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Generative fluid

Hilary Mantel’s couture responses
by
April 2024, no. 463

A Memoir of My Former Self: A life in writing by Hilary Mantel, edited by Nicholas Pearson

John Murray, $59.99 hb, 432 pp

Generative fluid

Hilary Mantel’s couture responses
by
April 2024, no. 463

In the title piece of this posthumous selection of reviews, criticism, essays, and journalism, Hilary Mantel describes how she once visited an irritating psychic she nicknamed ‘Twerp’ in order to guide her back to her former self: ‘I didn’t necessarily think I had a past life, but I wanted to know how it would feel if I did.’ Her former self turns out to have been a ‘miserable illegitimate infant’ called Sara, born to a family of millworkers in the north of England. Sara isn’t an unlikely candidate: Mantel’s mother worked in a cotton mill from the age of fourteen, as did her maternal grandmother, who left school aged twelve; Mantel’s great-grandmother had been illiterate. Mantel comes from ‘a long line of nobodies’. All that ‘Twerp’ wants to ask Sara is whether or not she is courting, when the real love of Sara’s life is Billy, her white bull terrier. ‘If Sara had slapped him,’ Mantel wonders, ‘what sort of a defence would I have had to a charge of assault?’

‘The dead are invisible,’ says St Augustine, ‘they are not absent.’ Now invisible herself, Mantel, who died in September 2022, will never be absent. Being dead was in many ways her great subject. ‘For some people,’ she wrote in ‘The Princess Myth’, reproduced in these pages, ‘being dead is only a relative condition; they wreak more than the living do.’ Mantel shared her life with ghosts, including the other former selves who haunt these pieces: the convent girl, her head bulging with knowledge; the stepdaughter baffled by the stranger in her mother’s bed; the nineteen-year-old law student disabled by physical pain which her doctor, not recognising endometriosis, treats with Valium; the twenty-six-year-old wife who is given a hysterectomy. One reason why her gaze is fixed firmly on the past, Mantel suggests in ‘Written on our Bodies’, is that she is the end of the line: the evolution of the women in the Mantel family ‘stops with me’. Her womanhood was, in this sense, another former self: ‘I am willing to write about my life as a woman, knowing that I’ve hardly had one.’

There is little evolutionary progress in Mantel’s journalism, which started good and stayed good. Nor is there a difference in tone between the essays about Jane Austen and Sybille Bedford for The New York Review of Books and her pieces for The Guardian on sitting exams and fairy tales. Her early film reviews for the The Spectator are as unpredictable as her later reflections, in the London Review of Books, on Kate Middleton as a ‘royal vagina’. Wallace Shawn, wrote Mantel in 1987, has the face of ‘a questing grub’, Glenn Close’s face is made of ‘intersecting hatchet blades’. Death lurks in every film, even When Harry Met Sally. ‘You look like a human being,’ Sally tells Harry, ‘but actually you are the angel of death.’ The final line of Withnail and I,’ Mantel notes, is ‘Bring out your dead’ (anticipating Bring Up The Bodies,) while Close in Fatal Attraction should have handed out cards saying ‘the nightmare life-in-death was she who thicks man’s blood with cold’.

No subject being too large or too small, it is striking how much room Mantel finds in tight spaces. She could write at length – the Wolf Hall books average more than 600 pages each – but she could also write to length. The economy of her newspaper pieces is not explained by Hemingway’s iceberg theory, where the glinting surface of the sentence hides a tonnage of omission. Precision worked differently for Mantel, who said everything she wanted to say without omitting anything or even, apparently, making a cut. When asked to turn in 800 words, she sometimes delivered 799 but never 801. ‘After a while I didn’t even have to use the word count function. All my views on anything fitted 800 words. ‘“Should we be in Iraq?” Eight hundred words. “Is it cold out?” Eight hundred words.’ 

Hilary Mantel in Budleigh Salterton, East Devon, 2012 (Guy Newman/Alamy)Hilary Mantel in Budleigh Salterton, East Devon, 2012 (Guy Newman/Alamy)

If her 2017 Reith Lectures, included here, are the finest defence of historical fiction ever written, the rest of the volume is a defence of the art of journalism. ‘My other works,’ said Samuel Johnson, are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine.’ There was no need for Mantel’s Guardian or Spectator pieces to be this good; her editors would have gladly taken her watered-down works. But while the regular columnist, she writes, ‘is retained to turn over cliches as fast as the stock at Topshop, the novelist should produce a couture response – lovingly tailored, personal, an unmistakable one-off’, and this is what Mantel did. She wrote pure wine for newspapers because she saw newspapers as pure wine. ‘The paper has never been printed,’ she says, ‘that didn’t make me happy.’ She read the small ads in the freesheets, she liked the dodgy car dealer whose motors ‘drive superb’, she followed the births, marriages, and deaths columns, the Court Circular, and the ‘Appointments in the Clergy’. ‘I can make any paper last two hours,’ she explained in ‘Where Do Stories Come From’, ‘and when I’ve finished it’s not fit for another hand; it looks as if a drunk has been making paper hats with it.’

Reflections on the strangeness of her craft run through the pieces like tickertape. Why, for example, do writers write differently at night? Who is this second self who takes over the book when you wake at three am? Why, among the manuals that tell you how to become a writer, is there not one to help those who want ‘a normal life’ to ‘reverse the process’? And why is the moment-by-moment compression of the computer keys dreaded by so many writers? ‘We don’t hear of accountants who can’t open a spreadsheet, or farmers who take against fields.’ In primary school, Mantel recalls in ‘Blot, Erase, Delete’, they were taught to use nibs, which meant that her earliest writing was ‘like an Edwardian’. The children in her class who used blotting paper, exerting their ‘emphatic, vengeful pressure on the page’, drove her into ‘a frenzy of irritation and dislike’. These child-blotters remind her now of the type of people who wash themselves straight after sex. ‘Ink is generative fluid. If you don’t mean your words to breed consequences, don’t write at all.’

She is often in a frenzy of irritation, with decapitation being central to her thoughts. She will decapitate anyone, Mantel writes in ‘Persons from Porlock’, who comes between her and her last page. ‘If you can’t speak a truth at a beheading,’ she reflects elsewhere, ‘when can you?’ She once dreamed of being hanged, she writes in another piece, but the hangman didn’t turn up.

It is tempting to think that Mantel wrote as much and as well as she did because, as Virginia Woolf said of Katherine Mansfield, she was ‘forever pursued by her dying’. Mansfield lived her brief life in fast forward, but Mantel rewound to the past and death, when it came, was unexpected. Neither she nor her husband was prepared, being a week away from moving to Ireland. ‘As soon as we die we enter fiction,’ she said in her Reith Lectures. ‘Once we can no longer speak for ourselves we are interpreted.’ Mantel will continue speaking for herself, and it is she who interprets us.

A Memoir of My Former Self: A life in writing

A Memoir of My Former Self: A life in writing

by Hilary Mantel, edited by Nicholas Pearson

John Murray, $59.99 hb, 432 pp

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