The Little Woman Inside

Dinah Birch

  • An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel
    Viking, 250 pp, £15.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 670 85922 2

Women of my age, born in the early Fifties and now in our forties, have reached the season of retrospection. We have become – or have not become – wives, wage-earners, mothers, home-makers, gardeners or taxpayers. Our place in post-war history, formed by a procession of notions (often experimental, often contradictory) of what success is for women, has settled into a pattern that can be discerned and appraised. We can begin to compare our lives with those of our mothers. Hilary Mantel, born in 1952, has tried out a number of female identities – more than most of us – and succeeded more than most. She has trained as a lawyer and given it up, she has been a social worker and a teacher, she has earned a living in the Middle East and in Africa. She has also been several kinds of good writer – a film critic, a travel writer and a prolific novelist. Her fiction has continually tested different formats. Black comedy, supernatural fantasy, political satire and social realism move in and out of her books. A Place of Greater Safety (1992), a brave and solidly researched novel on the French Revolution, was a surprise. Perhaps it ought not to have been, for the Revolution, the biggest experiment in European history, must have been a magnetic subject. These diverse novels all survey the provisional. Mantel is unremittingly concerned with the multiple models available for a good life, the choices that might be within reach, worth a try, or even, conditionally, best.

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