Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Hilary Mantel

Antiquity? Modernity.

These reviews should perhaps be subtitled Why didn’t I read more classics? I feel guilty sometimes for never reading new writing, so this month I tried to even the balance. But really new books are much more hit and miss than classics: A sentence that once written seems incredibly self-evident. The two books I absolutely loved were A Change of Climate and On Chesil Beach. Maybe not surprising if you’ve read either of my previous thoughts about Hilary Mantel or Ian McEwan. Most disappointing was definitely John Saturnall’s Feast, the book not for me was NW and the one that was OK was The Greatcoat.

A Change of Climate

Yes, Hilary Mantel can do no wrong. Yes, I will now be endeavouring to read her non-historical novels. A Change of Climate is set in Norfolk, South Africa and Botswana (then Bechuanaland) and tells the story of Ralph and Anna, two non religious missionaries. Professional do-gooders are not something I’ve come across in real life, although I think more people do it than I had thought before reading this book. They begin their married life travelling from one mission post to another, eventually raising a family in a gigantic, temperamental, ramshackled old house in Norfolk. Really what the book boils down to is whether or not you can lead a good life: Can one man or woman make any real difference? Can you ever know what goes on behind closed doors? Are secrets ever worth keeping?

I can’t talk about the secret in the book because to know it before you read it would (in my opinion) completely ruin the story. But what made this book for me was what Mantel manages to achieve in all of her novels: characters. She can write characters like Tolstoy. Complete, three-dimensional, real, never unconvincing, human characters. And she doesn’t judge them. Secondly: setting. Perhaps a stupid comment to make but I’m making it nontheless: I’ve never been to South Africa or Botswana, but they felt real to me. I never read Mantel and feel like she is trying to show off how much research she has done (although there must be a lot, I think) and nor do I read it and think she’s just making stuff up. The landscapes here were amazing – and what a great contrast between Norfolk and Africa.

I’d really recommend this book because it is so original and so thought-provoking. I will think about it for a long time to come.

On Chesil Beach

This was my third Ian McEwan novel, I’ve loved all three so far, the other two being Enduring Love and Atonement. A very short novel, only five chapters, which alternate between back story and the present. It is a story about two young people on their wedding night and almost solely surrounds their inability to accurately read the other person. I agree with Nish’s review:

This book is much, much more than the sum of its parts.

Even though the book did not heavily rely on plot I didn’t expect the outcome of the story to be exactly what it was. It was kind of heart breaking in a very subtle sort of way – as I suppose any story centered around a misunderstanding is bound to be. The characters seemed true to life because in a relationship I think we do suppose the other person to understand us. Perhaps this is too modern a reading as couples in the past would maybe just not know each other as well before marrying. I think McEwan’s decision to set the novel in the 1960s is interesting because it forces him to qualify to the reader that this all before the swinging part of the sixties! He could have set it earlier just as easily, but I suppose this is to contrast with the attitudes that were about to change.

I won’t spend as long talking about the books I didn’t enjoy as much because whilst I personally didn’t like them, I wouldn’t want to deter people from reading them.

  • NW was a bit disappointing because I really like Zadie Smith. I enjoyed White Teeth and On Beauty and think she is a very intelligent woman and a talented writer. However, NW left me cold. Being a reader of the classics persuasion I often think about which new novels will be classics in the future. Whilst I think White Teeth would make a good one, being an honest portrayal of the tensions in multicultural Britain today, I think NW would be an embarrassing legacy. I thought the book was really depressing and about a culture I can neither identify with or feel any warmth for. I’m not really a city girl and I suppose I don’t agree with or value modern morality (or lack of). Whilst I think the Internet is an amazing thing, I don’t view my mobile phone as an object of intrinsic worth. So this novel about London, adultery, drugs and technology wasn’t for me. The writing however, was really good. And quite experimental – I bet she’s read Ulysses.
  • John Saturnall’s Feast should be really good. It is historical fiction set in the 1600s, has a bit of mysticism, a bit of royalty and a lot about food. Really, I like all of these things. However, I thought this book was rubbish. None of the characters are realistic, most of them are stupid, the book starts with a proper plot and then descends into predictable yet poorly executed chick-lit style romance. I’m sure this could have been really good, it just… isn’t.
  • The Greatcoat was alright – an RAF themed ghost story. The Hammer Horror label was slightly confusing because for a ghost story this was not at all scary. Not even a bit. And the comparisons to The Woman in Black were pushing it. As a short story, it is good and I was quite entertained. But I don’t think it is quite the story is markets itself as. I would, however, read more by Helen Dunmore because I think her writing might be more suited to full length novels.

In a Parade’s End update I am now onto the last of the four volumes: The Last Post. And then – where next? Definitely more classics.

