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.

Blending Biography with Family History: Brenda Niall’s Can You Hear the Sea?

Cover image courtesy of Text Publishing

Brenda Niall’s biographies, in addition to being regular award-winners, generally share two features—their subjects are Roman Catholic and they emigrate from the northern hemisphere to Australia. Niall’s latest book, Can You Hear the Sea?: My Grandmother’s Story continues this tradition.

Niall was a young woman in her twenties when her grandmother, Agnes (‘Aggie’), died. The author was old enough to have formed her own memories of a woman over sixty years her senior, but not old enough to have asked the kind of questions on which a biographer depends.

Who was Aggie Gorman (nee Maguire) and how does Niall evoke her grandmother’s life?


Aggie Maguire. Photo reproduced from Can You Hear the Sea?

Agnes Maguire (1869-1953), known as Aggie, was born to Irish Catholic parents in Liverpool, her family having been ‘forced into exile … in the years of the Great Hunger’ (15). With two of her siblings, Aggie leaves England in 1888—‘in a spirit of hope and adventure’ (2)—to embark on life in Australia. Her 19-year-old spirit could have been broken from the start—her brother dies during the passage to Sydney leaving Aggie and her sister, Minnie, without their intended position (and protection) as their brother’s housekeepers.

Seemingly undaunted, the two sisters make their way in an alien land. They settle initially in Melbourne, where their mother’s brother lives with his family, and establish a small teaching academy. They venture next to Kyneton, and then move further north for Aggie to take charge of a one-teacher Catholic primary school. It is while teaching in the small town of Burramine that Aggie meets property owner Richard Gorman, described by Niall as ‘a single man of good fortune’, undoubtedly ‘in want of a wife’ (47).

Marriage follows. Then children. Then death. In 1908, at the age of 39, Aggie is a widow with seven children. She navigates the children’s education through a combination of home teaching followed by boarding school in Melbourne. After remaining on her deceased husband’s property (managed by one of his brother’s) for a decade or so, Aggie decides to leave the land and return to Melbourne. Settling in the eastern suburbs, she nurtures the family’s next generation as her grandchildren come from country districts in Victoria and New South Wales to the southern capital’s schools.

More Than an Insular Family Tale

The outline above suggests a family story, modest in scope. Niall draws Aggie’s Irish relatives into her account, and various tussles with Aggie’s in-laws also add to the picture. But Niall’s long career as a biographer means that this story is larger than one family’s recollection of their matriarch, and it provides a useful template for family history writing.

History ‘Lite’

Niall weaves the historical record into her narrative. Her research is extensive (from contemporaneous newspapers and archival records, through biographies and general histories, and via the written and oral recollections of family members), but its detail does not weigh heavily on the story. The reader learns enough to glean an understanding of the times in which Aggie lived, but not so much that story veers too far from its main character.

By way of explaining a grim family photograph, for instance, Niall first describes Aggie’s mother as ‘severe and unsmiling’. She then continues: ‘Not that any of them smile: Victorian family groups are seldom animated. The photographic process was slow, and stillness was required’ (91). In another brief explanation of Aggie’s era, Niall notes Aggie’s indignation when she learns that her Liverpool-based sisters will inherit nothing from their father’s will: ‘The boys were expected to provide for their unmarried sisters. That was how it was in 1898’ (94).

Literary Links

Books are important to Niall, and they were important for her grandmother. Niall laces her biographical account with literary allusions. They serve two purposes: they reflect the character and interests of both author and subject, and they offer imaginative scope for readers familiar with the referenced texts.

Cover image (2000 edition) courtesy of Penguin UK

Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield makes an appearance when Niall writes about child labour in the blacking factories (19); Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as already mentioned, provides the model for Richard Gorman in his search for a wife (47); and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited offers a literary parallel for the lifestyle of one of Aggie’s England-based sisters-in-law, Isobel. Niall writes that Isobel employs a private chaplain: ‘It was the sort of thing that aristocratic Catholic families did—the Brideshead model’ (222).

A Sense of Character

Consider these insights into Aggie’s character:

  • when her brother Joe dies at sea on the voyage to Australia, Niall senses: ‘Perhaps that’s when Aggie taught herself to meet grief with silence’ (32)
  • when Aggie’s husband Richard becomes ill, Niall says that her grandmother ‘would have liked to keep Richard’s privacy and her own. She dreaded what she saw as an invasion of sympathisers’ (114)
  • when Richard dies, Aggie feels ‘an overwhelming emptiness’ and does not let herself ‘weep in front of the children’ (123).

