A couple of years ago, I subscribed to the London Review of Books with their introductory offer (advertised to me on Instagram, of course). I quickly realised that I liked the idea of being an intellectual LRB subscriber more than the magazine itself – which is too dense and highbrow for me.
However, as a completist and a huge fan of Hilary Mantel, I was excited to read this (a present from wonderful my wonderful partner) – a selection of her pieces, mainly non-fiction book reviews, for the LRB from 1988 to 2017.
In between each chapter is an LRB cover, or a scan of a letter, postcard, fax or email exchange between Mantel and editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. These tie the collection together and make it feel like a whole rather than old material republished for the sake of it. I could quite happily read a whole book of their correspondence – through it, we get get a sense of Mantel’s passion for Tudor history, her self-effacing honesty and, touchingly, her friendship with Wilmers over the years.
On the essays themselves, it should hardly be astonishing that Mantel writes great non-fiction about the Tudors, yet I was surprised by how much I enjoyed them. Other topics and periods that she covers in her fiction also crop up (though none quite so much as the Tudors) – the French revolution, spiritualism and the Catholic church. My favourites, though, are a short diary piece about life in Saudi Arabia, and a review of an unauthorised biography of Madonna, both of which particularly made me laugh. That those two are my top picks probably tells you enough about why the LRB isn’t quite for me.