His children are falling from the sky.

I think I may have mentioned this every time I have written about Hilary Mantel or about a book by Hilary Mantel, but I’ll say it again: I LOVE HILARY MANTEL. I have to read all of her books or my life will be ruined. Bring Up the Bodies is about Thomas Cromwell and takes place during the nine months leading up to Anne Boleyn’s death. We all know Anne and Henry don’t live happily ever after tending to their enormous brood of sons so I’ll skip the plot and go straight for one of my favourite bits:

Once he had watched Liz making a silk braid. One end was pinned to the wall and on each finger of her raised hands she was spinning loops of thread, her fingers flying so fast he couldn’t see how it worked. ‘Slow down,’ he said, ‘so I can see how you do it,’ but she’d laughed and said, ‘I can’t slow down, if I stopped to think how I was doing it I couldn’t do it at all.’

This sums up what makes this book so fascinating – Mantel makes a point in Wolf Hall about the world not being run from where you think it is. Everyone is subject to scheming, underhand loyalties and bargaining; the Lords, the court and even the King. Cromwell seems to be right in the midst of it all and things always seem to be going his way, he controls court life with invisible strings. This book makes it seem like a dangerous time to be alive – even your thoughts can cost you your life.

I liked Bring Up the Bodies because it shows such a famous historical event from the perspective of a man we don’t pay much attention to. It also portrayed Jane Seymour with a focus she probably deserved, she was recognised by the King but a lot of modern historians keep her lost in Anne Boleyn’s shadow. I’m intrigued about the plot of the final book because my historical knowledge ends with the Kings and Queens and I’ve become quite attached to this version of Thomas Cromwell! There were times when I felt like Mantel didn’t add to what she’d achieved in Wolf Hall but the ending has left me completely desperate for more. In comparison with this book’s predecessor Mantel hasn’t lost her touch. She still controls language like no other writer, and builds up layer upon layer to a scene until it feels like you’re sitting on Cromwell’s shoulder.

Totally worth the wait.

Reading Schedules and Other Misadventures

I haven’t been posting very much because I have spent my time (productively) reading – probably one of my better excuses! I had three books to tackle for specific dates but I had forgotten how plans are more fun to make than to follow. The last eleven days or so have been working to this list:

  • Clarissa, Letters 81-160, by April 30th, so as to not get left behind
  • As I Lay Dying, for a book club meeting tomorrow
  • Wolf Hall, by today, ready for the release of Bring Up the Bodies tomorrow

I’ve done it! The April chunk of Clarissa was finished at about 11.30pm on April 30th, I finished As I Lay Dying exactly a week ago, and I finished Wolf Hall about half an hour ago. Hurrah, now some writing to wind down / wrap up. Please excuse the mingling of books: I can’t face writing three separate posts.

Clarissa, Letters 81 – 160, April 6th – April 30th

Clarissa is finally out of the house! She had been kept inside being a disappointment to her family since I began the book back in January, which is a claustrophobic kind of feeling that I think I would have missed if I hadn’t been reading along with the dates. I don’t think I’d have been a very patient correspondent though, her attitude towards Lovelace and her tendency to miss what seems (to the modern reader) incredibly obvious is frustrating to say the least. I’m actually quite pleased to have a scoundrel in the book because otherwise the sheer good-naturedness of Clarissa herself would be a little too hard to bear. I’m pleased that there is a bit more action, but I think I need to devote a little bit more time to this book before it turns into a chore. Maybe I’m just not cut out for two timing my books!

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

This is my second read of Wolf Hall: I loved it the first time, but I adore it so much more now. I’m really glad I read this book again, not just so I’ll know where the second book will be picking up from, but because I got so much more from it. Yes, there were still a bajillion characters called Thomas but I was ready for them. I knew they were hiding in the woodwork so they didn’t catch me unaware.

I felt I really got to grips with the detail of the book and picked up on parts that completely overwhelmed me during my first read. There was more humour, more memories, more texture than I remembered from last time. I could just ramble about how brilliant a writer Hilary Mantel is – she’s up there as one of my absolute favourites. Read her books! Read them now!

You can have silence full of words. A lute retains, in its bowl, the notes it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shrivelled petal can hold it’s scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts.


The wait is nearly over. Bring Up the Bodies is out tomorrow, I’m SO EXCITED.

In other literary news, I have recently read (although not a classic) The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, and was lucky enough to meet her last week! I solemnly swear to write about it properly very soon. But the book was great and M. L. was lovely and very interesting to talk to.

Bliss and Blood

Being mostly a classics reader, there aren’t many brand new books I covet. However, Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, is a date marked in my diary. (Yes, really.) Alas, the publication date isn’t for another two months, so that means reading other books by Hilary Mantel in preparation.

