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The Conversation
The Conversation
Lisa Fletcher, Professor, University of Tasmania

Conversing with the 'restless dead' – a posthumous collection of Hilary Mantel's writing illuminates her singular literary achievement

Hilary Mantel’s writing career falls neatly into two periods: before and after Wolf Hall.

At the time of the novel’s publication, Mantel described her nine previous novels as a long apprenticeship for the first volume in her brilliant trilogy centred on the life of Thomas Cromwell: Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (2020).

Her posthumous collection A Memoir of My Former Self supports this self-assessment.

Review: A Memoir of My Former Self: A Life in Writing – Hilary Mantel (Hachette)

Wolf Hall and its sequel were both awarded the Booker Prize. Before Mantel, only Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee had won the prestigious prize twice; they have since been joined by Margaret Atwood.

But Mantel is the only author to have claimed the prize for two novels in a series and to have won it twice in such quick succession. There is an average of 16 years between the first and second wins for Carey, Coetzee and Atwood.

A shining thread through A Memoir of My Former Self traces Mantel’s impassioned engagement with the Booker, making me wonder whether she is also singular for so openly and honestly setting her sights on it as the pinnacle of achievement for a novelist.

In the essay Exam Fever, first published in the Guardian in 2009, Mantel describes her Booker routine, which she compares to waiting for exam results when she was so “ill with nerves” and “feverish” that she could not attend school.

Until 2008, her publisher would call when the Booker shortlist was announced, “sounding like an undertaker”. Mantel then “swallowed hard” and continued work on her next book. She recalls that this routine varied only once, in 1992, when Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton did not make the shortlist:

I cried, because if Ulverton wasn’t good enough, I couldn’t think what you’d have to do.

The introduction of an official longlist in 2009 broke Mantel’s routine, so that “by the time the shortlist is released you simply don’t know what to do with yourself”. Describing a party for the shortlist announcement, she speculates that the writers’ calm public expressions are masks:

Inside (unless they are very unlike me) they feel like mad axemen.

For Mantel, to not have made the shortlist with Wolf Hall would have been to know that “words have failed me”.

Read more: Hilary Mantel was one of the great voices of historical fiction – and so much more

A celebration

A Memoir of My Former Self is a selection of Mantel’s writings by Nicholas Pearson, her book editor of two decades. To make his selection, Pearson read all of Mantel’s work for newspapers and periodicals, an experience he describes as “a revelation”.

Presented by its publisher as “a celebration of one of Britain’s greatest contemporary writers”, the book appears roughly a year after Mantel’s death as a salve to the many readers saddened that she will write no more. I feel confident Mantel would fully and deeply understand this response to the news of her death. I think, too, that she would appreciate my choice of tense here. In her own words, her “concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims”.

The book is published by Hachette’s literary imprint, John Murray, for which Pearson began working as Publishing Director in January 2023, around six months after he was let go by Mantel’s longtime publisher Fourth Estate. Mantel was reportedly “furious” about Pearson’s departure. There is thus the potential to read this book as a fascinating artefact of publishing history in the making.

Mantel frequently described the work of writing as a type of congress with “ghosts”, a description that extends to Pearson’s anthology. “You talk to the dead one way or another,” she observed, “and you make it pay.”

There are ghosts asserting their claims everywhere in this book, and throughout Mantel’s oeuvre, including the ghost of the author herself. “As soon as you sit before the screen,” she wrote, “you start haunting yourself.”

Many of the pieces were written by Mantel to “subsidise, financially, the slow process of art”, to support her true calling as a novelist. Reading the collection’s first essay, On the One Hand, I imagined the ghost of Mantel finding humour in the timing of this book’s release for Christmas, the season when the inseparability of art and commerce is most undeniable. “For many imaginative writers,” she insists,

working for the press is a fact of their life. But it’s best not to like it too much.

The goal and passion of the novelist, as Mantel presents it, is not to generate the columns, reviews and occasional lectures selected for A Memoir of My Former Self, but to produce a “couture response – lovingly tailored, personal, an unmistakable one-off”.

I am therefore reading with the grain when I write that, while I liked this book, I did not like it too much.

The shock of personal connection

I liked this book most for Mantel’s reflections on the distinctive sensibility and habits of readers and writers. I disliked this book most for its flagrant literary exceptionalism, which is communicated through Mantel’s repeated use of “ink” as a metaphor to communicate her essential writerly identity. She is a person for whom “ink is a generative fluid”.

A Memoir of My Former Self will be affirming for people seeking endorsement that, as avid readers of high-shelf literature, they are on the better side of human history and culture.

Nevertheless, there were many times when I felt that delicious shock of personal (almost too personal) connection with the writer that Mantel herself describes. It was as though the “author leaned out of the text and touched my arm”.

In 2015, reading Hilary Mantel was my work for several months. I read every one of her books, in the order of their publication, for my essay Hilary Mantel: Raising the Dead, Speaking the Truth, published in James Acheson’s collection The Contemporary British Novel Since 2000. I thus felt directly addressed when Mantel, meeting an “amiable man” who remarks that she seems “to have plenty of energy”, asks “what are authors to academics, except more work?”

For avid readers, the potential for such moments of connection is abundant. Mantel recalls a time in her life when she was “unable to walk past a bookshop without going in”. She confesses that she once stole a book from her school library that had been “lying unappreciated on the shelves” since its publication. She claims she is “addicted to the physical act of reading”.

The book is subtitled “A Life in Writing” and Pearson concludes his short introduction with the claim,

What emerges is a portrait of Hilary Mantel’s life in her own words, “messages from people I used to be”.

What it means to succeed or to fail as a writer is the unifying question of A Memoir of My Former Self, but for readers new to Mantel this book is not the place to start considering her success. Instead, begin with Wolf Hall, the novel that explains why she was the first living writer to have her portrait commissioned by the British Library.

For readers who read and loved the Cromwell trilogy, I would recommend her 2005 novel Beyond Black or her 2003 memoir Giving Up the Ghost (in that order), both of which connect deeply with the Cromwell books and may well inspire you to reread them rather than pick up this volume.

Many of the pieces gathered here – articles from the Guardian, film reviews from the Spectator, the 2017 Reith Lectures – are freely available online. Charting your own journey through Mantel’s short-form writings might be a better route to the “revelation” Pearson experienced in making this volume.

There is, for example, a special pleasure in listening to the Reith Lectures, recorded live in Manchester and available to stream from the BBC. Mantel’s breathy voice, simultaneously tremulous and supremely confident, gives the lectures a spectral quality they lack on the page.

Having read the 15 film reviews included, Mantel may now be my favourite film critic, and I am impatient to dig into the Spectator archive to read more. But I wish that I had found more coherence in Pearson’s organisation of this book. Perhaps I am simply missing the powerfully controlled authorial voice of Mantel’s books, which no posthumous selection can achieve.

It seems fitting to give the last word here to Mantel’s Cromwell, from the final pages of Wolf Hall:

It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.

Correction: an earlier version of the article mistakenly referred to Thomas Cromwell as Oliver Cromwell.

The Conversation

Lisa Fletcher does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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