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In a Right State

Hilary Mantel: ‘In a Right State’, 18 February 2016

... We sit there, slowly doing the quick crossword, noting as so often in institutions the presence of characters who seem habitués, knowing the procedures, familiar with the staff, A&E their scene.Alan Bennett, LRB, 7 JanuaryIn the days​ when I had a reading lamp, I’d sit down with the papers at the weekend and make up answers to celebrity quizzes ...

That Wilting Flower

Hilary Mantel: The Lure of the Unexplained, 24 January 2008

Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained 
edited by Una McGovern.
Chambers, 760 pp., £35, October 2007, 978 0 550 10215 7
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... What an enticing prospect: A-Z elucidation, or at least the admission in print that most of life’s pressing questions are never answered. But won’t all the entries begin with ‘W’? Where has youth gone? Why dost thou lash that whore? Why are you looking at me like that? And of course the question that trails us from playgroup to dementia ward: well, if you will go on like that, what else did you expect? But of course we’re not dealing with that kind of unexplained ...

The National Razor

Hilary Mantel: Aux Armes, Citoyennes, 16 July 1998

The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution 
by Dominique Godineau, translated by Katherine Sharp.
California, 415 pp., £45, January 1998, 0 520 06718 5
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... We have seen her at the edge of crowds, dwarfed against public buildings. We have seen her in woodcuts, a naked sabre in her hand, the tricolour cockade pinned to her cap; in drawings, with her wooden clogs and apron, her basket over her arm, her knitting in her hands: click, click, through the debates of the Assembly, in the gallery of the Jacobin Club, and each day at the foot of the scaffold, where the tumbrils bring up their freight of dying flesh ...

How to Be Tudor

Hilary Mantel: Can a King Have Friends?, 17 March 2016

Charles Brandon: Henry VIII’s Closest Friend 
by Steven Gunn.
Amberley, 304 pp., £20, October 2015, 978 1 4456 4184 3
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... On​ their West Country progress in the summer of 1535, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn visited Thornbury Castle near Bristol. Thornbury is an upmarket hotel now, a popular choice for guests working through their bucket list. Now that every narrative is a ‘journey’, TripAdvisor is an illuminating guide to what people expect when they go in search of the past ...

How do we know her?

Hilary Mantel: The Secrets of Margaret Pole, 2 February 2017

Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower 
by Susan Higginbotham.
Amberley, 214 pp., £16.99, August 2016, 978 1 4456 3594 1
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... A painting​ in the National Portrait Gallery offers a grey-white face, long, guarded, medieval, remote: ‘unknown woman, formerly known as Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury’. It is painted on a dateable oak panel, and the dates suit the presumed subject, but the artist is anonymous. Where is Hans Holbein when you need him? The sitter might as well be carved, for all she suggests flesh or circulating blood ...

Kinsella in His Hole

Hilary Mantel, 19 May 2016

... The year​ we killed our teacher we were ten, going on eleven. Mitch went first, the terrier, a snappy article with a topknot tied with a tartan ribbon. The morning we saw him we hooted. He didn’t like us laughing and he flew to the end of his lead, and reared up snarling and drooling. ‘Hark at the rat,’ we said. Rose Cullan said: ‘Hark at Lucifer ...

Frocks and Shocks

Hilary Mantel: Jane Boleyn, 24 April 2008

Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford 
by Julia Fox.
Phoenix, 398 pp., £9.99, March 2008, 978 0 7538 2386 6
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... You may fear, from the title of this book, that they’ve found yet another ‘Boleyn girl’. The subject of this biography has already been fearlessly minced into fiction by the energetic Philippa Gregory. But there is no sign so far that another inert and vacuous feature film will be clogging up the multiplexes. In reworkings of the Tudor soap opera, Jane Boleyn is more often known as Jane Rochford, wife of George Boleyn, sister-in-law to Anne the queen ...

Saartjie Baartman’s Ghost

Hilary Mantel: The New Apartheid, 20 September 2007

When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Politics of Aids in South Africa 
by Didier Fassin, translated by Amy Jacobs and Gabrielle Varro.
California, 365 pp., £12.95, April 2007, 978 0 520 25027 7
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The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West and the Fight against Aids 
by Helen Epstein.
Viking, 326 pp., £16.99, July 2007, 978 0 670 91356 5
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... Where to begin? When we tell stories about Africa we can’t speak without an imported frame of reference, carving up the years into the pre-colonial, the post-colonial era: once upon a time in the golden age, once upon a time in the dark ages that followed. But in South Africa over the last two decades, story itself has been shortened, shrinking to the time-span of a truncated life – thirty years perhaps, enough time to have children of your own and leave them a memory box when you die ...

