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23 October 2023

Inside the mind of Hilary Mantel

The novelist’s collected non-fiction reveals her extraordinary range, depth and independence of thought.

By Nicola Sturgeon

“But perhaps a ghost is not something dead, but something not yet born: not something hidden, but something that we hope is about to be seen.” These words from a 2007 essay by the late Hilary Mantel are, like the title of the piece, “Touching Hands with The Lost”, prophetically apt for this posthumous collection of her non-fiction.

Included are essays, reviews and lectures written over 30 years, from 1987 to 2018. Yet even her biggest fans – I count myself among them – will find material new to them. Many of the pieces are of their time, but read together they have a quality of timelessness and prescience. The overall effect is to make the reader feel that Mantel is with us still, communicating from beyond the grave – and that we may now be seeing something that has hitherto been hidden.

Each of the 71 pieces is a jewel reflecting light in interesting and unlikely directions. Even a topic as mundane as a stationery order is illuminated: “The hard-spined notebook is death to free thought… it drives the narrative in one direction, one only, and its relentless linearity oppresses you, so you seal off your narrative options early.” (Surely, she writes, “the whole point of a notebook is to pull it apart, and distribute pieces among your various projects?”) This collection – much more than the sum of its parts – allows us to see how her theories of life and art knit together.

The introduction by Nicholas Pearson, Mantel’s long-time editor, explains that she had a lifelong passion for Jane Austen, and at the time of her death was writing a novel about the middle Bennett sister in Pride and Prejudice. In a 2008 column, Mantel mourns her unwritten works: “there is a shelf in my house, an invisible one, stacked with the books I’m never going to write”. The novel about Mary Bennett is one we would have got to read had Mantel not been taken too soon.

In an essay on Austen, she challenges simplistic characterisations of the author: “Because she dramatises the matter of female submission,” Mantel writes, “she was seen as herself submissive. Her work was appropriated for social conservatism… Austen defies cheap psychology and trite formulation. The contradictions in her life and work are fertile.” It is tempting to think that, in view of Mantel’s appreciation of Austen as a complex, three-dimensional figure, her novel on Mary, often dismissed as the simplest and plainest of the sisters in Pride & Prejudice, might have painted her in a different light. 

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In the same essay, Mantel muses on the nature of life-writing. While lives are lived forwards, biographies look backwards as if “the success were pre-ordained, or at least foretold”. It strikes me, reading this remarkable book, that something similar can be said about discrete pieces of writing curated by someone other than the author. As she didn’t write these pieces to be read together, let alone in the order in which they appear, Mantel could not have foreseen the effect of the whole.

[See also: John le Carré, the great deceiver]

Through Pearson’s curation, we see Mantel’s extraordinary range and depth, the eclecticism of her interests. We get a sense of what shaped her. She lived much of her life in pain, the result of endometriosis. Its late diagnosis by a medical profession ignorant of women’s health took away her chance of motherhood. Her grief is raw: “Maybe doctors are better trained now, women’s health isn’t trashed so casually. I can hope that life would be better for my daughter, except of course that I don’t have one. The women of any family have history written on their bodies. Mostly it’s a story of progress. But our story stops with me.”

Mantel had the rare talent of drawing on her own experiences to give voice to that of others. As a childless woman in the public eye, I have often struggled to explain how intrusive, judgmental and hurtful it felt to be so often asked why. She does it for me: “look at how the childless woman is regarded. The biological clock is often ticking most loudly in the ears of onlookers, critics. A woman who stays childless is still an object of curiosity, misunderstanding and dislike. People want to ask, but they can’t find a tactful way. Sometimes they forget tact and ask anyway.”

Mantel’s social conscience is fortified with an independence, at times contrariness, that means she never reaches for conventional answers. In a piece on the Irish writer John McGahern she notes that religion is, for some, “protection against deeper thought”. I might observe that the same can be true of political ideology. Deep thought was a constant in her work.

