Two nights ago I attended a wonderful reading by Hilary Mantel at MMU. She was magnificent – wise, witty and engaging. She read from two brilliant stories and answered questions put to her by the audience and by the also brilliant Dr Eileen Pollard, who deserves much praise for arranging this event.
Mantel said so many thought-provoking things that I felt like taking notes throughout, but didn’t in case I missed what was going on! But perhaps because one of her readings was about being a less well-known writer, it set me off thinking about the nature of artistic endeavour.
What has happened to Mantel is what any writer dreams of – she has surpassed herself, surpassed her genre, and the world has noticed. I was reminded, however, of another artist, Florence Foster Jenkins, who was famous for a rather different reason.
It was said of Florence that her inability to sing was combined with a lifelong need to perform. She devoted her life to her art, getting worse if anything, and despite all criticism, at the age of 76 hired the Carnegie Hall in order to perform several notoriously difficult operatic arias.
The event sold out. Queues extended along 7th Avenue and 56th St. Luminaries such as Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead were there.
The response to her performance was riotous. Tallulah Bankhead was asked to leave because of disorderly conduct. The critics were merciless. ‘Murder on the High C’s’, ‘The Diva of Din’ etc.
Faced with this collective judgement, Florence suffered a heart attack and died later that month. But her fame lives on. All her recordings are still in existence; she has been the subject of both a play and a film. She did, in fact, achieve a kind of immortality.
It seems extraordinary that, as a classically trained musician, Florence did not know how bad she was. But maybe it is the fate of the artist not to know. We travel on hopefully not knowing whether we will blossom into a Hilary Mantel or a Florence Foster Jenkins, which is what makes us so appallingly vulnerable to critical judgement. Fear of that judgement and condemnation, has put some people off even trying. And that, I feel, is a pity.
Hilary Mantel said many memorable things at her reading – ‘Who tells the story; who holds the pen?’ is just one of the pearls that comes to mind. But still my favourite quote comes from Florence, who once said ‘People may say I can’t sing, but they can’t ever say I didn’t sing.’