New York Times bestselling author Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize, is one of the world’s most accomplished and acclaimed fiction writers. Giving Up the Ghost, is her dazzling memoir of a career blighted by physical pain in which her singular imagination supplied compensation for the life her body was denied.
Selected by the New York Times as one of the 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years
“The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me.”
In postwar rural England, Hilary Mantel grew up convinced that the most extraordinary feats were within her grasp. But at nineteen, she became ill. Through years of misdiagnosis, she suffered patronizing psychiatric treatment and destructive surgery that left her without hope of children.
Beset by pain and sadness, she decided to “write herself into being”one novel after another. This wry and visceral memoir will certainly bring new converts to Mantel’s dark genius.
“Mesmerizing.”The New York Times
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About the Author
Hilary Mantel is the bestselling author of many novels including Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Bring Up the Bodies, Book Two of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, was also awarded the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Book Award. She is also the author of A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, An Experiment in Love, The Giant, O'Brien, Fludd, Beyond Black, Every Day Is Mother's Day, and Vacant Possession. She has also written a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Mantel was the winner of the Hawthornden Prize, and her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. She lives in England with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
GIVING UP THE GHOST
It is a Saturday, late July 2000; we are in Reepham, Norfolk, at Owl Cottage. There’s something we have to do today, but we are trying to postpone it. We need to go across the road to see Mr. Ewing; we need to ask for a valuation, and see what they think of our chances of selling. Ewing’s is the local firm, and it was they who sold us the house, seven years ago. As the morning wears on we move around each other silently, avoiding conversation. The decision’s made. There’s no more to discuss.
About eleven o’clock, I see a flickering on the staircase. The air is still; then it moves. I raise my head. The air is still again. I know it is my stepfather’s ghost coming down. Or, to put it in a way acceptable to most people, I “know” it is my stepfather’s ghost.
I am not perturbed. I am used to “seeing” things that aren’t there. Or—to put it in a way more acceptable to me—I am used to seeing things that “aren’t there.” It was in this house that I last saw my stepfather, Jack, in the early months of 1995: alive, in his garments of human flesh. Many times since then I have acknowledged him on the stairs.
It may be, of course, that the flicker against the banister was nothing more than the warning of a migraine attack. It’s at the left-hand side of my body that visions manifest; it’s my left eye that is peeled. I don’t know whether, at such vulnerable times, I see more than is there; or if things are there that normally I don’t see.
Over the years the premonitionary symptoms of migraine headaches have become more than the dangerous puzzle that they were earlier in my life, and more than a warning to take the drugs that might ward off a full-blown attack. They have become a psychic adornment or flourish, an art form, a secret talent I have never managed to make money from. Sometimes they take the form of the visual disturbances that are common to many sufferers. Small objects will vanish from my field of vision, and there will be floating lacunae in the world, each shaped rather like a doughnut with a dazzle of light where the hole should be. Sometimes there are flashes of gold against the wall: darting chevrons, like the wings of small quick angels. Scant sleep and lack of food increase the chances of these sightings; starving saints in Lent, hypoglycemic and jittery, saw visions to meet their expectations.
Sometimes the aura takes more trying forms. I will go deaf. The words I try to write end up as other words. I will suffer strange dreams, from which I wake with hallucinations of taste. Once, thirty years ago, I dreamed that I was eating bees, and ever since I have lived with their milk-chocolate sweetness and their texture, which is like lightly cooked calves’ liver. It may be that a tune will lodge in my head like a tic and bring the words tripping in with it, so I am forced to live my life by its accompaniment. It’s a familiar complaint, to have a tune you can’t get out of your head. But for most people, the tunes aren’t the preludeto a day of hearty vomiting. Besides, people say they pick them up from the radio, but mine are songs people don’t really sing these days. Bill Bailey, won’t you please come home? Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules. My aged father did me deny. And the name he gave me was the croppy boy.
Today, the day I see the ghost, the problem’s just that my words don’t come out right. So I have to be careful, at Mr. Ewing’s, but he understands me without any trouble, and yes, he remembers selling us the cottage, seven years ago, is it really so long? They were years in which perhaps half a million words were drafted and redrafted, seven and a half thousand meals were consumed, ten thousand painkillers (at a conservative estimate) were downed by me, and God knows how many by the people I’d given a pain; years in which I got fatter and fatter (wider still and wider, shall my bounds be set): and during seven years of nights, dreams were dreamed, then erased or reformatted: they were years during which, on the eve of the publication of my seventh novel, my stepfather died. All my memories of him are bound up with houses, dreams of houses, real or dream houses with empty rooms waiting for occupation: with other people’s stories, and other people’s claims: with fright and my adult denial that I was frightened. But affection takes strange forms, after all. I can hardly bear to sell the cottage and leave him behind on the stairs.