He Roared

Hilary Mantel: Danton, 6 August 2009

Danton: The Gentle Giant of Terror 
by David Lawday.
Cape, 294 pp., £20, July 2009, 978 0 224 07989 1
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... Give me a place to stand,’ said Archimedes, ‘and I will move the earth.’ In the spring of 1789, your place to stand was a huddle of streets on Paris’s left bank. If you put your head out of the window of the café Procope, almost everyone you needed to overthrow the regime was within shouting distance. The Revolution was dreamed here before it was enacted, beneath the dark towers of Saint-Sulpice ...

How Shall I Know You?

Hilary Mantel, 19 October 2000

... One summer at the fag-end of the 1990s, I had to go out of London to talk to a literary society, of the sort that must have been old-fashioned when the previous century closed. When the day came, I wondered why I’d agreed to it; but yes is easier than no, and of course when you make a promise you think the time will never arrive: that there will be a nuclear holocaust, or some other diversion ...

The Shape of Absence

Hilary Mantel: The Bondwoman’s Narrative, 8 August 2002

The Bondwoman’s Narrative: A Novel 
by Hannah Crafts, edited by Henry Louis Gates.
Virago, 338 pp., £10.99, May 2002, 1 86049 013 1
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... The Swann Galleries’ auction of African-Americana, which takes place in New York in February each year, is a marketplace for the printed artefacts generated by over two hundred years of black history. There are film posters, books, album covers; further back, bills of sale for slaves. This year’s auction included a brochure from a Charleston estate sale of 1859, offering ‘229 Rice Field Negroes, An Uncommonly Prime and Orderly Gang ...

Memories of Catriona

Hilary Mantel: Her memoir concludes, 6 February 2003

... When I left St George’s Hospital, I imagined that aspects of my past had been excised, cut cleanly away. My long scar would knit and the memory of the pain would fade. For a time I went backwards and forwards, between England and Africa, and in the end I tried to put down roots in the colder climate, and make my way alone. But by 1982 I was sick again, pain slicing through my vital organs and leaving me breathless in public places, leaning against a grimy wall at Euston Station, or clinging like a derelict to a park bench ...

Is it still yesterday?

Hilary Mantel: Children of the Revolution, 17 April 2003

The Lost King of France 
by Deborah Cadbury.
Fourth Estate, 352 pp., £18.99, October 2002, 1 84115 588 8
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... In the spring of 1750, children began to disappear from the streets of Paris. Some were big boys of 14 or 15, others were mites of five or six years old. When beggar children vanished, no one much noticed, but when the children of tradespeople and craftworkers were missed panic spread through working-class districts and into the city at large. Schoolmasters put up notices asking parents to escort their children to and from school, as they could not be responsible for their safety ...

The Real Price of Everything

Hilary Mantel: The Many Lives of Elizabeth Marsh, 21 June 2007

The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History 
by Linda Colley.
HarperPress, 363 pp., £25, June 2007, 978 0 00 719218 2
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... In the 1680s, Port Royal in Jamaica was a new sort of town. A deep-water port, it lay at the end of a nine-mile sand and gravel spit sheltering Kingston harbour. It was a merchant enclave and a pirate enclave, well situated for running contraband and raids against Spanish territories, and more ships docked there in a year than in all the ports of New England ...

I have washed my feet out of it

Hilary Mantel: Growing up in Ghana, 21 October 2004

Hustling Is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl 
by John Chernoff.
Chicago, 480 pp., £16, January 2004, 0 226 10352 8
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Exchange Is Not Robbery: More Stories of an African Bar Girl 
by John Chernoff.
Chicago, 425 pp., £16, November 2004, 0 226 10355 2
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Purple Hibiscus 
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Fourth Estate, 307 pp., £12.99, March 2004, 0 00 717611 2
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... Hawa, the bar girl to be, was born in a village in Ghana in the early 1950s. Her family were emigrants from Upper Volta, which is now called Burkina Faso. When she was three her mother died, and this was the beginning of her misfortunes. For a time she was indulged, because it was believed that dead mothers watch over their babies, and come back to carry them off if they’re not treated well ...

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