Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir

‘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).

Giving Up the Ghost_Cover image_2004_UK edn

Cover image (2004 UK edition) courtesy of HarperCollins.

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.

Former Brookwood Hospital, photo by Alan Hunt

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.

Why Memoir?

Hilary Mantel. Photograph by Els Zweerink. Used with permission.

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

Image credits

Cover image (2004 US edition) courtesy of Picador.

All quotations and page numbers from Giving Up the Ghost are from the 2004 Picador edition (USA). Giving Up the Ghost was first published in the UK by HarperCollins.

For reviews of Giving Up the Ghost, see, ‘Ghost Stories’ by Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian, 10 May 2003 and ‘Unsuited to Everything’ by Inga Clendinnen, The New York Times, 5 October 2003.

For more information on Mantel’s Booker Prizes, see ‘Hilary Mantel’ on The Booker Prizes’ website.

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.

Children’s Librarians—Igniting the Reading Spark

‘Long hours spent alone in her bedroom had encouraged in Sylvia the habit of reading … On Saturday mornings, while her father read the papers and her mother made a martyr of herself over the household chores, Sylvia got in the way of walking down to the library, unescorted.’

This portrayal of a young Sylvia Blackwell, from Salley Vickers’ 2018 novel The Librarian, could just as easily describe me (if not, quite, my parents). The ‘long hours spent alone’ in my bedroom not only included reading but also cataloguing my book collection. Like Sylvia, I was a librarian in the making. And ‘unescorted’ Saturday walks to the library were a regular feature of my life in late primary school years.

Children’s librarians – real and fictional

Cover image (trade pbk) courtesy of Penguin Australia

In Vickers’ novel, set in 1958, the youthful Sylvia Blackwell is influenced by a thoughtful and energetic librarian. In her turn, Sylvia becomes that influential guide for her young charges in the fictional English town of East Mole.

The guiding librarian of my youth was Miss Euphemia (Pheme) Tanner, children’s librarian at the Bendigo Library, Victoria.

Euphemia Catherine Tanner was born in 1914, the year her parents, May Smith and Francis Tanner, married. In mid-1915, her father enlisted for service in World War I. He was killed in action in France the following year.

Training for life

Pheme Tanner grew up in Bendigo, living with her mother and her maternal grandparents. In his 1995 publication, Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo, Jeffrey Prentice writes that Pheme had a ‘closeted childhood’ and ‘turned to reading’ for companionship. She attended Gravel Hill State School and proceeded from there to the Bendigo School of Domestic Arts.

The Arts School, established in 1916, was welcomed with gusto by the Bendigonian. The paper’s columnist wrote that ‘just as boys were able to learn trades at State technical schools, their sisters will be able to learn … everything connected with the work of a house and will fit themselves for that grand female profession – the oldest and the best and women’s true vocation and life work – the care of a husband and a home … It is safe to say they will prove prizes in the matrimonial lottery for the happy men fortunate enough to secure them as wives.’

Whether or not Pheme wished to be ‘secured’, I do not know. She did not, however, enter the ‘matrimonial lottery’.

After a stint working as a domestic, she became the part-time librarian at the Legacy Junior Library in Bendigo. That library closed in 1944 and its 600 books and furnishings were donated to the Bendigo Children’s Library. Pheme was appointed librarian there in 1946.

A career in books

Pheme’s experience as a children’s librarian parallels that of the fictional Sylvia Blackwell. In Vickers’ novel, Sylvia’s initial survey of the children’s section of the East Mole Library ‘revealed an outdated collection, much of which would hardly pass for children’s reading in the twentieth century’. Likewise, when Pheme Tanner scanned Bendigo’s children’s collection in 1946 she saw it was ‘in a sorry state with some of the 8,000 books not suitable for borrowers and many in disrepair’ (Prentice, 24).

