8-10-2003

 

HILARY MANTEL

(b. 1952)

 

Biography

Hilary Mantel was born in Glossop, Derbyshire, England on 6 July 1952. She studied Law at the London School of Economics and Sheffield University. She was employed as a social worker, and lived in Botswana for five years, followed by four years in Saudi Arabia, before returning to Britain in the mid-1980s. In 1987 she was awarded the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for an article about Jeddah, and she was film critic for The Spectator from 1987 to 19910

 

 

Her novels include Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988), set in Jeddah; Fludd (1989), set in a mill village in the north of England and winner of the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, the Cheltenham Literary Festival Prize and the Southern Arts Literature Prize; A Place of Greater Safety (1992), an epic account of the events of the French revolution that won the Sunday Express Book of the Year award; A Change of Climate (1994), the story of a missionary couple whose lives are torn apart by the loss of their child; and An Experiment in Love (1995), about the events in the lives of three schoolfriends from the north of England who arrive at London University in 1970, winner of the 1996 Hawthornden Prize.
 

Her recent novel The Giant, O'Brien (1998) tells the story of Charles O'Brien who leaves his home in Ireland to make his fortune as a sideshow attraction in London. Giving Up the Ghost (2003) is an autobiography in fiction and non-fiction told in four parts, taking us from early childhood through to the discoveries of adulthood which led her to writing.

Bibliography

Every Day is Mother's Day   Chatto & Windus, 1985
Vacant Possession   Chatto & Windus, 1986
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street   Viking, 1988
Fludd   Viking, 1989
A Place of Greater Safety   Viking, 1992
A Change of Climate   Viking, 1994
An Experiment in Love   Viking, 1995
The Giant, O'Brien   Fourth Estate, 1998
On Modern British Fiction   (contributor: "No Passes or Documents Are Needed - the Writer at Home in Europe") Oxford University Press, 2002
Giving Up the Ghost   Fourth Estate, 2003

Prizes and awards

1987 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize
1990 Cheltenham Literary Festival Prize Fludd
1990 Southern Arts Literature Prize Fludd
1990 Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize Fludd
1992 Sunday Express Book of the Year A Place of Greater Safety
1996 Hawthornden Prize An Experiment in Love

Written on our bodies

Male medical contempt left me infertile 30 years ago. We can celebrate huge advances on international women's day, but a childless woman still arouses dislike

Hilary Mantel
Saturday March 8, 2003
The Guardian


In 1972 I was 19, I was an undergraduate at a northern university, a small pale girl with inky fingers, high ambitions and a strange pain I couldn't account for. I took my pain to the student health service, and a doctor - male, middle-aged - looked at me in a way that suggested that he'd seen my sort before. In seconds he had consulted his inner encyclopedia of aches, twinges and pangs. None, he said, corresponded to mine. It was all in my mind, perhaps? I had better have some anti-depressants.

In those days, if a young man said he had a pain, the doctors listened to his heart, took his blood pressure, examined the bit of him he was complaining about. But women patients - especially young women - were routinely suspected of casting mental distress into the form of physical symptoms. Doctors looked for anxiety and stress, for dissatisfaction and panic. What had we to panic about? We were hesitating, some of us, on the brink of a man's world. Conflict over our roles in life - career, marriage, children? - was believed to give us all sorts of pains. Would it be lipstick and lingerie, or a life with the boys in the line of fire? No one imagined it could be both, or neither.

When the anti-depressants didn't work, and Valium didn't either, the GP sent me to a psychiatrist. Look here, said the shrink, regarding me tweedily from inside his tweed jacket: wasn't all this a bit much for me, this business of studying law? If I were honest about what I really wanted in life, wouldn't I secretly prefer a job in my mother's dress shop?

My mother was a section head in a big-city department store, controlling 20 staff. The psychiatrist couldn't hear this: he could only hear "dress shop". He was invalidating, though he didn't know it, not just my hopes in life, but my mother's too. She'd never had a chance of a high school education. Her primary school had simply forgotten to enter her for the examinations at 11. But what did it matter? She was only a girl. At 14, she was working in a cotton mill - the mill her own mother had entered at the age of 12. At 40, she reinvented herself. She got a job on a fashion sales floor, dyed her greying hair blonde, and within months was promoted to management.

"Uneducated" doesn't mean "unintelligent"; in my family, we knew that. But one of the most shaming moments of my mother's life, she confessed, was the moment when she faced the application form for the saleswoman's job. Educational qualifications? None. Zero, blank. This was why she was fiercely ambitious for me. In four generations, we'd come far. My great-grandmother couldn't read or write. She had 10 children, and all of them stayed poor throughout their lives. But here I was, ready to tussle with anyone for a share in society. So why did I feel I was being punished - pushed down the ranks again, back into the woman's world? I was a feminist - insofar as I knew what one was. I was articulate; but somehow, every time I opened my mouth I seemed to make my situation worse.

We're all familiar with the sad tale of the medicalisation of unhappiness: with the history of the brain-dampening wonder drugs prescribed by the million to soothe the condition of womanhood. My story fits within this larger history; even its personal, individual tributaries seem to flow into the common stream of women's experience. My generation prided itself on control of our own fertility. "A woman's right to choose" was the slogan of the age: to choose, that is, whether and when we had children, and by implication to choose the shape of our lives. In part, our right to choose could be guaranteed by legislation. But in a larger way, it could only be guaranteed by a society that was changing around us, feeding our aspirations instead of punishing them. My own choices, as it turned out, were sharply curtailed. Biology has determined the way I've lived my life, just as it did for my great-grandmother.

For the descendant of the mother of 10 is the mother of - none. I didn't, when I was 19, need a Valium, or a patronising lecture on limiting my ambitions. I needed a physical examination, and someone to ask the right questions; someone to listen to me, rather than to their own prejudices. The strange pain that was no known pain was the beginning of a disease process that left me infertile by the age of 27, and which leaves me, even today, an unwilling stranger in my own body.

The moment of choice came and went without my knowing about it. What happened to me was entirely preventable, and the why of it has little to do with me, much to do with the way young women were looked at 30 years ago. They were mad bitches one and all, out for men's jobs, wanting equality but whining for special treatment, always with some moan about the state of their insides: unreliable workers who'd be pregnant as soon as you'd trained them. When I went for job interviews I'd be asked: "Are you going to start a family?" If only I'd known, I could have put my hand on my heart and said no.

So where do we find ourselves? The huge advances women have made in education and career choice are still undermined by an expectation that she will, when all's said, mind the baby. And if she has no baby to mind, what is she? Is she one of those mad bitches, too mercenary to consult her female instincts? Is she a "victim"of infertility, a pitiable statistic on a waiting list? If you want to know what feminism has achieved, a good measure is our attitude to the working mother. But you should also look at how the childless woman is regarded. The biological clock is often ticking most loudly in the ears of onlookers, critics. A woman who stays childless is still an object of curiosity, misunderstanding and dislike. People want to ask, but they can't find a tactful way. Sometimes they forget tact and ask anyway.

After my friends started to become grandmothers, I realised the time for shame was past. I am willing to talk about my life as a woman, knowing that I've hardly had one. Maybe doctors are better trained now, women's health isn't trashed so casually. I can hope that life would be better for my daughter, except, of course, that I don't have one. The women of any family have history written on their bodies. Mostly, it's a story of progress. But our story stops with me.

Hilary Mantel is a novelist and critic. Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir is published in May; Learning to Talk: Short Stories, in July (both by Fourth Estate). Her last novel was The Giant O'Brien.

hilary@calymene.com

 

Fearless in the jaws of memory

Most people, Hilary Mantel tells Sally Vincent, refuse to remember their childhood. Not her, though - her memoir doesn't flinch from terror, sickness, separation. But will committing her past to paper lay her ghosts to rest?

Saturday May 3, 2003
The Guardian

 

When she was seven years old, the writer Hilary Mantel saw something nasty in the woodshed. She describes this on page 106 in my copy of her memoir, Giving Up The Ghost, in such indelible, irrefutable and hackle-raising detail that I find I have scrawled "Christ!" in the margin, to draw my attention to its significance at some later, less emotionally charged, date.

So there it is. She saw, sensed, felt, experienced, knew, call it what you like, this Thing of unspeakable malignity and terror that moved, unsubstantiated, towards her petrified little body and infiltrated her physical fibre. A premonition more than a creature. And she was never the same again. When she grew up, she could laugh about it, how it had made her doomy like old Aunt Ada Doom, except sometimes, when she is alone and has nobody to amuse, she can hardly raise a timorous grin. That's the thing about these solitary trips down memory lane, eyes wide open, nostrils a-quiver; you have to take what comes, even if it damned near kills you. It's not an exercise for sissies.

 

 

You wouldn't have to be faint-hearted, either, to choose to make your home in an old lunatic asylum. Yet here in deepest Surrey stands this early-Victorian monument to misery and confusion, transformed by millennial enterprise into highly desirable residences for those who would not dwell uncomfortably in the past. The gates are spanking new, with electronic doodahs to keep people out, the broad driveways crunchily gravelled for Home Counties posh, and there, bang in the middle of the double-fronted edifice, is a clock tower, its authentic clock de-chimed and keeping perfect time.

