Oh well, there’s one good thing anyway, you won’t have to worry about birth prevention. —GP to the 27 year old Hilary after what she describes as having her insides remodelled.

Telling it straight

By Roger Childs

Hilary MantelI found Giving up the Ghost quite by chance in a second-hand bookshop in Auckland. This autobiography was published before Hilary Mantel gained fame and fortune, and emerged as one of the finest ever writers of historical fiction. 

Many readers will be familiar with her superb books on Henry VIII’s close and talented advisor, Thomas Cromwell: Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. They deservedly netted her two Booker Prizes. Fans like me are now delighted that the third volume in the trilogy: The Mirror and the Light has recently been published. Ralph McAllister who is well into it, is predicting an unprecedented third Booker.

Giving up the Ghost is an absorbing and often harrowing read as Mantel writes of early family life, Convent schooling, university days, marriage, remarriage and eventual prosperity from book sales. She had a number of novels published before 2003, but says little about these in her autobiography.

However, a major thread in the book is the persistent health problems she endured in her first 30+ years.

Little Miss Neverwell

This is what one of her many doctors called her. She was often in pain, sometimes excruciating, but usually couldn’t convince the medical people that things were serious. She was often fobbed off with an assortment of medications. She was once quite slight but some of the pills led to a massive weight gain. Through it all she plugged on at school and doing law courses at university, but in the end couldn’t sit her finals because of the agony.

Finally, the age of scans emerged, and as she says there was eventually some serious surgery: I had undergone what is called a ‘surgical menopause’ or what textbook of the time called ‘female castration’.

The fluency shines through

Although the on-going ill health is a key feature of the book, Mantel makes the point that I am not writing to solicit any special sympathy. People survive much worse but never put pen to paper. I am writing to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness… 

And a very interesting story it is too. She clearly demonstrates the skills that would be fully revealed in her award winning novels:

  • shrewd observations of people
  • evocative descriptions of places, houses and landscapes
  • perceptive analysis of issues
  • delightful touches of humour.
  • While at her secondary level Convent, Mantel headed the debating team in the local schools final and had to take the affirmative in the moot That Karl Marx did more for the world than Jesus Christ. They won easily and on her return to the Convent, she told her teachers and classmates that it was Communists 1 Christians 0.

The Mirror and the Light

Historical fiction became her specialty once the Cromwell books emerged. In Giving Up the Ghost she gave this perceptive definition of history:

History’s what people are trying to hide from you, not what they’re trying to show you. You search for it in the same way you sift through a landfill; for evidence of what people want to bury.