The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

I finished The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel this afternoon, so that took me eight days to read the 882 pages, I could have been faster, but I savoured every word. This last book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy was well worth waiting for, but I can hardly believe that it has been eight years since Bring Up the Bodies was published. I don’t go in for much in the way of re-reading but I intend to read the whole trilogy again at some point in the future.

If you’re at all interested in the history of the Tudors then you obviously know how this story ends, but despite that 874 pages before Cromwell’s execution are still a riveting read and from about half-way through I slowed down my reading, not wanting the book to finish and at the end I felt quite bereft, knowing that I was going to miss being in Cromwell’s company.

Well, none of us is perfect and he had a lot of flaws, but given the circumstances he could have been an awful lot worse than he was and in the end it was his lack of brutality and cruelty to others at Henry’s court that brought his downfall.

Cromwell had always been able to see that given Henry’s nature the possibility of swiftly falling out of the king’s favour was almost inevitable, he could have sailed to Italy or some other European country with some of his wealth, but he left it too late as he loved being at the centre of power.

Throughout the book Cromwell thinks back to scenes in his life from his childhood on, replaying the abuses that he had to put up with from his blacksmith father Walter, and his life in Italy as a young man, the loss of his wife and daughters and before that the loss of his ‘Anselma’, for me this had the effect of a man drowning and seeing his past life playing out in front of him. He could clearly see where he had gone wrong, what he should have done differently in his incredible career but at the time he didn’t think he could do anything different. In reality though he knew that if Henry wanted rid of someone it was going to happen, there was no getting away from it.

I was really glad that Hilary Mantel wrote three and a half pages of author’s notes explaining what had happened to many of the other characters in the book, as it saved me from having to look them all up. She explained that she had been given encouragement from many historians, academics, curators and actors over the years which had included many distinguished names but had decided not to compile a list of acknowledgments. She thought that it would be like a vulgar exercise in name-dropping. I think that’s a bit of a shame as I imagine that if I had been one of those people I would have been expecting such an acknowledgement, and as a reader I would have been interested to know who had contributed help over the years.

Anyway, I suspect that this one will also win the Booker, it’s a great read.

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

My Friends the Miss Boyds cover

I’m dying to get my hands on Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light which is published later this week but I had a look at my bookshelves and realised that I had an unread book by her so decided to knock that one off the TBR list. An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel was published in 1995 and I loved it. I’ll give it four stars on Goodreads, ideally 4.5 I think. The author is five or six years older than me but her descriptions of how things were back in the 1960s were so evocative to me, it brought back so many memories.

The time slips backwards and forwards between childhood and college.

Carmel is an only child and living in the north of England with her parents in their council house. She has an Irish Catholic background and a mother who is ambitious for her. Karina who is in her class at school has a similar background and when it comes time to go to high school they both manage to get into the equivalent of a grammar school, the Holy Redeemer. It seems they are the only girls to have got there via a council estate. Karina isn’t a friend though, she’s the girl that all the mothers hold up as a good example to their daughters. Karina is clean, such a help to her mother and such and that doesn’t endear her to her peers. There’s a something about her though, she leads a bit of a secret life which Carmel catches glimpses of as she sees her smoking with a group of rough kids.

But the time quickly moves on to the end of schooldays when Carmel gets into a particular London college – as does Karina and Julianne from the same school, and the main topic of conversation in the laundry is about who is engaged, is on the pill, pregnant, thinks they might be pregnant or has just discovered that she isn’t pregnant. Despite the fact that the young women are studying for degrees the most important thing is boyfriends and the cachet having one gives them. The food on offer at the college is dire, but nobody complains, apparently young women aren’t expected to have appetites, their boyfriends would never put up with it.

There’s a lot of comedy and tragedy in this book and I found the ending to be so unexpected, but the whole thing is so well written and observed. It would be an education to female students today to read this as I’m sure there couldn’t be more of a contrast between college girls then where everything was geared to getting married for most of them and putting men on a pedestal, and now since the advent of so-called equality of the sexes where the young women know (I hope) that their future life is as important as any man’s.

Helen Dunmore said in the blurb: ‘Hilary Mantel is a wonderfully unsurprised dissector of human motivation, and in An Experiment in Love she has written a bleak tale seamed with crackling wit.’

Guardian links – Hilary Mantel

Todays Guardian Review section is a special issue as it contains the first chapter of Hilary Mantel’s much awaited book The Mirror and the Light. If you’re so inclined you can read it here. I must admit that I haven’t read it myself as it would drive me up the wall not being able to continue reading it until the book is published on the 5th of March.