"Ask for the old hospital," Mantel had said, "else no one will know what you're talking about." And she giggled. As well she might. It is all a bit, well, spectacular. Then, when you've negotiated the gates and the entrances and the lift - a lift that goes right up to the bit you own, no less, where nobody else can go without your say-so - and she pops her head around the door, you get further disconcerted by the fact that she looks like a leprechaun, all uncannily green eyes, when you were expecting Thackeray or Swift or Hazlitt or some such literary grandee. You shouldn't be so presumptuous, of course.

Mantel's literary reputation is a little daunting. It's not just the prizes, though she has bagged several; rather that over the years she has made incursions into most of the genres there are and stamped them with this peculiar aestheticism and prescience you'd probably think of as perfectionism if it didn't all look so damned effortless. It is well to remember she wrote them only one at a time. The enormous doorstep of a historical novel, A Place Of Greater Safety, generally believed to be the finest - and certainly the funniest - exposition of the French Revolution. Then the books about expat life in Saudi Arabia, about Lazarus, about young offenders; then the transparently autobiographical novels and the allegorical swipes at 20th-century institutions and mannerisms in which she seems to be able to change the microscopic and telescopic lenses of insight and give you that timeless sense of human morality as an ongoing cock-up without being remotely preachy about it. She writes, in other words, like an angel.

She is also this smiling woman, introducing you to her husband and her cat, and urging you to come and look at her balcony from which, at night, you can get a perfect view of the sky, unsullied by the pollution of street lighting. She's very big on stars. Knows all their names. Then, if you crane your neck ever so slightly, you realise that you're under the clock and that, better yet, its tower belongs to her and you can climb up a spiral staircase and sit in it.

It is a small, square room, private, intimate, studio conditions for a tape recorder, all you could wish for. Except for this last: the intimacy. Mantel has written her memoir and I have read it, during the course of which I laughed and wept and wrote "Christ!" in the margin and afterwards went around telling everyone it was a masterpiece. Now, bringing it up as a topic of conversation seems somehow sleazy. I mean, I know her. Suddenly, what passed between the writer and her Apple Mac has nothing to do with what might pass between her and a stranger. Obviously, if you are one of those people who can sleuth the computer of memory and find the precise shape of your soul in there and chat about it, you wouldn't be a writer in the first place. Nor, if you were a writer, would you have much truck with such blatherers. But once you've done it, and it's a book, you're free to cast off from it. It's over. The ghost is given up. That's the idea, anyway. It isn't necessarily true.

At least, the cat doesn't think so. She's yowling at the bottom of the stairs, making that deep-throated wail of complaint highly bred, oriental cats make, which seems odd, as she's a tortoiseshell moggy. Mantel says the cat doesn't approve of the spiral staircase and doesn't believe there's anything at the top of it. As for the voice, well, she hadn't noticed, but now that I mention it, she must suppose it comes from a Burmese they had who died a few years ago. Isn't that sweet, she's mimicking! By this token, the cat remembers and is making no bones about it.

"I am often struck," said the cat's mother, "by how people don't remember, or say they don't remember, their childhood." In the course of her career, she has tutored those adult writing courses much patronised by people at pivotal points in their lives, when they hope to reconstruct themselves through the process of putting pen to paper. Yet most are fiercely unwilling to think about their childhood. Most men will say they either can't or don't want to remember, while women can't even speak about not speaking about it without manifesting almost unbearable emotion. She would think to herself, well, all right, I'm not here as a psychoanalyst, but how can anyone become a writer if they refuse to make something out of their own strongest emotions? Perhaps, she says, it is just too painful for most people to recall the vulnerability of childhood, so it becomes something you guard, like a shameful secret. Perhaps they think that, if they give themselves away, they will become vulnerable again; have their power taken away from them and used against them. So they prefer not to. If you're not a writer, she says, there is no particular value in welcoming the ambiguity of your own memory when you construe your own past, since what does that give you but confusion?

This isn't about analysis, it's about ambiguity. People analyse when they want clarification. That's easy. Ambiguity is not. And most people cannot tolerate ambiguity to the extent that they wilfully cut themselves off from their childhood selves. She had a student once, a man of 60, the youngest of a large family. She asked him to tell her two things about himself when he was five years old. He thought about it and told her some things, but they were all about his older brothers. He was simply not there. People fear what is rooted in themselves. It is a territory they think they have left behind, or they feel it never belonged to them in the first place. Like this man who grew up thinking of himself entirely in terms of his brothers, then as a husband, then as a father, always on a trajectory to another role he could fit into. And that's most people, determined to shrink away from the examined life. Always in a role. "And someone like me," she says, "isn't." There ought to be other words to describe people like her, she sighs, because in popular parlance, when we say a person is self-absorbed, we do not mean it as a compliment. If you take up a writer's life, you have to accept that you're going to spend an inordinate amount of time cudgelling your brains for symptoms of the ambiguities and contradictions festering in there. As Walt Whitman admitted, he contained multitudes. It's not everyone's cup of tea

There were years - four, to be precise - when Mantel was a happy bunny. Half a century ago, Our Ilary, as she was known to her family (they gave her an aspirational name, she says wittily, but lacked the necessary aspirant), was born to a working-class family in Derbyshire. She was a robust toddler, an only child, the joy of her grandparents, her mum and dad, uncles and aunts, and everybody else who conspired ruthlessly to persuade her that she was the centre of the universe, competing for the pleasure of attending to her every whim. As was right and proper.

When she grew up, she would be a railway guard, a camel trader, a knight of the Round Table, a priest. But before that, somewhere around the occasion of her fourth birthday, she would become a boy. So much was certain. Her ego was pure and undented, everything in her garden was lovely. Sometimes, for bliss, she would make her mum and dad stand in front of a mirror with her, Our Ilary, between the pair of them, arms round, all together, inviolable, permanent. When her fourth birthday came and went and she hadn't turned into a boy, she was fairly sanguine about it. She went on hoping, quietly confident of the inevitability of her transformation. She was utterly fearless. Then, one summer's day, her mum and dad took her to Blackpool for an outing, and she remembers being on the pier and looking down into the waves and realising with awful certainty that, as she puts it now, "All was not well above my head."

She knew two things. One, her mother and father were unhappy together; and, two, it was her fault. The big moment in the evolution of consciousness was upon her: if she was not there, had she never existed, her parents would be happy. Her ego was no longer pure. She was peripheral. She remembers the shock of that realisation. And she remembers waking up in bed with a high fever. The beginning of trouble and the beginning of illness arrived together.

They used to call her Little Miss Neverwell after that. Her ego survived its initial battering, of course, as egos do. She thought, when she first went to school, that all meaningful life back at home would cease. How would they manage without her? She even thought the trains would stop running, since she'd put in all this training for being a railway guard. And who would her grandad have to talk to when he came off his shift? School was a disaster. A joke. "What was it like?" she says. "Boredom and containment with a lot of violence thrown in." She smiles reassuringly. "But don't forget I was a fully paid-up member of the machine gun corps by then."

She was always a child unsuited for childhood. This is not a reflection, something she has recollected in tranquillity; it is a statement of the facts as she experienced them at the time. She perceived both herself and her contemporaries as alien creatures, unknowable one to the other. It wasn't a conflict, exactly, more an awareness of the divisions between people; something intangible to do with being a Catholic or a Protestant. You knew who was who. You knew your little friend was a Protestant because one day you didn't see her any more because she went to the other school. You knew the kids next door were Protestants because they threw stones at you and bawled a song about King Billy being a gentleman. And you knew that pianos were Catholic because Protestants didn't have them in their houses. You went to the school marked out for you, and there they taught you that Protestants were all right to be going on with, but when the big sorting out came, they'd be going down and you'd be going up. She dwelled on these things. And, for a long time, she held on to her priestly vocation, nipping next door to her great-aunt to give her absolution when she had nothing better to do.

She has no interest in religion now. So far as she is concerned, the Catholic Thing, as she calls it, began or encouraged her predilection for self-absorption. "As a little girl, I was told to examine my conscience," she says. You are supposed to confess. To own. You explore the innermost resources of your heart and look at what is dark. You think about what has gone wrong and how you can make it right. "A lot of Catholics say they grew up oppressed by a sense of sin, and to a certain extent I would go along with that. Sin is inside. Guilt is out there. But with a sense of sin there is also a sense of redemption and of transformation, of working of the past. A sense of the active construction of self, I think. So if this is dinned into you as a child, you get the idea that life can change. You're not just stuck with yourself."

