the members, opinion-mongers” (doesn’t need the comma,) “a jury retiring at this hour were unlikely to agonize over their verdict” (was unlikely; its verdict.) “The jury were back” (was back,) “‘Is that Danton’s plan.’” (is a question and so requires a question mark rather than a full stop.) “The only sound in the apartment were the dissonant chords and broken notes” (sounds … were,) Cassius’ (Cassius’s.) The public applaud (applauds.)

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Full title: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories Fourth Estate, 2014, 252 p.

The ten stories this collection contains are all exquisitely written, in them every word counts. Mantel shows her mastery of the short story is as good as her novel writing.

Sorry to Disturb is narrated by an Englishwoman living in Jeddah as her husband works there. One day a man in import-export rings her doorbell, lost, asking to use her telephone. This is Ijaz, who returns next day to thank her and thereafter calls regularly – nothing untoward but he seems as lonely as she is. Her loneliness is not eased by her female neighbours. Her state of mind is illustrated by the fact that Ijaz may well be a figment of her imagination, though that is not the only possible interpretation of the text.

In Comma a woman remembers her childhood friendship with a girl her mother considered unsuitable and the pair’s clandestine visits to the grounds of the local big house.

The Long QT describes the moment a man starts to dally with another woman and the unexpected effect this has on his wife.

Winter Break describes the taxi journey a woman and her resolutely anti-children husband take from their destination airport to their holiday hotel. What it is about, though, is not seeing what’s in front of you.

Harley Street is narrated by a female receptionist in one of the premises there, where the doctors are all nicknamed for their specialty – and who to a man (and woman) all hold their patients in contempt. It is more concerned however with the relationships between the ancillary staff.

Offences Against the Person tells of the interactions between the daughter of a conveyancing solicitor, taken on as a junior clerk in his office one summer when she is seventeen, with his main secretary, Nicolette, soon to be the cause of her parents’ marriage break-up.

How Shall I Know You? examines the trials and tribulations of a jobbing writer asked to speak to reading clubs – the seedy hotels, the usual questions, the tiresome small talk afterwards – but is more concerned with the employee at the hotel where she stays on one visit, a young woman with a facial deformity but a kindly disposition despite her treatment at the hands of the regulars.

The Heart Fails Without Warning anatomises the relationships within a family where the elder daughter is anorexic.

In Terminus a woman sees her dead father in the carriage of a train on a parallel track. At the terminus she tries to find him, fails, yet nevertheless gains a sort of contentment.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983 is an account of the intrusion by a gunman intent on killing the PM into the home of a woman expecting a plumber to call on the day Margaret Thatcher is to leave the private hospital the back of which the woman’s bedroom overlooks. He seems to be an IRA man. In reply to something the woman says he replies, “‘You’re right. They’re Englishmen,’ he said, sadly. ‘They can’t remember bugger all.’”

Note to the sensitive: at one point a character says, “White nigger, isn’t it?”

Pedant’s corner:- “whether the house is quiet as I left it” (‘quite as I left it’ would be more usual but quiet does make sense in context,) sunk (sank,) typically there are missing commas before pieces of direct speech which begin within a sentence, “computer disks” (I stll rebel at spelling ‘disc’ with a ‘k’,) “against front window of bookshop” (against the front window,) “a row of … were marked out” (a row was marked out,) sat (sitting.)

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2020, 889 p, including 4p Author’s Note and 1 pAcknowledgements, plus ii p Contents, vi p Cast of Characters and ii p Tudor and Plantagenet descendant family trees.

The Mirror and the Light cover

As we have come to expect of Mantel this is exquisitely written. Each word, it seems, has been chosen with care, the prose burnished to perfection. At nearly 900 pages, though, it is not a quick read.

This final instalment of Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is bookended by two executions, that of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s own. Despite the reader’s knowledge of its narrator’s ultimate fate (surely no-one coming to this book could be unaware of it?) there is no sense of tension defrayed. We are in the moment – often in his past moments – with Thomas Cromwell in his efforts to serve Henry VIII and to frustrate the king’s enemies both at home and abroad (and for Cromwell to climb the greasy pole as high as possible while incidentally enriching himself, his family and his entourage.)

The Tudor dynasty is still on insecure ground, its already tenuous claim to the throne threatened by the lack of a male heir, Catholic pretenders (the Poles and the Courtenays) intriguing against Henry with the Spanish Emperor’s envoy and with the Pope, gossiping and insinuating against Cromwell but in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s death the most urgent task in the king’s households seems to be to chip out the HA HA insignia from all the heraldic emblems on the walls and to unstitch them from the embroidered cushions. Meanwhile the king’s latest marriage – to Jane Seymour – goes well, bringing benefits to the Seymours and Cromwell both, not least the marriage of Cromwell’s son into the Seymour family. Then, after producing a legitimate son for Henry, Jane dies; and, though Prince Edward thrives, everything is thrown into the air again.

This is an easy to absorb foray through the history of the times as seen through the eyes of one of its prime actors; the uprising against the King’s religious policies in the North of England that became known as The Pilgrimage of Grace, allayed by worthless promises and later crushed by the Duke of Norfolk; the diplomatic dance surrounding the marriages of James V of Scotland with French heiresses; the dissolution of the monasteries and the bounty that brings, both to the crown and to its servants; the arm’s length negotiations for Henry’s marriage with Anne of Cleves; that project’s dismal failure on the pair’s first sight of each other; the insinuation by the Duke of Norfolk of his flighty niece Katherine Howard into the King’s orbit; rumours that Cromwell seeks to marry the King’s first daughter, the Lady Mary. All goes well for Cromwell until suddenly it doesn’t, things he said in innocence are twisted against him, hoist by his own petard.

