‘I began this writing in an attempt to seize copyright in myself.’
These are the words of Booker Prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel. With eight novels already published, and years before The Wolf Hall trilogy appeared, Mantel embarked on a story that could ‘only be told once’ (5).
The story was not another work of fiction; it was Mantel’s own life story, Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, a memoir is ‘a narrative recollection of the writer’s earlier experiences, especially those involving unusual people, places or events’. It is a literary form that has grown rapidly in recent decades. From 1990 to 1999, about 20,000 English-language memoirs were published in book form. The following decade (when Mantel’s book appeared), that number rose to 35,000, and between 2010 and 2019, the number doubled to 70,000.
Clearly there is an appetite for personal stories. Writers and readers seem hungry for them, and publishers are happy to oblige.
‘The Book of Me’
Mantel confesses that she ‘hesitated for such a long time’ (66) before beginning her narrative. Her first novel had been published when she was in her early thirties; the memoir was released in 2003, just after she turned fifty.
What compelled the novelist to turn the spotlight on herself?
‘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. About the time I reached midlife, I began to understand why this was. The book of me was indeed being written by other people’ (66).
Perhaps that is a universal condition. When we are infants and children, it’s primarily our parents who write ‘the book of me’. As we grow and assert our independence, we might allow our friends to dictate our story. Hopefully, with adulthood and maturity come the capacity to write our own story. Mantel knows this. She reflects that those who populated her child-world were mostly either old or dead, and she ‘belonged to their company and lineage’ (57). But from infancy, she had to ‘learn to walk, to make a line, a confident line, a path of my own through my family … Slowly, slowly’, she says, ‘we are pulling away from hearth and home’ (30, 35).
Places We Live
As the Oxford Dictionary definition highlights, our life stories are shaped not only by the people around us, but by the places we live and the events we experience. This is a reality to which Mantel is attuned.
The eldest child of three children, Mantel was born in 1952 and ‘grew up in a village called Hadfield, which lies on the edge of moorland at the tip of the county of Derbyshire’. It was ‘a place of complex geology and inventive forms of human deprivation’ (22) where ‘the wretched weather encouraged a grim view of life’ (25).
Mantel is precise in her descriptions of Hadfield’s streets and lanes and houses – so much so that I read her memoir with Google Maps open beside me. It doesn’t require imagination to picture 56 and 58 Bankbottom. I simply key the addresses into the search field and there they are – the houses inhabited by Mantel’s extended family, looking much as they did in the 1950s.
There’s a move to 20 Brosscroft, less than 200 yards along the street, when Mantel is six. The Brosscroft residence, as I see via Google, comes with a pocket handkerchief front garden, thus marking its ascendancy from Bankbottom where the doorstep abuts the footpath.
There are more houses to come: 78 Roebuck Road, Sheffield, with ‘one cold-water sink, a shared outside lavatory, and a single metered gasfire’ (167); the ‘tiny flat in Windsor, the castle looming at the window’ (209); the ‘executive home’ with ‘five beds and three baths’ (210); Reepham’s Owl Cottage where there was ‘no light pollution, no urban backwash to pale the sky; no flight path, no footfall’ (6); and ‘an apartment in a converted lunatic asylum’ (221) where ‘a spiral staircase leads … to the clock tower’ (222). (It is in this apartment, in the former Brookwood Hospital, that Mantel writes Giving Up the Ghost.)
Events that Re-Shape Us
It’s when recollecting an event at the Brosscroft house that even Mantel’s superb writing skills fail her. ‘Sometimes’ she says, ‘you come to a thing you can’t write … You know that, technically, your prose isn’t up to it’ (92-93). Mantel has no name for the ‘diffuse’ horror that wraps ‘a strangling hand’ around her life (93) a little before her eighth birthday. She simply describes the sensations she experienced when, alone in her backyard, she noticed something ‘some fifty yards away’ – ‘a disturbance of the air’, ‘a space occupied by nothing’ that gave rise to ‘a sick resonance … in all the cavities’ of her body’ (93).
‘Grace runs away from me’ (93).
Mantel can only suppose it’s the Devil. She is permanently changed and ‘more or less ashamed and afraid’ ever after (97). (It’s important to know that Mantel was raised a Roman Catholic and had begun going to confession by this time in her life.)
There are other important events: Mantel’s dismay at the unsatisfactory yet compulsory nature of schooling; her mother’s lover coming for tea one day and not going home; and a series of fevers, foreshadowing worse to come.
‘All of us can change’, says Mantel. ‘All of us can change for the better, at any point. I believe this, but what is certainly true is that we can be made foreign to ourselves, suddenly, by illness, accident, misadventure, or hormonal caprice’ (53).
It’s ‘hormonal caprice’ that delivers a bitter and ultimately irrevocable change to Mantel. Undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years, Mantel has endometriosis. To treat the symptoms, male medical practitioners of the 1970s prescribe anti-depressants, tranquilisers and anti-psychotic drugs. The side-effects are not pleasant.
It’s left to Mantel to make the correct diagnosis. Living with her husband in Botswana in 1979, she travels to the university library and scours the medical texts. Driven by disabling pain, and without medical training, she accurately identifies her condition. Back in London, at the age of twenty-seven, Mantel is a patient in St. George’s Hospital, ‘having my fertility confiscated and my insides rearranged’ (172). Her body changes. She grows fat. People treat her differently.
In Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel says: ‘I am writing in order to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness; and in order to locate myself’ (200).
Memoir is a version of the truth, the writer’s truth. ‘Truth isn’t pretty’, writes Mantel. ‘Truth is squalid and full of blots, and you can only find it in the accumulation of dusty and broken facts’ (144).
In memoir, writers takes charge of those facts and shape their recollections into a narrative of their choosing. Like Mantel, memoirists seize copyright in their own selves.
Links and Sources
- Featured image: Hadfield village / Clem Rutter, Rochester Kent, CC BY-SA 3.0
- Former Brookwood Hospital / Alan Hunt, created for the Geograph Project, CC BY-SA 2.0
- Hilary Mantel, photograph by Els Zweerink. Used with permission, HarperCollins UK.
Figures for the number of English-language memoirs published in various decades are derived from keyword searches in World Cat, an online network of library content and services.