That she might break the mould of a long, distaff line, bounded by the northern, working-class limitations of home, hearth and mill, was also her mother's ambition for her. The only change in living memory to the prospects of women in Derbyshire villages was the postwar demise of the textile industry, swiftly followed by the pungent possibilities of the pickle factory. It wasn't that her mum had a career for their Ilary all mapped out, more that she let her daughter know that it was all right to want something different from her own narrow existence. To this end, she determined Ilary should go to the posh convent school where they dressed up the girls in collars and ties like pretend boys, and purported to educate them towards a life in the world at large. It seemed like a good idea at the time. There was one particularly heady moment when her mother was prepared to sacrifice Ilary's beauty on the altar of better things. She took her boldly to the head nun and brightly suggested they cut her hair off. Just to make her a better bet, you understand.

At school, Mantel found nothing to admire. It all seemed silly and trivial, a sentence to be served during which time she would be ridiculed and brow-beaten and from which she could exclude herself, in her capacity of Little Miss Neverwell, and take to her sickbed. Schooldays were about feeling foolish and learning to survive repression through the simple expedient of contempt. You just decide to despise it all. For this she had an excellent teacher in her mother who, having separated from Ilary's dad and taken up with the lodger, became the focal point of village gossip and ostracism. Mantel observed with admiration her mother's Snow Queen reaction to nosy parkers and abusers, and cultivated the same aloofness in herself. She treated with contempt people who asked about her family, then learned to extend that contempt. She believed that what is important in this life lay elsewhere, an elsewhere she had read about in books, and that she would get to one day.

She must keep a steady eye on things, not be pushed around by other people's judgments, be different, be untouched by.

But the back, as they say, is always as broad as the front. The proof of Mantel's studied intimacy with ambiguity is clanking about downstairs, preparing lunch for us. Her husband, a man who would not look out of place seated on a white horse and carrying a lance with a flag on it, has been central to her life since schooldays. The archaic word "cleave" springs to mind when you see them together. They met and they cleaved to each other. In fact, they have been married twice, which Mantel prefers not to explain at the moment for fear of being pursued as some kind of a relationship expert before she has done what she calls "proper remembering" and written a book about it. Suffice it to say, their alliance survived a divorce. More importantly, it has survived endometriosis and all the pain, sadness, confusion and anger that go with it. As the conversation turns in that difficult direction, he maintains a watchful silence, the paragon spouse who never indicates by yawn or sigh that he has heard you out on this one a dozen times and more. This is Mantel's personal crusade. She can do no other.

Nobody in her right mind wants to trumpet to the world the story of her insides, but Little Miss Neverwell never was well, nor could she resist a story with strong feeling and a historic undertow. The crux of the matter will be familiar to any woman who was young in the 1970s and watched her GP write "career girl", "highly strung" and "too thin" on her case notes. It happened to me, it happened to most of my contemporaries. It happened to Hilary Mantel. She told the doctor she was in pain, and he told her it was all in her mind. She was a pretty girl, thin as Twiggy, a law student, a bit above herself. A perfect candidate for dismissal. Psychosomia was born in 1972. Then, doctors thought they were being frightfully advanced if they could spot a mental element to physical disease. Uppity females brought it on themselves. Give them Valium and send them packing. From the vantage point of our maturity, we can easily see how it happened, how they didn't bother with any diagnostic procedure beyond the knee jerk of the medical culture of the time. We can even sympathise with the useless sods.

"I know the grim reaper stands at their shoulders at an angle to their endeavours," Mantel says elegantly. "But this was misogyny."

"We have no idea how much men hate us," I bat back. "How Germaine!"

"Yes," she replies tartly, "and what an indecent thing to say with a man at the table!"

But it's true, she goes on while I grovel and abase myself, and if you don't believe it, go to a cricket match and listen to men talking about their wives and girlfriends, and see what you think. How few people follow this prescription, she says. The tone of voice, the malignity, the aren't we all men together and aren't women silly and don't we have to give in to them and don't we resent it? Try it and see. And you thought you were just filling in the scorecard? Ha!

By the time her illness was diagnosed as endometriosis, it was too late. Too late for the life she might have chosen. Her endocrine system was shot, the disease was chronic, she was infertile and, lest insult failed to follow injury, she ballooned from her natural Twiggy-self to a woman who wears clothes in sizes she didn't know existed. And, yes, she is very angry about it. People say to her, "You're really angry, aren't you?" allying themselves to today's politically correct disapproval of the emotion, as though it were something militantly negative and destructive, something a proper person would have grown out of by now, or at least have the grace to repress or deny.

And perhaps she might be less angry had the situation changed very much. A few weeks ago, she wrote an article in the Guardian giving her views on the subject and has since received communications from young women currently in receipt of the "It's all in your mind" diagnosis, plus a missive from a retired woman doctor advising her not to be such a whinger. How can she leave it alone, "go on with her life", as the arch-guardians of banality phrase it? "I am not putting up an anti-doctor diatribe," she says. "I am merely saying there is an alternative way of thinking that does not involve supporting and colluding with colleagues who have made mistakes. You can't enforce it, but you have to try. And if that makes them think back through their entire lives, then so much the better."

She has a good doctor now, one of those chaps who listens to you and says, "If you find anything interesting on the net, be sure and let me know." Which makes a refreshing change from the ones who go all sarky if you take an intelligent interest in what ails you and inquire where you got your medical degree. And then again, had she not been chronically ill, she would probably never have become a writer, it being an enterprise you can conduct from the sanctuary of your sickbed if you have to. Illness, she says, does concentrate the mind. It restricts your choices rather as lack of education or lack of money does. You marshal your energy, cram in as much as you can while you feel well, against the likelihood of feeling not so hot in the future. You can cope. In her case, to the effect of securing herself a serious place in the history of English literature. This is entirely comprehensible to me. I have often noticed that people with debilitating or chronic illnesses seem to have more psychic energy than anyone else. I had imagined it was a compensatory gift, but of course it isn't. It's a pragmatic decision you can make if you have two brain cells to rub together. The big thwart, the loss of the choice of motherhood, is a more complicated struggle, because it involves instinct - and instincts, as Mantel has discovered, are "kind of ghosts".

You know intellectually that you are never going to have children, but you don't know it all through. Mantel was always one of those women who shopped and cooked as though for an imaginary tribe, a meal for two would be extended to accommodate the possibility of visitors turning up out of the blue. That was the rationalisation. She lived in houses with umpteen rooms. What was it all for but the children who would be coming?

There seemed to be no end to it, particularly since ghost children never grow up and leave home. And then the ghosts just dropped into place. She gave up two houses, huge shopping lists and living life as if, as if, as if... Giving Up The Ghost draws the line, ends a section, done that, story over. "It is essential," she says, "for a writer to know when the chapter is finished." She calls it The Clean Slate, but it's not really about getting a clean slate, it's about the exploration of the idea of a clean slate.

"In my kitchen now," she says with smug satisfaction, "there is no storage space."

Giving Up The Ghost, by Hilary Mantel, is published by Fourth Estate on May 8 at £16.99.

 

The ghost writer

In a remarkable memoir, novelist Hilary Mantel describes how her long battle with illness made her write. She talks to Kate Kellaway

Sunday May 4, 2003
The Observer

I stand in a former lunatic asylum near Woking in Surrey and look out on Army land that seems slightly khaki on an intermittently sunny day. I know Hilary Mantel will be the first to joke about the asylum, now a carpeted oasis which she shares with her husband, Gerald, (so nice she married him twice) and her 21-year-old-cat, Bella, arthritic, with a face like a pansy and a mistrust of journalists.

Mantel never needed to lean on life for her fiction; she has never been shy of imagining distances, other people, countries, centuries. ('When I am writing a character, I am acting them, trying to feel their feelings and be in their body.') But now, at 50, she has unexpectedly produced a memoir in which she can no longer act or be in anyone else's body.

Giving up the Ghost offers to strangers and friends, and to her mother, the account of a life haunted by illness and medical incompetence, written in words that never fail her. She describes 'an unlit terrain of sickness, a featureless landscape of humiliation and loss'.

Endometriosis is a condition in which cells migrate from the lining of the womb to other parts of the body: bladder, bowel, pelvis or even, in rare cases, to heart, chest wall and head. They bleed and scar tissue is formed. It is a condition that often ends in infertility and 'not infrequently a hormonal disarrangement which shows itself as a severe premenstrual symptom'.

Mantel was 19 when it took hold. She was sent to a psychiatrist who diagnosed overambition. Anti-psychotic medication brought on counterfeit madness - akathisia - a terrifying side-effect. Mantel writes: 'By the time I was 24, I had learned the hard way that whatever my mental distress - and it does distress one to be ignored, invalidated and humiliated - I must never, ever go near a psychiatrist or take a psychotropic drug.' By the time she was diagnosed, it was too late to help her. At 27, she had a hysterectomy which brought on a surgical menopause. Ignorant doctors told her then that the disease would not return. But it did. 'It stole my life,' she writes.

The drugs she needed to take after the operation transformed her appearance. She went from being a wisp of a girl to someone conspicuously overweight; someone, it seems, she still does not quite recognise. Change happened with alarming speed: 'It was like putting the loaf to rise and coming back in an hour and finding it was twice the size.' She showed me - at my request - photographs of herself at seven stone, in Botswana, pencil-thin.