There are some quotable moments. Thinking of his dead wife, Cromwell remembers, “She kept a list of his sins, in the pocket of her apron: took it out and checked it from time to time.” (She needed to write them down?) Under questioning by Cromwell, Margaret Pole comments on the position of aristocratic women, “‘I have noticed’” she says, “‘common men often love their mothers. Sometimes they even love their wives.’” At one point Cromwell reflects that, “men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

However, at times I found myself struggling to concentrate on the text, perhaps due to this third Cromwell book’s length (or even its weight) or that I was reading it during lockdown with other things on my mind.

It is obvious in retrospect, though, that the whole trilogy has been the thoughts of Cromwell on the scaffold, scrolling through his life as he awaits the axe.

Overall, this trilogy is a tour-de-force, a great feat of evoking another time, of imagining another mind, and a brilliant achievement.

Pedant’s corner:- “her family sweep in” (sweeps in.) “None of them have kept their looks” (None of them has kept her looks.) “‘I am sure you she remembers you’” (no need for the ‘you’, or else ‘I assure you’ was meant,) burger (x2, burgher,) dottrels (dotterels.) “‘Did you not use to be’” (Did you not used to be’,) “lands at the town of Fife” (Fife is not a town, it’s a county, though it’s still sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Fife.) “His party travel” (His party travels,) pyxs (pyxes,) “to see that that” (only one ‘that’ needed,) “spout it from their maws” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth.)

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2012, 411 p.

Bring up the Bodies cover

From its opening words, “His children are falling from the sky,” to its final ones – a warning that there are no endings, only beginnings – this second in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is a consciously literary endeavour. (The “children” are in fact falcons named after Thomas Cromwell’s offspring.) Not that it is in any way difficult. The narration is still in the third person but the use of “he” to refer to Thomas Cromwell does not induce as much confusion as in Wolf Hall – perhaps because the reader is more accustomed to it but also since Mantel uses “he, Cromwell,” more often than in the previous book. There are occasional flourishes of poetic language to leaven proceedings and emphasise the literariness of the endeavour.

The action covers the events surrounding Anne Boleyn’s trial and execution. The phrase “Bring up the bodies” is uttered to call her supposed lovers (all of whom have been in Cromwell’s sights since they mocked his patron Cardinal Wolsey during a masqued ball at court) in to their trial. Mantel does a fine job in portraying all this history (whose outlines are well known but for which few documents remain.) Her hero, Cromwell, is instrumental in securing confessions but the text still leaves open the possibility that Anne was innocent of the charges laid.

Anne’s crime, if any, would not have been adultery (though for her lovers it would have been.) Rather, her offence was “imagining the King’s death.” This tickled me since Mantel was herself recently criticised for imagining a Prime Minister’s death – some idiot Tory MP said Mantel ought to be prosecuted for it – even though the PM concerned had already died, and crime writers imagine people’s deaths all the time.

In the book, apropos of Thomas Wyatt (the poet) Cromwell muses, “You must believe everything and nothing of what you read.” Mantel is believable. Reading Bring Up the Bodies, a much better and more rounded book than Wolf Hall, may be the best substitute for being at Henry VIII’s court. (Better even; since there is no risk to life involved in the experience.)

And only one contender for Pedant’s Corner: when he had rode. Plus not a single typo anywhere. Remarkable for these times.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2009, 651 p.

Wolf Hall cover

In ways the first few scenes of this reminded me of Science Fiction. It bore the same necessity to introduce a different milieu. Here they describe Thomas Cromwell’s early life as the son of a brutal blacksmith. The book then jumps in time to chronicle his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, from whom he learned his craft, and his subsequent rise to the position of Henry VIII’s go to man.

Aside:- There is a peculiar fascination for certain inhabitants of these islands endlessly to dissect Tudor times. A few years ago a theory occurred to me to explain this. It is that under the Tudors was the last time in which England was just England (and Wales.) After Elizabeth Tudor’s death the monarch – and one hundred years later the Parliament – had to be shared with the Scots and nothing was quite the same again. Of course the decisive shift from Catholicism also took place on the Tudors’ watch, the beginnings of which are in the background to Wolf Hall.

The character of Thomas Cromwell has not been as exhaustively mined as those of say Thomas More or the main players in Henry’s divorce. As with Cromwell, Wolsey here gets a more sympathetic hearing than I have seen elsewhere.

The narration of Wolf Hall is in third person, closely focused on Cromwell. It uses the pronoun “he” copiously – in most cases meaning Cromwell. However, this occasionally leads to moments of confusion when other male characters are in a scene. It is an interesting decision by Mantel to use this form. Where a first person narration would have immersed us in his world view the formulation has the effect of distancing us from the man.

While well written with some very nicely turned sentences the book is probably too long, with too many characters. They are well differentiated to be sure, but not easy to keep track of. Phrases that particularly struck me were, “Perhaps it’s something women do: spend time imagining what it’s like to be each other. One can learn from that he thinks,” “You get on by being a subtle crook,” – all too true even yet – “The world is not run from border fortresses or Whitehall but in the counting houses, by the scrape of the pen on the promissory note,” “The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms,” and of the French wars, “The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.” To this last a Scot or Welshwoman/man might perhaps observe they didn’t even have to get off “their” island to manifest destructive tendencies.

A power of research must have gone into the book but it is worn lightly and convincingly. As to Wolf Hall itself, the seat of the Seymours, none of the action takes place there and it is mentioned in the text six times at most.

I gather the issues of length and the use of “he” are less problematic in the sequel, Bring up the Bodies. I’ll get round to it.

Pedant’s corner:- A “sprung,” j’aboube for j’adoube, “faces peers”

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