There’s also an interview with Hilary Mantel which you can read here, she’s speaking to Alex Clark.

Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin and others write about their favourite Mantel books here.

It’s difficult for me to say which is my favourite because I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies but I also loved A Place of Greater Safety which I read fairly recently.

I’m now wondering if I should re-read Bring Up the Bodies before reading The Mirror and the Light.

2019 European Reading Challenge

Reading Challenge

This is my first year of participating in the 2019 European Reading Challenge which is hosted by Gilion @ Rose City Reader

This is my wrap up post but I never did get around to posting any of these review links at Rose City Reader. I’ve enjoyed doing this challenge although I joined up fairly late in the year, with the aim of getting me out of my usual reading comfort zone. In fact I think I got mixed up between this challenge and something else as I had it in my mind that the books should have been originally written in another language – but I was wrong about that. Anyway, it’s just a bit of fun so – here goes.

FRANCEA Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel.

VATICAN CITYIn the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant.

RUSSIAThe White Guard by Mikhael Bulgakov.

GERMANYA Woman in Berlin by Marta Hillers.

BELGIUMAn Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer.

ICELANDSnowblind by Ragnor Jonasson.

IRELANDThe Country Girls by Edna O’Brien.

ITALYA Nest of Vipers by Andrea Camilleri

FINLANDThe Exploits of Moominpappa by Tove Jansson

SCOTLANDMiss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

 Lady Anna cover

I hadn’t even heard of A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel when I spotted it in a second-hand bookshop in Innerleithen. I quite fancied the subject matter though, the setting is the French Revolution and it’s a chunkster at 872 pages. I was disappointed for the first 100 pages or so and I did think that Mantel had definitely improved in her historical fiction with Wolf Hall, but this one eventually got going.

This book has an eight page cast of characters at the beginning, which is just as well as it certainly helps the reader to keep things straight. I think we all have a fair idea of what went on in revolutionary France, but this book begins in the 1760s with the early life of the main participants in the grab for power in the 1780s.

Mantel says in her Author’s Note that where possible she used a lot of the characters’ actual words, whether from their written speeches or preserved writing and has woven it into her dialogue.

She also says: I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide:anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.

I ‘did’ the French Revolution at school but reading this book made it all much clearer to me. I don’t think that my school books mentioned anything about the involvement of the British government who were working to destabilise France as a way of getting rid of King Louis and helped to finance the revolution – but now that I think about it – of course they would have!

This was a great read.

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Tortoise and the Hare cover

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins was first published in 1954 by Victor Gollancz but my copy is a Virago Modern Classics hardback reprint. It has an introduction by Hilary Mantel.

I’m not sure if ‘enjoy’ is the correct word to describe my feelings about this book because I found it to be so stressful with me willing the main character to stop being a doormat and to stand up for herself.

Imogen’s husband Evelyn is a well-known lawyer – a King’s Counsel whose cases are followed by the newspapers. They’ve been married for years and have one son. Father and son are very alike in their characters, very self-centred, in need of pampering, never going to feel satisfied and take Imogen completely for granted.

Despite the fact that Evelyn is very handsome Imogen trusts him around other women completely, mainly because he’s not at all interested in Zenobia, the local stunning looking vamp. So it is ages before Imogen realises that their much older female neighbour who is verging on ugly is actually well on her way to nicking Evelyn from her, and what is even worse she’s stealing their son from her too.

The fact is that father and son are both easily lured away from Imogen because the neighbour is extremely wealthy and has connections, as well as a Rolls Royce. She spoils father and son rotten and Imogen doesn’t fight back.

I found this one to be so frustrating and I’m sure it didn’t do my blood pressure any good, but I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Elizabeth Jenkins. Have any of you read anything else by her?

Fludd by Hilary Mantel

Fludd cover

Previously I had only read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and loved them both. Fludd, which is one of her earlier books, first published in 1989, is very different and a bit strange. I’ve no doubt though that it was something she had to get off her chest and was very much influenced by her early experiences of the Catholic Church.