Fat changed her personality, she says. Fatness 'imposed stillness'. When her body began to freeze up, she became 'a thing that sat on the chaise longue, a sofa girl'. She still occasionally glimpses a 'frantic little demon inside me which is as thin as ever'. If it were not for her ill health, she believes she would never have been a novelist - she might have been a travel writer, a war correspondent or a barrister (she'd have made a brilliant one).

She has spent much of her life wondering: 'What is me and what is the drug? Endocrinology and personality are so bound together that I don't know where I reside. I often feel like a product of clinical disasters and drugs I have been taking to cure and maintain the disease.' She adds, devastatingly: 'There is no me, really, any more.'

I was glad to disagree, to find Hilary Mantel, whom I last met years ago, unchanged. She does not live down to her images of herself. In the book, she likens herself to a 'shabby old building in an area of heavy shelling, which the inhabitants have vacated years ago', but she looks resplendent in purple silk. Operatic was the word that came into my head. But that would make her laugh. There has been so little to sing about.

She never had a child. Giving up the Ghost is haunted by the children that never came along, the imagined daughter she knows by name, all the ghosts who will not give her up. It is a painful but never self-pitying book. Even at her bleakest, Mantel has too acid a wit for that. And it is much more than the story of an illness: it includes the leave-taking of a much-loved place, Owl Cottage in Norfolk, and an attempt to absorb her stepfather's death. She did not know how to mourn him. 'It was, in some ways, more painful than having lost someone you love.' At the time, she felt: 'I don't know whether I loved him, I don't know whether I even liked him but I miss him - and that is much more complicated.'

She was brought up in a Catholic family in Derbyshire, and when her parents' marriage ended, her mother and stepfather moved to another town to start again, as though the past had never been. The person erased was Mantel's father, who haunts the story with his absence. What became of him? Her eyes shine: 'I don't know. He went to live in the next town. But I never heard from him. I don't know whether he is alive.' In July, Fourth Estate will publish Mantel's autobiographical stories, Learning to Talk; she has been dramatising them for Woman's Hour.

In one story, her father walks out and all he leaves behind is a memory of the piano music he played. She could not, she realised, dramatise this story until she had identified the music, and when she finally found it - 'Three Women Blues' by Memphis Slim - she 'suddenly, for the first time in years, probably for the first time ever, shed a tear because I thought: he would have liked that, I found the right thing at last'.

Writing has been the 'right thing' for Mantel. It has been her lifeline, as she explains in an account so fluent it seems it will never end: 'I started writing in earnest at 22. I thought: I am a wreck and have no money and am in poor health - and so how am I going to impose myself on the world? I was seethingly ambitious, I don't make any secret of that. I needed to be somebody. The only way I could think of was by writing. Because all you need is paper and pencil and you can do it horizontal. But it was never an escape, nor was it the place I was running to - because it wasn't a refuge - but it was what enabled me, it was my source of power and it was all I'd got and it was the cheapest source of power. Words are free. And when I think: what do I retain from the old days? It's a turn of phrase.'

National Endometriosis Society: freephone 0808 808 2227; www.endo.org.uk

 

 

Hilary Mantel: The exorcist

Hilary Mantel survived the devil of a girlhood and had to wrestle with serious illness. Now, as she tells Marianne Brace, the novelist has written a memoir to banish the demons

10 May 2003

When Hilary Mantel was seven, she met the devil. Well, not exactly: but she did encounter something so evil that even now she finds it hard to explain what she chanced on in the garden. "I couldn't say I saw it," she says slowly. "I'm talking about something at the very border of sensory experience. I could walk to where it was, could say how high it was and describe the speed at which it moved. But how I got the information, through which sense, I don't know." What Mantel does know is that she felt she had witnessed something she wasn't meant to. "The experience was absolutely destroying, as if my body was falling apart at a cellular level, which expressed itself in intense nausea. The way I rationalised it was that it was the devil. As a Catholic, that was the theology I had at my command." The family home itself was haunted and this presence seemed like "a concentration of things that were going on in the house – the unhappiness of our family and the pressure of secrets and lies".

Evil makes itself felt in several of Mantel's works, from child abduction in Africa to murderous goings-on in a flat in Jeddah. And malevolence is not always far from home. In the story "Third Floor Rising", from her collection Learning to Talk, screams issue from an empty bricked-up department store. Mantel understands how the inexplicable disturbs and spooks us.

Now she is laying to rest a few demons of her own in the memoir Giving Up The Ghost (Fourth Estate, £16.99), and in Learning to Talk – a series of fictionalised out-takes from the memoir. "My childhood seemed very much haunted," she explains, "so I've tried to get a sense of that without doing the headless horseman and the rattling chains."

As a writer, Mantel always achieves a topical resonance. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) considers the implications of creeping Muslim fundamentalism. A Change of Climate (1994) involves "medicine murder". (Ten years ago, who could have foreseen the recent disposal of "Adam's" torso in the Thames?). The Giant O'Brien, with its freak-show character, poses questions about medical ethics and what it means to be human, while the marvellous epic A Place of Greater Safety charts the free-fall and chaos of the French Revolution. "I don't want to talk about Iraq," says Mantel, "but I keep thinking about what Robespierre said: 'Who likes armed missionaries?'"

In turning to memoir, Mantel joins a host of writers who have used the absence of a parent to question their own identity. Mantel's father vanished when she was young. But her story is not just a daddy-I-hardly-knew-you. Constant illness from the age of 19 meant that at times she hardly knew herself, as a result of the cocktail of drugs on which she has been forced to rely.

As a child, Mantel often missed school through illness. "Because of my absences I was squeezed into an observer's role." A large vocabulary also set her apart. "I didn't know that you didn't use all the words at your command," she says, smiling. "So I retreated into being virtually dumb and hardly uttered during the rest of my primary education." That all changed at grammar school, where she became head girl. "School saved my sanity. It was an oasis of civilisation and calm."

Mantel is the oldest of three children. Her mother, who went to work in a mill at 14, was ambitious for her daughter to excel academically. This wasn't the only pressure. Mantel's parents had taken in a lodger. "By the time I was 10, Jack was more of a power in the household and my father became marginalised, living in the house like a ghost." Her mother couldn't get divorced and later, everyone had to keep up the pretence that she was married to Jack. When Mantel's father finally left, they never saw him again. Does that sadden her? "In the scale of what's given grief it comes surprisingly low down," she says. "But I am what I am because of him. The quiet habits of the introvert were nourished by him."

The first person in her family to go to university, Mantel found herself having to beg for money, much like Carmel in her girls-of-slender-means semi-autobiographical novel, An Experiment in Love. Jack, now her stepfather, refused to support her financially. When Mantel wanted to marry, her parents cut her off. "If I hadn't married I would have had to leave university. It was a difficult situation and one where every choice was a bad one."

Married, Mantel spent several years teaching abroad, exposed to "the grievous things that Africa does to the European psyche." The expat experience led her to conclude "the world is profoundly other". She soon realised that some things simply couldn't be communicated. "Botswana was so remote and cut off. How can you talk to people back home who are still stuck in the same perceptions? The gap is too great."

Her health, meanwhile, was deteriorating. Misdiagnosis had led to Mantel being fobbed off with anti-depressive drugs. By the time doctors discovered the she was suffering from endometriosis she was 27 and her condition so advanced that her reproductive organs had to be removed. At this time, too, she submitted a 350,000-word manuscript she had been working on. It was A Place of Greater Safety, and it was rejected.

"I'm not even sure it was read," says Mantel, who explains how on its return a chunk was missing. "The rejection of the book and the end of my fertility seemed of a piece. It seemed terribly symbolic, part of the numb misery ... So I just went back and started life again." (When the novel was published in 1992, it won a major prize.)

The knowledge that she would never have children is something Mantel discusses in Giving Up The Ghost with an admirable lack of self-pity. Indeed, the whole memoir is written with a deft, wry touch. "What you're confronted with in memoir is unmitigated self," Mantel says. In order to be unselfconscious she focused on the sensory, to recover "the texture of the day, the light, the sounds. I can only do any sort of writing by seeding my intellect elsewhere. You do a lot of planning beforehand but when you sit down at the keyboard, it's not the time for thinking but just doing. It's when you get to the end you think, 'Oh, what have I done?'"

Mantel describes herself as "a creature of pharmaceuticals", compelled to be a non-participant. "I don't think I would have been a writer if I hadn't been ill," she muses. "Illness forces you to the wall, so the stance of the writer is forced on you. Writing keeps you still and as long as your brain is working it doesn't matter if your body isn't." When Mantel's thyroid failed, however, she couldn't even take that for granted. "My body and mind started to come to a halt. I would put in frustrating hours, trying to limp to the end of a paragraph and wondering why it didn't work. So now I think, what next? What other tricks does my body have up its sleeve?"

One of the more distressing tricks was an alarming weight-gain. "When this incredible extending woman thing started, I increased my weight by 50 per cent ... I just couldn't get into last week's clothes. It was as if God was teaching me to be humble."

