Well, a lot of things have become clearer since I read Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost. It comes as no surprise to realize that Mantel is really, really smart. It seems that her academic career could have been spectacular; or perhaps she’d have been a successful barrister, as she intended while studying at the London School of Economics. And, speaking (in the present tense) of herself as a child, Mantel says, “My own thoughts go at a different speed from that of human conversation, about two and a half times as fast, so I am always scrambling backward through people’s speech, to work out which bit of which question I am supposed to be answering.” I know people like that. Life is hard for them.
But the other striking characteristic that emerges from Giving up the Ghost is Mantel’s feistiness. She may have been a tiny waif with long blonde hair but she didn’t shrink from confrontation. And there was plenty to confront in her Catholic North of England childhood, most particularly the authority figures of the church and the educational system. Mantel imagined herself as a heroic figure and certainly she must have been armed with a remarkable vocabulary and a trenchant turn of phrase.
Yet despite Mantel’s world-wide fame as an a author, this isn’t the tale of a bright young woman rising above a provincial childhood. For one thing, she quite relishes her provinciality. And for another, there’s that ghost of the title. The book is framed by the occasion of Mantel and her husband selling a house in Norfolk called “Owl Cottage” which she feels was haunted by the ghost of her stepfather. She’s matter-of-fact about odd phenomena, perhaps somewhat fey in the old meaning of “sensitive to spirits.” Fludd focused in a quirky way on the numinous and Giving Up the Ghost sheds light on the roots of that interest.
Mantel is too slippery and multifarious for us to draw a straight line between the ghost of the title and the ghost(s) of her unborn children, but they flitter offstage as well, the doomed casualties of Mantel’s disastrously severe endometriosis. It went misdiagnosed for years, dismissed as psychosomatic. Mantel was treated with various psychotropic medications and painkillers. Finally, surgery made her sterile.
The real reason to read the memoir, though, is that Mantel writes as well about herself as she does about Thomas Cromwell or, apparently, anything else. For instance, cats arriving at a weekend house: “Released, squalling, from their cages, they would race through the rooms, bellowing, feet thundering on the wooden stairs, driving out the devils only cats can see.” Or, “I had come to my own understanding of grace, the seeping channel between persons and God: the slow, green, and silted canal, between a person and the god inside them.”
Very near the beginning, Mantel stages a mock-hesitant pause in the narrative: “I hardly know how to write about myself,” she says. Then goes on, with what I now think of as her trademark virtuosity:
“This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader,… stop patronizing your reader… and stop being so bloody beguiling. You in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper….
“But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre.”
And finally I have to add that Mantel has married the same man twice. Like, I suppose, the woman herself, the memoir is odd but compelling.