In 1994, Hilary Mantel joined the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, where I was working as Secretary. She was in her midforties, and her sinister and hilarious fourth novel, Fludd, had been a big hit with our President, Roy Jenkins. Her fellow Council members warmed to her immediately. Matronly, but always beautifully dressed, she combined clear thinking with a cracking sense of humour, frequently shaking with laughter at the RSL’s eccentricities. So it was always a disappointment when, ahead of meetings, a note in her bold, steady hand curled out of the fax machine: she was ill, she couldn’t come, she was sorry. What was the nature of this illness?
In 2003 her memoir Giving up the Ghost was published. I took it on holiday to Scotland, and read it in one great gulp. Then I understood. Asked what triggered the book, she admits that she never intended to write a memoir, and that it came about almost by accident. The sale of a weekend cottage in Norfolk moved her to write about the death of her stepfather, and from there ‘the whole story of my life began to unravel’. It is a story that crepitates with ghosts. She lays down provisions for them, stocking her larder with more food than she and her husband could ever eat, cramming her freezer with meat and her airing cupboard with spare linen. Some of the ghosts have names. Within the first few pages we are introduced to her dead stepfather, Jack, who manifests himself as a ‘flickering on the staircase’. Then there is the daughter she never had, Catriona, who is gifted at all sorts of things Hilary is not – driving, dealing with money, making curtains. Mostly, though, these ‘wraiths and phantoms’, which she believes flap around us all, can’t be precisely identified. They creep under carpets and into the fabric of curtains, lurk in wardrobes and under drawer linings. They represent versions of ourselves that might have been. ‘When the midwife says, “It’s a boy”, where does the girl go? When you think you’re pregnant and you’re not, what happens to the child that has already formed in your mind?’
Mantel has suffered more might-have-beens than most; but her childhood begins happily enough. Born into a working-class Catholic family near Manchester in 1952, she was for some years an adored only child ‒ ‘Our ’Ilary’ (‘my family have named me aspirationally, but aspiration doesn’t stretch to the “H”’). She is brilli
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