In the first chapter of Hilary Mantel’s memoir she writes, “I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done.” She then advises herself to trust the reader, to stop spoon-feeding and patronising and write in “the most direct and vigorous way that you can.” She worries that her writing isn’t clear, or that it is “deceptively clear”.
It comes across to me as being clear, honest and very moving. She’s not looking for sympathy but has written this memoir to take charge of her memories, her childhood and childlessness, feeling that it is necessary to write herself into being.
When I read Beyond Black a couple of years ago I was struck by the biographical information at the end of the book - that as a child she believed their house was haunted and that she was often very frightened. She expands on this in her memoir. From the age of 4 she believed that she had done something wrong and she was “beyond remedy and beyond redemption”. She thought it was because of her that her parents were not happy and that without her they would have had a chance in life. It didn’t get any better as her father left home and she was left to live with two younger brothers and their mother and her mother’s lover. Home was a place where secrets were kept and opinions were not voiced. Her experience of ghosts at the age of 7 was horrifying she felt as though something came inside her, “some formless, borderless evil”.
She wasn’t happy at school; and by the age of twelve she no longer believed in God and as she was at a convent this must have been difficult. She went to university to study law, and was married at 20, struggling to combat the prejudice against women prevailing in the early 1970s:
“It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of the mental one. It was 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 an 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’.”Oh yes, I remember that too!
Life got worse for Hilary as her health deteriorated and the doctors thinking depression was the cause prescribed anti-depressants, which in turn damaged her further. From being underweight she went from a size 10 up to size 20 and developed akathisia as a side effect of the drugs she was given. This condition looks and feels like madness and was the worst thing she had ever experienced, apart that is from the horror she had felt as a child of 7. As a result of the misdiagnosis of her condition (eventually it was diagnosed as endometriosis) she was unable to have children. She sees the children she never had as ghosts within her life; ghost children who never age, who never leave home. Ghosts in her definition are also
“the tags and rags of everyday life, information you acquire that you don’t know what to do with, knowledge that you can’t process; they’re cards thrown out of your card index, blots on the page. … It’s just the little dead, I say to myself, kicking up a fuss, demanding attention by the infantile methods that are the only ones available to them.”
I found it a remarkable memoir.