A Memoir of My Former Self by Hilary Mantel

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the teacup opens

A lane to the land of the dead.

 W.H.Auden

Famous for her historical novels, one can only assume that Hilary Mantel has a cupboard full of cracked teacups.  But, as this latest publication illustrates, she is a most astute and amusing social commentator.  Hilary Mantel – A Memoir of My Former Self: A Life in Writing is a posthumous collection of Hilary Mantel’s nonfiction writing compiled by her book editor, Nicholas Pearson.  It is an eclectic selection of Mantel’s reflections from 1987 to 2017; it acts, he says, as a memoir.  In the ‘Editor’s Note’ Pearson makes comment that Mantel’s life is scattered throughout her novels: But in her journalism and essays a full and exhilarating self-portrait emerges; she isn’t afraid to lay herself bare.  Pearson explains he has organised this work as a patchwork of a life revealing itself.  As the subject matter is lightly grouped and in no particular chronological order, readers might find it too much of a ‘patchwork’.  Nevertheless, we have access to the mind of Mantel as she expounds on other writers, reviews of films, The Reith Lectures (2017), a mix of different phases of her life including her time in the Middle East, and, ‘How I Came to Write Wolf Hall’.  And, of course, all of the seventy-one articles are delivered in the entertaining stylish prose for which Hilary Mantel is celebrated.

The first article in Part One, ‘On the One Hand’ (2007), was well chosen by Pearson. Here Mantel discusses her writing career, as it dipped between journalism and novels, and how authors cope with a balancing act between the two genres.  Mantel bounces off a Martin Amis analogy of the difference between writing with left or right hand. The right being his natural state, that of novels, and the left hand, having a tenuous connection to his creativity, refers to journalism.  Mantel, in a literal minded mood, took to thinking and writing with her left hand to test the theory.  Readers enjoy her wonderful lateral thinking as it roamed, she wrote:  … ‘W’ I find is the very devil … tension transmits to your whole body, as if you were trying to write with your legs.  No wonder it was so tiring to be at infant school.  Noon, and you were done for.  From there she travels to Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, and segues into her career as a columnist.  But, unlike Amis, claiming her social commentary marched from her right hand and brain – trained, clear, biddable and capable of keeping count.  She couldn’t trust her ‘left hand’.  … what if my left hand turned out to be Ann Widdecombe, or to be a lyrical terrorist, seething with underdog’s discontent?  Journalism was, of course, pursued for financial reasons.  She warns authors to be careful – journalism deals in ideas and facts to be processed and churned out.  The art of fiction, she writes, deals in ideas and facts but also metaphors, symbols and myths – it multiplies ambiguity.  Her salient message for would be writers – It’s not that simple.

Mantel’s journalism exhibits so much more than churned out facts, rather she delves below the surface, expanding the subject matter.  None more so than her appraisal of the life of Princess Diana.

‘The Princess Myth’ written in 2017 reviews the life of Diana Spencer and the role she fulfilled within the public psyche, and the apparent need to be connected to a mythic past. Mantel quotes psychotherapist Warren Colman: ‘It is as if Diana broadcast on an archetypal frequency.’  The princess we invented to fill a vacancy had little to do with any actual person.  … only loosely based on the young woman born Diana Spencer, and once she was engaged to the Prince of Wales she cut adrift from her modest CV.  In the course of this article Mantel makes some astute observations about Diana’s early life, and the context into which she was thrust: In her circle there were no solid witnesses to the nature of reality – only those who, by virtue of their vocation, were fantasists exalting sentiment, exploiting the nation’s infantile needs, equating history with the history of a few titled families.  Mantel links Diana’s demise, and the public’s reaction, to the changing nature of death and grief within our culture.  The grief-stricken are described as ‘depressed’, as if sorrow were a pathology.  It seems, she says, as if Diana’s death released a mass suppressed sorrow.  Using a deeper context to evaluate the life of Princess Diana revealed so much more than just one life.  Equally so was Mantel’s ideas on anorexia.

In ‘Holy Disorders’ (2004), Mantel harks back to historical accounts of self-starvation within the Catholic Church. She posits that female saints believed their suffering was not limited within time or space.  They were attempting to share the pain of the crucifixion, thereby expiating the sins of others.  To modern thinking this is an exercise in self-aggrandising pride.  But Mantel astutely suggests that it was, as anorexia remains today, about asserting power over cultural restrictions and judgements being experienced at the time.  I do not think holy anorexia is very different from secular anorexia.  … It ought to be possible to live and thrive, without conforming, complying, giving in, but also without imitating a man, even Christ.

Mantel on her early life, her schooling, fractured family, and, living with the mystery of her father’s disappearance, gives readers an understanding what shaped her as a writer.  Mantel writes scathingly of her teenage experience of the medical profession; she has good reason.  Echoing the all-too-common story of doctors’ invalidating female experience of their own bodies, in ‘Written on Our Bodies’ and ‘Every Part of My Body Hurts’, Mantel details her life with endometriosis.  Presuming a diagnosis of mental distress, a middle-aged doctor suggested that studying law was all a bit too much for her, she might prefer a job in her mother’s dress shop.  The doctor’s prejudices over-rode her lived experience.  The result was that she became infertile and lived a life of pain all her life; whereas an early diagnosis would have remedied the problem.

There are so many interesting and entertaining articles in this collection.  The Reith lectures are germane for aspiring novelists, historical or otherwise.   Among much else she discusses writing the interior drama of her characters’ lives, with the aim of offering insight.  Writers, she says, should not condescend to the people of past, or twist them to be versions of ourselves.  History is often distorted by the wisdom of hindsight; we issue report cards judging morality: ‘King Henry’s conduct this term has been monstrous.  Next term, he must stop taking wives, and concentrate on building up the navy. 

 There is so much to read and reread in this volume.  Spending time in Mantel’s mind is a pleasure, often a revelation and always entertaining.

Hilary Mantel – A Memoir of My Former Self: A Life in Writing

Selected and edited by Nicholas Pearson

(2023)

Hachette Australia

PAPERBACK:

ISBN:  978 139981 389 1

$34.99

HARDBACK:

ISBN:  978 139981 388 4

$59.99; 386pp

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