Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

I wish I could come to terms with my own life and lyrically and gracefully as Hilary Mantel does hers in her memoir. I am only just younger than her, and can parallel many of the events in her life with the more prosaic elements of mine – and there are some clear parallels: book-ish misfit child of a broken home with overactive imagination, early marriage with its attendant poverty…I know well the tendency to a certain mordant humour when writing about the difficult times. Mantel has a secretiveness even as she anatomises her (literally) painful medical history, and I thought I recognised in her a child whose homelife was too complicated to ever be really happy, over-sensitive and too aware of difference: the stigma of a broken home was very real in the ‘50s and children suffered and wretchedness and, usually, silence. Being unpopular brings its own troubles, and the story of Mantel’s childhood is characterised by a small, carping, critical, puzzled voice, trying to understand the incomprehensible adult world. I can hear myself in it, too.

Reading this memoir I found many echoes of her superb novel, Beyond Black, a huge, compelling, agonising book that I read and reviewed here last year. There she transforms the pain of her own life into something specific yet universal, the ruefully amusing purchase of an “executive” home in the memoir becoming an excoriation of commuter-belt life. Similarly, her own weight gain due to chronic illness becomes something grimmer and darker in Beyond Black, while the “ghost” of the memoir materialises into a horrific familiar that dogs the footsteps of the protagonist. If Mantel’s own life left her mentally and physically scarred, I suspect she did much to write it out in Beyond Black, transmuting anger and grief into something equally durable, a book which tells of the hollowness at the centre of modern life and of the means by which we uncaringly damage those around us, or ignore the damage done by others.

It was hard to limit myself to a single passage to share with you, but I’d been thinking about feminism recently, so this stood out (Hilary, newly married, had just transferred from London to Sheffield University part way through her law degree, in 1971):
Some people have forgotten, or never known, why we needed the feminist movement so badly. This was why: so that some talentless prat in a nylon shirt couldn’t patronise you, while around you the spotty boys smirked and giggled, trying to worm into his favour. The birth control revolution of the late sixties had passed our elders by – educators and employers both. It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of her mental life. It wsa assumed that she neither could nor would exercise choice over whether to breed; poor silly creature, no sooner would her degree certificate be in her hand before she’d cast all that book-learning to the winds, and start swelling and simpering and knitting bootees. When you went for a job interview, you would be asked, if you were not wearing a wedding ring, whether you were engaged; if you were engaged or married, you would be asked when you intended to ‘start your family’. Whether you were celibate, or gay, or just a sensible pre-planner, you had to smile and jump through the flaming hoops held up for you by some grizzled ringmaster, shifty and semi-embarrassed as he asked a girl half his age to tell him about her sex life and account for her next ovulation.
Giving Up the Ghost is a brave, darkly funny and beautifully written memoir. Highly recommended.


  1. Every time I read or learn about someone who has had a troubled past, especially when that past means their childhood and youth, I feel a mixture of gratitude and guilt; gratitude towards my parents and grandparents, for having me provided with a childhood I'd wish for every kid, and guilt (I know, it's silly) because I never had to go through such traumatizing times back then, and therefore have turned out quite the shallow, empty-headed woman. Ah well, one can't have everything, I suppose.

  2. Beyond Black depressed the hell out of me, and I didn't really enjoy it, but I like that passage about feminism enough that it almost makes me want to try another of Mantel's novels.

  3. I read this book about two years ago and so I've forgotten much of the detail but I remember it as a moving and painfully honest account. And like you I was struck by how she had woven her own experiences into Beyond Black. I wrote a bit about her memoir on my blog and quoted part of that same quote in my post - I remember that job interview situation so well!

    I was looking forward to her talk at the Melrose Borders Book Festival but she cancelled as she wasn't well.

  4. What you've quoted there from Mantel about the need for feminism does not match *at all* with my own experiences of university, work or marriage. And I've just checked and found that I'm older than she is. This shows the dangers of generalising from your own life.
    I was a typical Guardian woman in the seventies but I don't think I'll read her book.

  5. Thank you for your comment on my advent post yesterday(2nd). I came over to have a look at the Geranium Cat's bookshelf and noticed this post about Hilary Mantel. I'd quite like to read more of her work after reading Beyond Black. I found it an unsettling read but facinating and funny at the same time. I would now like to have a look at her memoir too as I wasn't aware of it before.

  6. An excellent passage to quote and a depressing reminder of how recently such questions at interview would have been acceptable and normal. Why on earth did people (men as well as women) tolerate that level of injustice at all?