The setting is a remote north of England mill town which is one of those sort of step back 50 years places, somehow stuck in time. But the new bishop is a moderniser, determined to drag the church there into the twentieth century. He says that the Catholics of Featherhoughton have more superstitions than Sicilian peasants. Like all bishops I’ve ever come across in reality or fiction, he’s disliked, especially when his idea of modernising is to order Father Angwin the parish priest of Featherhoughton to get rid of most of his church’s collection of plaster saints. Father Angwin had lost his faith years before and had taken to the bottle for consolation. There’s also a Catholic school and a convent, ruled by Mother Perpetua, a violent sadist who is as nasty to the nuns as she is to the schoolchildren.

A young man called Fludd appears at the priest’s house one night and it’s presumed that he’s a new curate who has been sent by the bishop. Father Angwin is pleased to discover that he can have intelligent conversations with Fludd and they agree on lots of things, but the priest sometimes wonders if Fludd has been sent by the bishop to spy on him. He’s undecided as to whether Fludd is an angel or the devil.

Fludd happily admits that he has come to transform people. Transformation is his business, and he certainly does make changes, very much for the better I would say.

I found this to be mildly entertaining, although a bit strange. Hilary Mantel’s writing has definitely improved over the years.

Recent Book Purchases

While we were away on our recent (football inspired) trip down to England we took the opportunity to seek out secondhand bookshops, although there aren’t that many of them around nowadays, we visited the Moffat shop when we stopped there for lunch. We each bought a book there. Then on to Penrith in Northumberland where we found another bookshop. We also visited Oswestry, Shrewsbury, Alcester, Stratford on Avon, Much Wenlock, Ironbridge and Kendal. The upshot of that is that I bought a total of 25 books, Jack bought 11, he’s always more reticent than I am! Some of them were bought in charity shops.

I didn’t find any books that I’ve been lusting after for ages, just some books from authors that I’ve read and enjoyed before, and a few from authors I had never even heard of – but I liked the look of them. Here are a few of them.

Latest Book Haul

1. Uncle Samson by Beverley Nichols. It was published in 1950 and is his observations on the American way of life. I think it’ll be a witty report on social history.

2. Rendezvous by Daphne du Maurier is a collection of her short stories.

3. Getting It Right by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I loved the Cazalet Chronicles so I have high hopes for this one.

4. Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a British Library Crime Classic.

5. Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore. She’s an author that I’ve only recently discovered – sadly she died just a few months ago.

6. An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel, published in 1995 and very different from her Tudor books I’m sure.

I found three D.E. Stevenson paperbacks in an antiques centre for all of £1 each, they were the most interesting things in the whole place.

7. Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson

8. Crooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson

9. The House of the Deer by D.E. Stevenson.

10. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is a Virago which was going for 50p so although I know I could have borrowed it from the library I decided to buy it.

That’ll do for now. Have you read any of these ones?

From the Guardian Review

I’ve been so busy recently, doing this and that involving hiring a van and moving furniture we’ve just bought, so it was only tonight that I got a chance to sit down and read the Guardian Review section. It’s the bicentenary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, so there’s an article about Jane Eyre and comments from various writers and artists on their thoughts about Jane Eyre. You can read them all here. I have to say that I’m a Jane Eyre fan rather than Wuthering Heights, although I enjoyed that one too, it didn’t have such an impact on me as Jane did. Which camp are you in Jane or Wuthering?

If you’ve been enjoying reading Hilary Mantel’s books you might be interested in reading about her working day here.

If knickers and undergarments are what get you going you might be interested in reading about the new V&A exhibition that has just opened in London called Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. You can read about it here. The article is by Lucy Worsley who no doubt is a knowledgeable historian but she does have a penchant for diving into the dressing up box given half a chance, like an over enthusiastic four year old.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher  cover

I read The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher when it was first published in the Guardian. It’s the last short story in the Hilary Mantel anthology of the same name. At the time I thought that the title story was very good, a sort of wishful thinking tale, a what if… the sort of thing we all indulge in, but the rest of us don’t write them up as short stories, we get no further than a lovely dream. Believe me, if you were lucky enough not to have been an adult when Thatcher was inflicting her damnedest on the UK then you probably don’t realise how hated she was by so many of the population, eventually of course that feeling extended itself to her own work colleagues.

Anyway, I bought the book quite a wee while ago and having read all of the stories now I think that the ‘Assassination’ story is by far the best in the collection.

Jack always takes a while over reading short stories as he likes to think about each story when he gets to the end of it. I really don’t think that that is necessary with these ones as for me most of the stories aren’t saying anything particularly profound, as far as I’m concerned anyway, although some of the stories seem quite autobiographical, worryingly so in fact, still – it’s an entertaining read.