Over the years, Mantel has observed, "how ignorable you become when you're fat – like a piece of furniture". She continues, "Catholics say that the sacraments are the outward sign of inward grace. Well, I have the outward sign of inward disgrace. I'm like a comic book version of myself." She laughs. "My body is intent on telling the story, so my mind had better go along with it and write the memoir."

Mantel has exorcised some ghosts, but isn't giving up yet. She is working on her ninth novel and recently judged the Granta Best of Young British Novelists selection. "I do have a sense of an era being over," she says. "Whether you're writing fiction or memoir, you come to a certain understanding by the end of it. I feel I have cast some light on my background and still there is so much that is untold."

Biography

Born in Derbyshire in 1952 and educated in Cheshire, Hilary Mantel read law at the LSE. Married at 20, she finished her degree at Sheffield University. She tried social work, then sold frocks in order to write in the evenings. She lived in Africa in the late Seventies. In 1982 she remarried her husband and his job took them to Saudi Arabia. Her first published novel was Every Day is Mother's Day. She won the Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love, and the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. Her other novels include Fludd, The Giant O'Brien and A Place of Greater Safety. A memoir, Giving Up The Ghost, and the short stories Learning To Talk (out in July), are published by Fourth Estate. Hilary Mantel lives with her husband in a flat in a converted lunatic asylum.

 

 

 

Haunted by her ghost children
(Filed: 04/05/2003)

Victoria Glendinning reviews Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

The instinctive response to Giving Up the Ghost is to take a long solitary walk and maintain a respectful silence. The book is brave and painful; you feel that the novelist Hilary Mantel has paid her readers the compliment of taking them, individually, into her confidence, and that to discuss the contents in public is to abuse that confidence.

Nevertheless, the confessional memoir is a successful contemporary genre, and the essence of it is that the private is wilfully made public. Mantel herself has her doubts about the enterprise: "I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done." She is by turns facetious, matter-of-fact, visionary and comical, but always totally riveting.

It's a book full of houses, recreated on the page in detail, in each of which lives a ghost of her younger self. Home, to start with, was a village near Manchester, and two adjoining houses, 56 and 58 Bankbottom, crammed with the extended family – northern English on one side, Roman Catholic Irish on the other – plus visiting great-uncles who sat silently in a row on hard chairs with their caps on, sucking humbugs and coughing. Her mother was small, stylish and blonde. Mother's friend Jack moved in with them. Under a cloud, they left Bankbottom, and father disappeared for ever. Nothing was ever explained to "our Ilary". (She had been named aspirationally, "but aspiration didn't stretch to the H".)

She was "unsuited to being a child" – too literary and at the same time too literal, finding school inexplicably stupid, living in her imagination and confidently expecting to turn into a boy any day. With adolescence came pain in her legs and abdomen. Growing pains, they said. The pains got worse. She was in pain through her young married life – her husband was a fellow student – as she cooked and baked like the practical northern girl she was, on no money, and as she amassed notes for what would later be her novel set during the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. Frail and thin, she was in pain while they lived, for her husband's work, in Africa and in Saudi Arabia.

Finding nothing wrong, the doctors decided her problems were "all in the mind" and fed her with anti-depressants; their crippling side-effects produced florid symptoms which seemingly confirmed the diagnosis. Mantel became alienated from her family. Her marriage broke down, and was after an interval put together again. Her husband is, for the reader, a silent ghost – neither praised nor blamed, never described, just glimpsed driving the car or moving furniture.

This is a saga of horrendous medical mismanagement, which distorted the course of her life, though it has not stopped her writing novels. But why did she allow this disaster to happen? Because expectations of health, in the time and place that she grew up, were low; and because there was a culture of not fussing. Her pains were entirely physical in origin. It was discovered that she had endometriosis, requiring major surgery. As a result of ill-judged treatment, she also lost her lovely hair, her endocrine system went haywire, and the thin woman she was grew larger and larger so that she looked permanently pregnant.

The irony was that she was unable, now, to have children. Her "ghost children" haunted her. Ghost children "don't age, so they don't know it's time to leave home. They won't, without a struggle, be kicked out of your psyche." She became a champion housekeeper in her over-large executive-style house, her cupboards stacked with linen and towels, her larder crammed with food. "I knew, if I thought about it, that I was expecting the unborn."

In her middle age, she seeks to keep her ghost children in their place, but not to banish the ghosts of her dead – her grandfather, her lost father, her stepfather – nor the total recall of houses once lived in, nor all the different abused and pain-racked selves she has been. She wants to be in charge of her own story. "I am not writing to solicit any special sympathy. People survive much worse and never put pen to paper."

 

The illness of our Ilary
(Filed: 18/05/2003)

Caroline Moore reviews Giving Up The Ghost by Hilary Mantel

This profoundly strange memoir fulfills the promise of wit and sharp observation suggested by the quotation on the dust-jacket: "At no. 58 the top of my head comes to the outermost curve of my great-aunt, Annie Connor. Her shape is like the full moon, her smile is beaming; the outer rim of her is covered by her pinny woven with tiny flowers. It is soft from washing; her hands are hard and chapped; it is barely ten o'clock and she is getting the cabbage on. 'Hello, our Ilary', she says; my family has named me aspirationally, but aspiration doesn't stretch to the H."

This might lead one to expect the cosiness inherent within this genre (prize-winning author looks back upon working-class origins): and there are indeed hugely enjoyable moments of nostalgia: the "fat, green complicated legs" of the underside of Ilary's grandmother's kitchen table; or the brutally uncomplicated legs "in thick dark stockings" of her Protestant friend's mother, which "are the shape of bottles, so when anyone says 'Stout' I think of Evelyn's mum".

As a reader, one knows where one is with such memories: Hadfield, Glossop, Nr Manchester, embedded within an extended, part-Catholic family, in an era when grandmothers had hands "with cracked and harsh palms" from scouring the fireplace with Vim.

But Giving Up The Ghost is the least cosy memoir you will ever read. It is prickly, defensive, almost pathologically unsentimental. There are no comforting solidities. Mantel's world is one of ghosts, of absences, and of things unsaid because they are on the verges of the communicable, "a blur . . . a moth's wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning".

Mantel is superb at catching the moments at which solidity dissolves. She describes infant terrors, inchoate fears. Her early memory of a conviction that she has swallowed a housefly, along with "a green sweet from a box of assorted candy called Weekend" is an account of falling through the fabric of the communicable ("the fear of death stirs slowly in my chest cavity, like a stewpot lazily bubbling . . . I wonder whether I should mention the fact that I am dying, either from a fly or a green sweet"). At four, she believes that a gloomy-looking spaniel might once have been a cow, and is convinced that she will transmute into a boy.

Childhood secrets are set in a narrative fractured by adult secrecy. Ilary fails to notice her mother's pregnancy; a stepfather steps into her life from the void of her ignorance, comes to tea, and inexplicably stays.

But these evocations of the unsayable pale beside Mantel's most terrifyingly peculiar apprehensions. At seven, to the sound of "a lazy buzzing swirl, like flies; but it is not flies", she glimpses and is invaded by a "creature" of appalling, formless evil rippling among the coarse weeds at the bottom of the garden. It is "as high as a child of two . . . The air stirs about it, invisibly". This passage defies selective quotation: Mantel's private Lord of the Flies is comparable to the hallucinatory vividness of any vision of terror in the works of Golding.

There are medical explanations for this strangeness: but the comforts of retrospective diagnosis ("migraine") are minimal. Mantel's life was devastated by medical mis-labelling and mistreatment: "strangeness" remains the truest description of her experience.

Every clever child is in self-perceived exile; but to be a literary child in a fractured working-class family (semi-Irish, semi-Catholic, only semi-divorced) is to be a permanent semi-stranger. Ill-health, however, went further, and made Mantel "foreign" within her own body. The robust four-year-old, felled by a series of fevers, became stick-like, frail, perpetually ill, little "Miss Neverwell", as her doctor sneered.

Solidity melted away. But then the 20-year-old with a fashionably tiny waist and floating white-gold hair, was re-transformed, almost as mysteriously as if a spaniel had become a cow. Mistreatment of endometriosis made her swell with alien fat, hormonally bloated beyond self-recognition.

Endometriosis is a condition in which the cells of the lining of the womb seed themselves about the body. These cells are not technically malignant, but (I speak as a sufferer) one would not know it. They mass, swell and bleed, forming huge tumours, entangling and warping internal organs. Debilitating exhaustion and acute if strangely diffused pain are, however, easier to deal with than the inability to have children.

Absences of all kinds haunt these pages, but the ghosts of unborn children are the most unbearable. There is nothing in general more tedious than an account of other people's illnesses: Mantel's brilliant and extremely odd autobiography - lucid, perceptive, warped into wit by displaced pain - proves the exception to this rule.