This emotional reserve and isolation is a constant in Aggie’s life. It is so potent that it is transmitted to the next generation. Not long before Aggie’s own death, her daughter Connie’s husband (also Niall’s father) dies. Niall writes: ‘Connie’s grief was intense and silent … [Her] refusal to talk about her loss, and her attempt to protect her younger children, were almost certainly mistaken and damaging … In many ways, [Connie] became more like her mother’ (267).

A Sense of Place

In a biography, evocations of place are as critical as windows into history and character. People live in time and space. Word pictures bring worlds alive.

Exhibition Building. The Leader (Supplement), 29 December 1888: 1

Aggie and her sister Minnie arrive in Melbourne at the time of the 1888 Centennial Exhibition when a ‘dazzling display of creative talent’ (38) is on show. Niall deftly engenders a sense of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ through her description of the sisters’ visit to the Exhibition Building: ‘The girls paid their threepences to climb eighty steep stairs to the gilded dome. It was the highest point in Melbourne. From here, looking south, they could see Parliament House and the Treasury Building, solid and impressive in Italianate style, the Princess Theatre and the Windsor Hotel. To the west, the dome of the Supreme Court building dominated the skyline. Melbourne was a great city’ (38).

The Author in the Story

Brenda Niall. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Niall doesn’t shy away from allowing herself to be a character within Aggie’s story. From time to time, she blends her own memories and research processes into the biography.

The book opens like this: ‘On Christmas Eve, 1940, soon after my tenth birthday, my grandmother gave me a small wooden box with a lock and key. There was nothing inside it, and as far as I can remember she didn’t explain it’ (1). Later, Niall recalls going to the cinema with her grandmother and seeing wartime news: ‘I look up Liverpool during World War II and find the newsreels we watched’ (10).

When researching the disease that killed her grandfather (Aggie’s husband, Richard), Niall offers a first-person reflection: ‘I looked on the internet for an account of actinomycosis and shuddered’ (119).

The distance between subject and reader is narrowed via the author’s presence.

Being Up-Front about the Unknown

Niall’s subject is a woman born in the 1860s. Inevitably, much is unknown and unknowable. Niall does not paper over the gaps. When her mother (Aggie’s daughter, Connie) marries and leaves Aggie’s home, Niall muses on her grandmother’s state of mind: ‘I can’t guess what she was thinking. Calm after the chaos perhaps. Or a void that she didn’t know how to fill?’ (209). Niall doesn’t know the answer, but by musing on possibilities, she opens avenues for the reader to explore. She wonders (following the account of Aggie’s brother’s shipboard death) ‘why wouldn’t the sisters go home’ (37)? There is no definitive answer, but spotlighting gaps is part of the story.

What’s Missing?

I am disappointed that Can You Hear the Sea? has no index. While a name index might seem a tedious addition, it provides a handy tool for finding references not only to individual family members, but also to well-known Australians and international identities with whom Aggie’s family cross paths. Niall’s biography touches on significant events in Australia’s history with which the Gorman family was connected (for example, the 1893 Federation conference in Corowa, and the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917); it would be easier to locate references to these events with the help of a place and subject index. So, too, the mentions of Melbourne schools and suburbs that form an important aspect of the family’s life.

A Parting Thought

Early in her account of her grandmother’s life, Niall admits her dependence on the public record and other people’s memories. Of herself, she says: ‘I didn’t ask enough questions’ (4). It’s a salutary warning.

Links and Sources

  • Can You Hear the Sea?: My Grandmother’s Story is published by Text Publishing.
  • My reading copy of the biography was from the National Library of Australia’s collection. Copies of all books by Australian publishers are sent to the National Library under ‘legal deposit’. This scheme ‘ensures that a comprehensive collection of published material relating to Australia and its people is preserved for the community and future generations’. The library has my ongoing gratitude.
  • Brenda Niall’s autobiography, Life Class: The Education of a Biographer, was published in 2007 by Melbourne University Press. Her 2005 Seymour Biography Lecture, Walking upon Ashes: The Footsteps of a Modern Biographer was published by the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University in 2006. To find more books written by Niall, visit Trove Australia.