Another link between Pheme and Sylvia is their approach to drawing children into the library building. Both solicited the help of local schools, inviting classrooms of children to come to the library and sample its wares. Pheme Tanner went one step further. She invited interested school children to ‘work’ at the library on Saturday mornings.

RAECO book slips and pockets

So it was that, twenty years after Miss Tanner took up her position as children’s librarian, I began my ‘career in books’. On Saturday mornings, I took my unescorted walk to the Bendigo Library. Once there, I stamped ‘Date Due’ slips, slotted the borrower cards from returned books into their rightful back-of-book pockets, and gathered up higgledy-piggledy piles of books for re-shelving in their proper Dewey Decimal home.

Miss Tanner permitted her gaggle of volunteers a mid-morning break. We gathered in an airless, bookless room for a few minutes to slurp on free icy poles. (Although the job of purchasing the icy poles was a coveted one, it never appealed to me. Why would I want to leave the company of books?) At the library’s midday closing, I departed with my pay (10c) and a bundle of reading for the coming week.

Cover image from Jeffrey Prentice’s Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo

Pheme Tanner, one of the first full-time children’s librarians in Australia, continued in her role at the Bendigo Library until 1979. I have no knowledge of her personal feelings towards the thousands of children who passed through the doors of her domain. I suspect she might not have shared the gushing sentiment of Sylvia Blackwell who ‘at times, experienced surges of overwhelming love for her little customers’, but she would have shared Sylvia’s delight in observing those children ‘prospecting the shelves for new finds, or sitting spread-legged on the floor, absorbed in exploring the varied kingdoms to which the books she had chosen for them had opened doors.’

What Did Pheme Read?

Mt Alvernia Hospital, Bendigo, 1965. John Collins, photographer.
Copyright, State Library of Victoria.

But what of Pheme’s own reading life? Sadly, no clues about her non-professional reading remain. Apparently the retired librarian destroyed most of her personal papers shortly before her death, ‘in lonely circumstances’ at Bendigo’s Mt Alvernia Hospital (Prentice, 10). Her ‘personal library of reference books’ was purchased by children’s literature specialist Jeffrey Prentice who was intrigued to discover ‘a fine and informative’ collection on ‘children’s literature, library practice, bookselling and printing’ (Prentice, 5).

Living different lives

Salley Vickers, whose novel The Librarian was inspired by her own experience ‘as a young girl with a superb local library and a remarkable children’s librarian’, told a Perth Writer’s Festival audience: ‘I think all my characters are based on myself, but not my life. I write in order to live those different lives. I don’t regard those as less lived than the real life.’

My hope is that, within the physical confines of the Bendigo Library and among the pages of so many books, Euphemia Catherine Tanner lived ‘different lives’. Lives no less lived than her life as a children’s librarian, and certainly more expansive than her pre-ordained role as a prize in the matrimonial lottery.

Links and sources

Cover image (pbk) courtesy of Penguin Australia

In her author’s note for The Librarian, Vickers writes that the real-life Miss Blackwell of her youth ‘had a fierce dislike of Enid Blyton and I have given this prejudice to her namesake [Sylvia Blackwell]’. Pheme Tanner shared this disapproval (Prentice, 29). I suspect, too, that Pheme and the Miss Blackwells (both real and fictional) would have found common ground among the book orders for their respective children’s libraries. Vickers includes a list of ‘Recommended reading from East Mole Library’ at the end of The Librarian. It includes two Australian authors: P. L. Travers for her Mary Poppins books and Norman Lindsay for The Magic Pudding.

Footnote

After Pheme Tanner’s death in 1993, La Trobe University (which has a campus in Bendigo) established the biennial Pheme Tanner Award ‘for outstanding personal contribution to children’s literature’.

Recipients include authors Craig Smith (2011), and Christobel Mattingley (1999), illustrator Noela Young (1995), and librarian and former president of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Bronwen Bennett (2008).

Pheme Tanner, c. 1938. Image from Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo (1995) by Jeffrey Prentice