Caroline Moore was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

 

LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS

 

Giving up the Ghost

Hilary Mantel

                                 Read this memoir here

 

 

Hilary Mantel on Richard Hughes

T H E    F O X    I N    T H E    A T T I C    

 

T H E  W O O D E N   S H E P H E R D E S S   was the child of success. It was the second volume of a projected work called “The Human Predicament,” a fictional account, at once panoramic and finely detailed, of the years between the First and Second World Wars,...........................................................

 

Father figured
(Filed: 24/04/2005)

Hilary Mantel describes the day her family history started to unravel, revealing a different man to the father she remembered.

 

Read these articles here          

     

  

October 5, 2003

'Giving Up the Ghost': A Memoirist Not Ennobled by Suffering

GIVING UP THE GHOST
A Memoir.
By Hilary Mantel.
223 pp. New York: A John Macrae Book/ Henry Holt & Company.
$23.

By INGA CLENDINNEN

Memoirs are commonly reassuring affairs. Tough childhoods, promiscuous adulthoods, serious illnesses yield fame, or wisdom, or at worst a battered serenity. Memoirs tell us what we want to hear: that suffering ennobles; that tragedies have happy endings. Hilary Mantel, distinguished novelist and critic, had both a tough childhood and a serious illness, but her memoir does not reassure. It scalds. Mantel does not believe suffering ennobles. She believes it has done her irreparable physical and psychological damage.

To take the illness first. By 20, Mantel was in sudden shafting pain. A sequence of complacent, incompetent doctors, diagnosing what was in reality endometriosis as a bad case of female overambition, began dosing her with increasingly powerful psychiatric drugs until she was very nearly mad. A frightening decade later she identified her condition from the books available in a dusty African town where her geologist husband was working, and sought treatment. And then it is too late. In endometriosis, the womb lining migrates to abnormal locations, as on the ovaries or within the peritoneal cavity. Mantel's womb and various other parts of her person had to be removed, and this in a woman with a visceral commitment to the continuity of family. The disease reasserting itself, she was forced to embark on a lifetime of hormone taking, which has swamped her physical self in surplus flesh and continues to impose whimsical change on mind and body. This is the Book of Job without the purposeful deity but instead the bleak contingencies of period, place, poverty and gender. It is also a magnificent denunciation of cant.

Mantel shows us her wounds not to induce our pity but to express her rage. What is unnerving is that this dark tale of extravagant consequences and loathed transformations could have been scripted by Mantel herself. She is the novelist of unease, expert at unleashing the terror that lurks within the mundane. (I read my first Mantel years ago because the blurb promised me ''a Middle Eastern 'Turn of the Screw,' with an insidious power to grip.'') Much of her memoir describes her childhood, inviting the irresistible question we ask of writers: When and how did you become what you are?

Mantel was born in the grim little town of Hadfield, near Manchester, first child to a poor Catholic family of Irish descent. She was an ambitious, cheerful child, small in stature, large in hopes, and through her preschool days her clustered kin lovingly indulged her flaring imagination: a tepee with its own chair inside pitched on her grandmother's floor, a great-aunt earnestly confessing her sins to a 5-year-old priest. Mantel also looked toward liberating transformations. Was she not unfeminine in her rejection of tedious female concerns; in her vigor, audacity and taste for battle? Had not her mother told her that she had been born with long black hair, while now her hair was pale? She was accordingly confident that in time she would turn into a boy and take up either of her two preferred destinies, Arthurian knight or Indian brave.

Then she suffered the first of a series of fevers, to emerge not a warrior-in-waiting but a frail, irremediably female child, and knew her destiny had been altered without her consent. She was projected into the crippling tedium and unintelligible torments of a rough Catholic primary school, which was, she realized incredulously, obligatory. Nothing in her energetic infancy had been obligatory. The school's perverse rituals, its riddling speech (''Do you want me to hit you with this ruler?'') reduced this tough, inventive, highly verbal child to silent weeping and unspecific illnesses. She was labeled by a fool of a doctor -- the first in that ominous line of medical fools -- ''Little Miss Neverwell.'' Mantel, early persuaded of words' magical power, furiously resented that casual, prophetic ''naming.''

Meanwhile there was malaise at home. Her mother, herself stifling under poverty and the dictates of respectability, rebelled. She moved to a house away from the kin, installed her lover there along with her three children, reduced her husband to lodger status and fractured Mantel's intimacy with her beloved people down the hill.

At 7, Mantel took instruction to prepare her for the sacraments. A natural metaphysician (the doctrine of transubstantiation especially delighted her), she waited patiently for her due infusion of grace. Instead one ordinary morning something else came: a terrifying something ''as high as a child of 2'' manifesting in the rough grass beyond the new house. ''Within the space of a thought'' it was inside her, ''a body inside my body,'' and ''grace . . . runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.'' Mantel acknowledges that after this event, she was always more or less ''ashamed and afraid.''

What had happened? What was this vile thing that had possessed her? A ''realization'' of vulgar Catholic teachings intensified by shame at the masked improprieties within her household? Perhaps. There is an archaic dimension in Mantel's sensibility, a sense of malign spirits moving under the surface of things, which makes that brisk modern explanation seem glib.

When Mantel was 10 her mother decamped with lover and children to another town to begin what was declared to be a new life. Mantel did not see her father again. In exchange she gained a peaceful school, an aggressive, resentful stepfather and a weight of obdurately cherished memories.

Mantel believes her childhood ended at that point, remarking, with uncharacteristic wanness, that her misery was nobody's fault: she was simply ''unsuited to being a child.'' I doubt that anyone is suited to being small, powerless and ignored, especially at the time when, being all character and no experience, we must somehow survive in a world run by unpredictable, disingenuous giants. Seven moderately calm years later Mantel's intelligence and ferocious will propel her into the world and London (she planned to study law), and she met the man who would become her life partner. Then the pains began.

Is Mantel the writer the product of infant sorrows skewed by a dangerous conviction of the magical power of words? I think not. Her sense of threat seems to have begun earlier, well before school, and when the breach between her parents was still a shadow. Consider the one doll small Hilary chose to cherish. It had been named for a dimpled cousin called Beryl. Beryl the doll was not dimpled. She had been conjured out of ''grubby green satin, with satin stumps for hands and feet, features inked onto a round of calico for her face, and her pointed head of grubby green satin also.'' Grubby satin, stumps for limbs, opaque face, pointed head. And there it is already: the authentic Mantel shiver. Now consider that creative-writing-course cliche, here fresh minted: Mantel's first memory.

''This is the first thing I remember. I am sitting in my pram. We are outside, in the park called Bankswood. My mother walks backward. I hold out my arms because I don't want her to go. She says she's only going to take my picture. I don't understand why she goes backwards, back and aslant, tacking to one side. The trees overhead make a noise of urgent conversation, too quick to catch; the leaves part, the sky moves, the sun peers down at me. Away and away she goes, till she comes to a halt. She raises her arm and partly hides her face. The sky and trees rush over my head. I feel dizzied. The entire world is sound, movement. She moves toward me, speaking. The memory ends.''

It is a great passage, easily outclassing Salvador Dali's famous first memory of sitting in his pram gnawing a sick bat. Dali startles, but we know bats get sick, and might, occasionally, fall into prams; that some babies will bite anything. We also don't believe him. We do believe Mantel. We are nonetheless unprepared for an infant's world to go into reverse, then melt into an ambiguous swirl of ominous movement. Nor do we expect so disturbingly unmotherly a mother. Here is the crack in the teacup that can open to swallow the world.

The matter is bitter, but North English tough-mindedness coexists with dreadful imaginings; Mantel's angular wit is as unquenchable as her anger; the reading experience is reliably exhilarating because of the sheer excellence of the writing. Mantel tells us she wrote to lure the memories of childhood out of their domestic hiding places, and at last to exorcise them. I doubt she will manage that. Hers are very vital ghosts. What she has done is to invite us into their unquiet company. For that her readers (may they be legion) will be deeply grateful.

Inga Clendinnen is a historian. Her most recent books are ''Reading the Holocaust'' and ''Tiger's Eye: A Memoir.''

 

                                

Fleshing out her phantom pains
British novelist's memoir observes a world inhabited by spirits and plagued by illness
Reviewed by Martin Rubin
Sunday, October 12, 2003


Giving Up the Ghost

A Memoir

By Hilary Mantel

HENRY HOLT; 225 PAGES; $23

The trouble with Hilary Mantel's tantalizing but ultimately frustrating memoir, "Giving Up the Ghost," is that it is full of beings that aren't there, while those that actually are seem too evanescent, even -- dare one say it? -- ectoplasmic. Her parents, her husband, her siblings play important parts in her life, but they are only sketchily present, more roles than fleshed-out characters, oddly inert at times when they must have acted. Specters, on the other hand, are vividly real for Mantel. This is an author who does believe in ghosts, both in the figurative sense . . .

"Ghosts are the tags and rags of everyday life, information you acquire that you don't know what to do with, knowledge you can't process . . . 'Ghosts' are whatever it is that moves the furniture, stops the clocks, hides things from you, and arranges for you to be locked out of your hotel room. It's just the little dead, I say to myself, kicking up a fuss, demanding attention by the infantile methods that are the only ones available to them."