She writes with humour, at times droll, at others razor-sharp. Above all, we get to appreciate the poetry and precision of her prose – skills that in lesser writers are mutually exclusive. I had no idea she had been the Spectator’s film critic in the late 1980s, though regret at having missed her reviews is tempered by the joy of reading them now for the first time. We can only assume that what she describes as the “unexpected wildness” of When Harry Met Sally is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the infamous faked orgasm scene. Embarking on Goodfellas she wonders, “How will [Martin] Scorsese persuade us to spend almost three hours in the company of these savages?” She found her own answer when she persuaded many of us to spend longer with the ruffians of Tudor England.

If her film reviews amuse, her literary criticism reveals deep knowledge. These sections are a treasure trove of recommendations. Annie Proulx is a “ruthless poet” who “works language almost to exhaustion”. Rebecca West’s life and letters “are a protest against emptiness, against superficiality, and against the sterility of the unexamined life”. Sybille Bedford’s “stories are haunted by semi-selves. In the quasi-autobiographical form, every revelation is balanced by a concealment.” One of her recurring themes is the idea that in literature – as in history – what is not written or recorded can be just as important as what is. She notes that Austen “often warns, in her novels, that communications which are true may not be the whole truth”.

Mantel’s journalism is often deeply moving, but never sentimental. In “Last Morning in Al Hamra”, the essay chronicling her time in Saudi Arabia, she captures the reality of expat life – “expatriates are hard to reach… they carry about with them the plastic bubble of their own cultures”. She is unsparing about the Saudi state’s treatment of women, reflecting a feminism that permeates her work: “It is apartheid: stringent, absolute.” And where many of a liberal mindset would shy away from judging another culture, she harbours no such inhibition: “when you come across an alien culture, you must not automatically respect it. You must sometimes pay it the compliment of hating it.” Her willingness to confront unpalatable issues is evident in her essay on capital punishment: “The death penalty is not wrong because it is inconsistently administered,” but because “a modern nation that deals in state-sponsored death, becomes, in part, dead in itself.”

Mantel was often ahead of her time. While distrust of the media seems like a modern-day preoccupation, a 2010 piece about her stepfather, who was “a fountain of conspiracy theories”, puts us right (“I thought for years that ‘Dimbleby’ was a swear word”). Her essay on Annie Proulx, despite being written in 2000, offers a more cogent explanation of Brexit and Donald Trump than anything most politicians could articulate. We should have paid more attention.

[See also: Mick Herron and John Gray in conversation]

This collection holds words of wisdom for aspiring authors. Maybe it’s because I have recently embarked on the challenge of writing a book of my own that I found her essay on procrastination so resonant: “Why does a writer have to divert herself, pray for interruptions or devise them herself?” Why indeed?

It is when she writes about her own literary passions, however, that Mantel is at her most engrossing. Her fascination with the French Revolution and Tudor England gave us some of the best novels of our time. She writes of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, Danton, Robespierre, Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn with the intimacy of close acquaintance. Her essay on George Cavendish’s biography of Cardinal Wolsey and another on how she came to write Wolf Hall are two of the best in this collection.

Her 2017 Reith lectures – reproduced in full – have been called the finest meditation on historical fiction ever written. They describe our connection to those who lived before us: “We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place.” Mantel considers the nature of the past, and the selective methods by which we record it: “Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.” She stakes her claim for historical “fiction” as the equal, essential, partner of historical “fact”: “Your real job as a novelist is not to be an inferior sort of historian but… to deepen the reader’s experience through feeling.”

Mantel more than lived up to that task. In an essay about CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, she notes that it defies categorisation and should be “placed on a shelf that doesn’t exist, in the section called the ‘Human Condition’. It offers an interrogation of experience and a glimmer of hard-won hope. It allows one bewildered mind to reach out to another.”

This magnificent collection should be placed on the same shelf. My advice: read it cover to cover and then keep it close for the moments you need to be uplifted, comforted, challenged – or simply to feel grateful for the life of Hilary Mantel.

Nicola Sturgeon is the MSP for Glasgow Southside and served as first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party from 2014 to 2023

A Memoir of My Former Self
Hilary Mantel
John Murray Press, 400pp, £25

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War