The Giant, O’Brien is the last (I think) of Mantel’s historical novels I had left to read. It’s a mix of science and superstition, set in eighteenth century Ireland. A rag tag band of men cross the Irish Sea to seek their fortune. With them is the Giant, Charles O’Brien, who has a kind of trade as a storyteller.

He mixed his tales like this: bliss and blood. The roof of gingerbread, then the slinking arrival of a wolf with a sweet tooth. The white-skinned, well-fleshed woman who turns to bone beneath a man’s caress; the lake where gold pieces bob, that drowns all who fish for them. Merit gains no reward, or duty done; the lucky prosper, and any of us could be that.

I didn’t find this book quite as accessible as her other novels, perhaps because it kept going off in unexpected directions. I felt that the plot was hidden by the language: as usual she has a beautiful turn of phrase, but sometimes that stood in the way of simplicity. Putting that to one side though, I did enjoy this book. The eighteenth century was coming alive in a way that made me appreciate just how difficult it was to survive back then. The historical detail, as you would expect, fascinating; especially when it comes to medicine and how scientific experiments were conducted (stealing bodies was something of an art form)!

Writing about The Giant, O’Brien has been tricky, because it left a feeling rather than something concrete. I’ll have to try some non-historical Hilary Mantel novels, not to mention a re-read of Wolf Hall.

A Hell of a Lot of Thomases

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel should always write historical fiction. She knows her stuff! This wasn’t a quick read, but I loved it. Much less frivolous than A Place of Greater Safety, but not dry or dense. Even the title of this book is interesting: Wolf Hall (or Wulf Hall) was the ancestral home of the Seymour family in the 1500s – home to Jane Seymour, who eventually becomes Henry VIII’s third wife. The historical scope of this novel only covers up to the reign of Anne Boleyn, and Wolf Hall is only really mentioned right at the end. This gives a really transient feel to the book. Hindsight tells us that this is not where the story ends – everything is in constant flux and people are continually jockeying for position and favour.

The novel covers Thomas Cromwell’s rise from an ambiguous start to becoming Henry VIII’s chief advisor, and follows his relationships with figures like Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey. I love Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction because she can turn people from history into very authentic (or at the very least believable) characters: they are more than what we learn from our textbooks.

No More Procrastinating

I had a really excellent morning.

“The stars are stifled in damp and cloud.”

“He looks down at them and arranges his face. Erasmus says that you must do this each morning before you leave your house: ‘put on a mask, as it were.’”

“The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

Other Worlds

Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel

… If the universe is a great mind, it may sometimes have its absences.

This was recommended very highly to me, but I don’t think I can pass on much enthusiasm for it. I like Hilary Mantel and this novel is written well, but it was miserable reading with little reward. Amusingly, I’ve been wanting to read it for about a year and had completely convinced myself that Mantel only wrote historical novels. So in my head I had likened Beyond Black to Ariana Franklin or Karen Maitland. And that was what I was in the mood for… So perhaps this was doomed from the beginning.

Beyond Black is about a medium and is set very much in the nineties and is not at all a historical novel! It was interesting because whilst I do not believe in anything that the book goes into, it did get me thinking what a horrible affliction being able to hear messages from the dead would be. Its about a world completely foreign to me, but I don’t think I’d come back to more for further insight. However, I picked this as a warm up to Wolf Hall; whilst I didn’t enjoy this novel, it hasn’t put me off reading more Mantel. Maybe just stick to the historical ones.

A Place of Greater Safety

A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel

This book is historical fiction at its finest. I was in the mood to read something really long, and this fitted that requirement beautifully, at a lovely eight hundred or so pages. A Place of Greater Safety is the story of three men: Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins, told pretty much chronologically. The men turn out to be instrumental and powerful in and after the french revolution in 1789. My only criticism is Mantel manages to make this exciting period of history a little bit too soap opera. Even so, it was a very satisfying read, and I enjoyed the twists and turns of the characters’ fates.

Hilary Mantel is Epic

“She remembered, for some reason, a couple of occasions when she’d thought she might be pregnant again, in the years before she and Claude had separate rooms. You thought you might be, you had those strange feelings, but then you bled and you knew you weren’t. A week, a fortnight out of your life had gone by, a certain life had been considered, a certain steady flow of love had begun, from the mind to the body and into the world and the years to come. Then it was over, or had never been: a miscarriage of love. The child went on in your mind. Would it have had blue eyes? What would its character have been?”

“Human nature being what it is, and the afternoons so long; the girls visiting friends, the streets deserted, no sound in the room except the ticking of clocks, the beating of hearts.”

“She wondered if he had been very frightened: if pushed and driven by the crowds he had forgotten the calm at the eye of the storm, the place of safety at the living heart of all the close designs.”