. . . and in the literal sense, as in "I know it is my stepfather's ghost coming down."

We live in an age where many people share Mantel's attitude toward the spirit world, and for them this aspect of her memoir will present no problems. But what of those of us who count themselves as rationalists, who cling to the values of the Enlightenment as our lodestar? Her attachment to the irrational combined with a lack of self-awareness enfolds us in a murky world where phenomena are more felt than they are understood. And the supernatural seems a double blind, preventing both serious psychological self-examination and the realization that, like Professor Freud's celebrated cigar, sometimes a migraine is just a migraine. Mantel can make the reader feel her pain -- its excruciating qualities are rendered almost palpable -- but her judgment as to its etiology is harder to accept.

"Giving Up the Ghost" begins with an account of Mantel's childhood near the border between Derbyshire and Lancashire, near the grim industrial northern England city of Manchester. Born in 1952 to a Roman Catholic couple, she found herself transported into a slightly higher social class after her mother replaced her ineffectual father with a more dynamic Protestant engineer stepfather. This in itself is an extremely odd story as recounted here: For a time there is a kind of menage-a-trois, not the kind found in Iris Murdoch's novels (or her life), but a process where Dad first moves into a room with Hilary and then out of the house -- and the family's life -- altogether. Now, there must be a lot more to this story than we get there, but from the reasons behind the change to whether Hilary ever again saw or heard from her father, there is a world of information not to be found here.

There may well be good personal reasons for this reticence. For one thing, Mantel's mother is still alive. But then this raises the question as to whether you can write this sort of memoir if you are not prepared to be as ruthless as writers must needs be. However fashionable memoirs may be today, you can't write them if you are not prepared to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Mantel seems to be a good daughter, as later on in the story, she is a discreet and tactful wife. But you cannot do justice to your nonfiction if you tread so gingerly. When it comes to herself, the author is unsparing, both about her physical and her psychological travails, but she cannot bring herself to treat others as toughly.

Once Mantel reaches adulthood, the narrative concentrates on the ravages wrought upon her body, and indeed upon her entire existence, by a bad case of endometriosis. Eventually, this was tackled by surgery that devastated her physique and prevented any possibility of pregnancy. For many years before this, however, the failure to diagnose it not only subjected her to much physical pain but also to the depredations of ill-prescribed medications and inept medical attentions. Many of her descriptions of this are heartrending, none more so than her experiences of being institutionalized and of the effects of anti-psychotic drugs:

"No physical pain has ever matched that morning's uprush of killing fear, the hammering heart. You are impelled to move, to pace in a small room. You force yourself down into a chair, only to jump out of it. You choke; pressure rises inside your skull. Your hands pull at your clothing and tear at your arms. Your breathing becomes ragged. Your voice is like a bird's cry and your hands flutter like wings. You want to hurl yourself against the windows and the walls. Every fiber of your being is possessed by panic. Every moment endures for an age and yet you are transfixed by the present moment, stabbed by it; there is no sense of time passing, therefore no prospect of deliverance.

A desperate feeling of urgency -- a need to act -- but to do what, and how? --

throbs through your whole body, like the pulses of an electric shock."

But here again, although Mantel is prepared to shine a spotlight on her condition, doing it with striking indifference to her own privacy and achieving considerable literary effect, she is reticent about aspects of her private life that touch her nearest and dearest. She was, after all, married at the time of these terrible travails, when she was being subjected to one course of devastating drugs after another and was actually at one point locked up. Where was her husband? Preoccupied with exams, we are told. But not 24 hours a day, surely. Not a word about his role, or lack of it. Later we hear that during her illness, they separate, divorce and remarry, but these wrenching events are simply presented whole, not analyzed or even explained. As in the famous Sherlock Holmes story, there is a dog here that does not bark -- and does so very loudly.

In Mantel's fiction, she has skillfully blended experienced fact with novelistic invention. In such novels as "A Change of Climate" and "Eight Months on Ghazzah Street," now republished in paperback, she used her experiences as an expatriate in Botswana and Saudi Arabia to good effect. In "A Change of Climate" she even made imaginative use of a missionary's diary while infusing the novel with a political and moral climate all her own. Her prose style in these works is exemplary: unobtrusive, controlled, evocative. So it is a surprise to encounter at the outset of this memoir a self-conscious discussion about finding the right voice in which to tell this story: "I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done. I will just go for it, I think to myself, I'll hold out my hands and say, c'est moi, get used to it."

Perhaps this was a necessary stage in the process of getting down to write in this new mode, but even if it was, this section might better have been cut out. As it is, it strikes a false note, particularly as the style of the memoir as a whole is as unshowy and artful as we have come to expect from Mantel's fiction.

But this doubt as to how to tell the story may have had more to do with what she could or would not say than with her method of recounting it. There is a good story to be told here: It is a pity that Mantel did not wait until she could damn the torpedoes and tell it all, doing justice to the tale of all that she went through in the course of what must have been an uncommonly difficult life.

Martin Rubin is a California biographer and critic.

Pained Expression
'Giving Up the Ghost' by Hilary Mantel

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, October 31, 2003; Page C03

GIVING UP THE GHOST
By Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt. 223 pp. $23.

This memoir is primarily about pain. Not the mental or emotional kind but the punishing, chronic, sometimes acute physical pain that some women endure. And, no, it's not "all in their minds," but then again, maybe it is. Because when some men feel antsy and out of sorts they may join the Marines or assault a stranger in a bar or take a whack at their exasperating wives. Women tend to bend double with cramps or backache or migraine; that is, they may process their homicidal thoughts by turning them inward.

Or maybe that's not right. I know there have to be some studies about this because there are studies about everything. But what do we know about the actual nature of pain and how men may externalize it while women internalize it -- simply because it's not in the cultural lexicon for females to go out to the gun show, buy a .38 and start shooting?

Hilary Mantel was born in the north of England to a family of working-class no-hopers. But her father and older relatives loved her, and her mother was beautiful and kind. Then, when Hilary was still a child, something bad happened: Her mother fell in love with another man, "Jack." Within the context of an unforgiving community where everybody knew absolutely everybody else's business, Hilary's mother moved into a house with Jack, taking Hilary with her, while her poor father hung hopelessly around.

Poor Jack! Of course, poor everyone, but poor Jack! One of those men with an abundance of self-importance but nothing at all on Earth to be important about: "Life," Mantel writes, "was a hair shirt to Jack." He published only one article in an obscure magazine, but his ambition to be a writer was naked, embarrassing, humiliating. He dealt with the world in the only way he could, by getting mad at it. "Jack banned Shakespeare and mashed potato," Mantel writes. Jack was "Mr. Neverill," while Hilary was "Miss Neverwell." Jack was always right; he had to be right: "Even when he was wrong he was right; that was the arrangement. His status as a father and wage earner gave him a moral rightness that was separate from accuracy or even likelihood. He was right because he was entitled to be right."

Into this life Hilary was born and raised, burdened with intelligence and a "burning desire for equity," where there was no equity anywhere around. Her mother was a millworker. There was little money. Her stepdad was a four-star jerk, poor guy. Hilary was known to her relatives as "our Ilary." Shame lapped at her ceaselessly. She became ill and stayed that way for years.

Who knows, at a time like that, in lives like that, if the illness was "all in her mind" or in her body alone? Hilary went to the London School of Economics and then Sheffield University, in 1971, where she remembers the wretched behavior of male academics toward women: "Some people have forgotten, or never known, why we needed the feminist movement so badly. This was why: so that some talentless prat in a nylon shirt couldn't patronize you, while around you the spotty boys smirked and giggled, trying to worm into his favor."

She was married by this time, dead broke, very sad and totally outgunned by the system, or so it seemed. She'd been sick constantly as a child, but as a married woman she finally went to the doctors, and those boys went to town. Looking back on it, what were they supposed to do? They saw an ambitious young woman with terrible headaches and dark, haunted thoughts. What else could they do but ply their medical "skills," as if being an ambitious, talented woman were a malady in itself? And, with the absolute greatest respect to Hilary Mantel, if she went to the doctor complaining of incurable, intractable pain, what else could they do but treat her for pain? What else was she there for?

The doctors were oafish boors and had a field day. They dosed her with mood elevators and tranquilizers and exotic medicines and gave her a hysterectomy. (What kind of a different world might we live in, if men who felt woozy and blue went to the doctor and routinely had their penises cut off?)

Mantel's talents were/are stronger than her misfortunes; she began to write novels, separated from her husband, married him again, was estranged from her mother and stepdad but reconciled with them as well. She gained success and wrote/is writing wonderful books. Still, she was the semi-daughter of a crazy man who dealt with his disappointments in increments of rage -- against Shakespeare, mashed potatoes, Hilary herself. Perhaps Mantel's retaliatory fury turned inward. Or maybe she just got sick.

If it was "all In her mind," isn't everything in all our minds? I mean, where else would it be? Mantel, for instance, wrote "The Giant, O'Brien," a tale of the sorrowful Irish giant who survived the direst poverty and lived to be a freak in London town -- that came from her "mind." Poor Jack, that wretched stepfather, has been given the same kind of (admittedly limited) immortality. It came from the mind of a fine author, whose body has imposed its own terrible penances.

 

 

 

 

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

 

 

Her pain is the reader's gain

By MARK ABLEY

Saturday, Jan. 24, 200

Giving Up the Ghost

By Hilary Mantel

HarperCollins, 246 pages, $39.95

'I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness," Hilary Mantel writes near the start of this extraordinary memoir, "and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you're weak, it's childish to pretend to be strong."

Weakness is in the eye of the beholder. Seen from the outside, Mantel appears an unlikely claimant to frailty. Born in England in 1952, the author of eight novels and a book of short stories, she has won the Hawthornden Prize, the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing and the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award. One well-known review publication saluted her as "the novelist of her generation who will achieve a lasting greatness." Her work appears in The Spectator, The New York Review of Books and other leading journals. Wry, astringent, uncompromising, her voice is anything but weak.

When you read a memoir, any memoir, it's essential to trust the author's voice. You have to believe that she is not fabricating emotion, not blurring the truth to win sympathy, not exaggerating memory for the sake of metaphor. You have to watch carefully for unearned charm. Mantel doesn't try to be charming, nor is she out to settle literary scores. Her aim is deeper and more urgent: to gain a copyright over her own life.

"I have hesitated for such a long time before beginning this narrative," she says. "For a long time I felt as if someone else were writing my life. I seemed able to create or interpret characters in fiction, but not able to create or interpret myself." Why? Because "the book of me was indeed being written by other people: by my parents, by the child I once was, and by my own unborn children, stretching out their ghost fingers to grab the pen."

As a young child, Mantel lived in a village near Manchester with her parents, her maternal grandparents and two younger brothers. It was a Catholic family, Irish on her mother's side. As England began to emerge from its postwar poverty, Mantel's parents moved up the hill to a house of their own. They took in an assertive lodger named Jack. But soon Jack was sleeping in her mother's bedroom; Mantel's gentle, bespectacled, chess-playing father was sleeping down the corridor; and the family was being shunned by its scandalized neighbours.

This arrangement lasted several years. Then the family moved to a neighbouring county, minus Mantel's father. After the age of 11, she never saw or heard of him again.

It's a remarkable story. But what's even more remarkable is the telling of it. Mantel deftly switches from adult meditations to childhood experiences; and in her re-creation of the past, she declines to editorialize or even to explain. Here, she seems to say, here are the images of my early life; laugh if you must, judge if you dare. The memories speak for themselves, and they speak volumes. Of all the autobiographies I have read, only this one is both understated and shattering.

She attended a convent high school and became Head Girl -- yet, unusually for a memoir, adolescence makes for the book's least compelling chapter. Mantel appears to have negotiated her teenage years with success, and success is rarely a literary catalyst. Like Graham Greene, whose autobiographical A Sort of Life is among his finest books, she draws much of her creative energy from remembered pain.

As a result, perhaps, her mother remains a strangely shadowy figure compared to her stepfather Jack. He wasn't overtly cruel. Mantel mentions no beatings, no spectacular abuse. An engineer by trade, he wanted her to enter the sciences. But he despised weakness. He objected to Shakespeare ("an unfortunate prescription of weak-minded women schoolteachers"). And he didn't refer to his stepdaughter by name: "He called me they. 'They always do this,' or 'they always that,' he would sneer. I felt as if I were a survival, a relic; a small squat subject race, whose aboriginal culture was derided; like the Welsh, for example, a nation for whom Jack had no time at all."

Jack, of course, would have told a different story. And Mantel knows this. In retirement, after heart surgery, he became adept at watercolour painting. Maybe he should have been an artist. Maybe he should never have assumed the role of father.

Mantel, by contrast, has spent decades coming to terms with in-fertility. As a university student, she began to suffer extreme pain, at first abdominal, then more widespread. Her periods were agony. The doctors suspected anemia, but found her iron count was normal. Diagnosed as mentally ill, she was prescribed a horde of tranquillizers and anti-psychotics. The side effects, both mental and physical, were horrendous. She grew addicted to barbiturates. The pain did not subside.

Finally, at 27, she correctly diag-nosed her own illness: advanced endometriosis. But even after her womb and ovaries were removed -- a procedure that used to be called "female castration" --endometriosis continued to plague her. She endured vicious migraines; she grew bloated by steroids. To her dismay, her clothing size doubled. Then her thyroid went wrong. A phrase from Alexander Pope springs to mind: "This long disease, my life."

Between 1993 and 2000, years in which she wrote half a million words, "ten thousand painkillers (at a conservative estimate) were downed by me, and God knows how many by the people I'd given a pain." The sentence is typical of Mantel; it mingles candour, wit and quiet desperation.

Recalling her early years, she writes without obvious bitterness, even when you might think she had every right to be bitter. The perceptions and misconceptions are those of a small child ("Not being Catholics, they don't have a piano") -- refracted, of course, through a farsighted adult lens. The bitterness explodes much later in the book, when she is a university student face-to-face with male doctors: "Dr. G., the psychiatrist, was remote and bald. He had as much chance of understanding a girl like me as he had of rising from his desk and skimming from the window on silver pinions." Dr. G. thought she was overambitious, and therefore suffering from stress. He suggested she ought to work in a dress shop, rather than study law. Nausea was wearing Mantel away. Dr. G. increased the dosage of her tranquillizers.

"I am not writing to solicit any special sympathy," she insists. "People survive much worse and never put pen to paper. I am writing in order to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness." Farewell, then, to Catriona, her never-born daughter, a young woman who would be strong, freckled, broad-shouldered; who "would drive a car, and sing in tune, and know about things like making curtains, which have always defeated me."

Catriona is a fictional creation, a fantasy, a ghost, and the author means to give her up. This book, a testament to her long struggle, is autobiography at its finest: elegantly crafted, emotionally raw. Her distress has turned to literature. I hope the writing of it has earned Hilary Mantel some peace.

Mark Abley was born in the English Midlands and now lives in Montreal. His most recent book is Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.

 

life in writing

Escape from the margins

Drawn to Jane Eyre and Stevenson's Kidnapped, Hilary Mantel identified with outsiders. She began to write fiction relatively late and is compared to Graham Greene and Muriel Spark

James Campbell
Saturday November 19, 2005
The Guardian

READ THIS ARTICLE, HERE

ψ ψ ψ

On the book "Beyond Black"

 

PAPER

DATE

AUTHOR

TITLE and LINK

The Spectator

7-5-2005

D.J.Taylor

Psychic jaunts and jollities

The Guardian

30-4-2005

Fay Weldon

Enfield, where the dead go to live

The Independent

29-4-2005

Jill Dawson

Giving up the ghosts

The Times

30-4-2005

Kate Saunders

Gloria in extremis

The TLS

27-4-2005

M. John Harrison

HM and Diana

The Scotsman

23-4-2005

ALLAN MASSIE

Medium rare

The Times

8-5-2005

Maggie Gee

Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel

The Daily Telegraph

8-5-2005

Ruth Scurr

The unhappy medium and the unholy ghost

The New York Times

15-5-2005

Terrence Rafferty

'Beyond Black': Demons Revealed

The Independent

8-5-2005

Nicola Smyth

No need to be dead to be soulless

New York Magazine

30-5-05

Claire Dederer

Creepshow

San Francisco Chronicle

15-5-05

Jesse Berrett

The dead are as dithery as the British psychics

The Seattle Times

20-5-2005

Michael Upchurch

The everyday problems of a hardworking psychic

New Statesman

Amanda Craig

Beyond Black

The Guardian

14-1-2006

John Mullan

The Dark Side

The Guardian

28-1-2006

Hilary Mantel

A question of belief

The Guardian

4-2-2006

John Mullan

The dead speak

 

On the book "Wolf Hall"

 

The TLS

13-5-2009

Michael Caines

Hilary Mantel's Henrician hero

The Times

25-4-2009

Wolf Hall

The Observer

19-4-2009

Hephzibah Anderson

Wolf Hall

The Sunday Telegraph

28-4-2009

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Wolf Hall

The Daily Telegraph

27-4-2009

Claudia FitzHerbert

Wolf Hall

The Observer

26-4-2009

Olivia Laing

Wolf Hall

Guardian

2-5-2009

Christopher Tayler

Wolf Hall

The Sunday Times

3-5-2009

Wolf Hall

The New York Times

5-10-2009

JANET MASLIN

Wolf Hall

Los Angeles Times

8-10-2009

Ross King

Wolf Hall

The New York Times

1-11-2009

CHRISTOPHER BENFEY

Wolf Hall

The Globe and Mail

23-10-2009

Chris Scott

Wolf Hall

San Francisco Chronicle

6-12-2009

Joan Frank

Wolf Hall