Late in the afternoon, a migrainous sleep steals up on me. It plants on my forehead a clammy ogre’s kiss. “Don’t worry,” I say, as the ogre sucks me into sleep. “If the phone wakes, it will ring us.” I knew the migraine was coming yesterday, when I stood in a Norfolk fishmonger choosing a meal for the cats. “No,” I said, “cod’s too expensive just now to feed to fish. Even fish like ours.”
I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done. I will just go for it, I think to myself, I’ll hold out my hands and say, c’est moi, get used to it. I’ll trust the reader. This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don’t think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage!
But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre. (Don’t use foreign expressions; it’s elitist.) I stray away from the beaten path of plain words into the meadows of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes. And as for transparency—windowpanes undressed are a sign of poverty, aren’t they? How about some nice net curtains, so I can look out but you can’t see in? How about shutters, or a chaste Roman blind? Besides, windowpane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness. Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.
So now that I come to write a memoir, I argue with myself over every word. Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear? I tell myself, just say how you came to sell a house with a ghost in it. But this story can be told only once, and I need to get it right. Why does the act of writing generate so much anxiety? Margaret Atwood says, “The written word is so much like evidence—like something that can be used against you.” I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you’re weak, it’s childish to pretend to be strong.
Sell Owl: the decision came with us, crawling through the Friday evening traffic on the M25, and navigating the darkness of Breckland settlements with their twisted pines and shuttered houses. We had done this journey so many times, looping past the center of Norwich on the fringes of industrial estates, slowing at the crossroads among West Earlham council houses: lamps burning behind drawn curtains, no one in the streets. As you cross the city boundary the streetlights run out, the road narrows. You creep forward into that darkness which is lit only by the glittering eyes of foxes and farm cats, punctuated by the flurry of wing beats and scurrying of busy feet in the verges. Something unseen is eating. Something is being consumed.
As you enter the small town of Reepham you turn by the church wall, bashed and battered by many long vehicles, into the marketplace empty of cars. The King’s Arms is still burning a light, the big doors of the Old Brewery are closed and its residents padding upward to their beds. Turning uphill from the square, you park on the muddy rutted ground at the back of the cottage, unloading in the dark and mostly in the rain; your boots know the puddles and slippery patches, the single dark step and the paving’s edge. Sometimes it is midnight and winter, the cold sucking the virtue from a torch beam, diffusing the lightinto an aimless dazzle. But just as feet know the path, fingers know the keys. Fifty yards from the Market Place, there is no light pollution, no urban backwash to pale the sky; no flight path, no footfall. There is starlight, frost on the path, and owls crying from three parishes.
You sleep well in this house, though if you are here on a weekday morning the trucks and tractors wake you at dawn. Their exudates plaster the roadside windows with a greasy, smearing dirt. The country is not clean or quiet. Through the day hydraulic brakes wheeze as truck drivers come to a halt at the bottom of the hill, at Townsend Corner. But when they say town’s end, they mean it. Beyond the police station, beyond the last bungalow—that is to say, in less than a quarter of a mile—the town becomes open fields. The next settlement is Kerdiston. Its church fell down several hundred years ago. It has no street names and indeed, no streets. Even the people who live there aren’t sure where it is. Its single distinguished resident, Sir William de Kerdeston, moved to Reepham after he died, and lies in effigy on his tomb, resting—if that is the word—in full armor and on a bed of pebbles: his shoulder muscles twitching, perhaps, his legs flexing, every year as we reach the Feast of All Souls and the dead prepare to walk.
When we bought the cottage it had no name or history. It was a conversion of buildings that might once have been a house, or not; most likely it was some kind of agricultural storeroom. At some point early in the 1990s, a Norwich builder knocked four flats and two cottages out of its undistinguished structure of old red-brown brick.
In the winter of 1992-93 we were scouring the county for a weekend place. We went to the coast and deep into the heartland, always keeping in mind the long journey from Berkshireand our need to settle, for weekends, close to my parents, who had retired to Holt. Studded into our Barbour raingear, driving our scarlet BMW, we were a sight to gladden the eyes of any country estate agent. We would see their faces light up, only to assume their habitual gray glaze when we introduced them to our stringent budget and our high requirements. We wanted nothing tumbledown, nothing picturesque, nothing with a small but containable dry rot problem. And nothing too remote, as I might want to stay there alone, and I am myself too remote and nervous and irritable to drive a car. We wanted a shop and a pub, but most Norfolk villages are straggling depopulated hamlets, with a telephone box, if you’re lucky, to mark their center. All the same, we thought there was a home for us somewhere in the county. I’d just won a book prize, so we had unexpected cash to pitch in. Norfolk wasn’t fashionable then. People thought it was too far from London, and it didn’t have what urbanites require, the infrastructure of gourmet dining and darling little delis; it had pubs that served microwaved baked potatoes with huge glum portions of gravy and meat, and small branches of Woolworth in small towns, and Spar groceries in larger villages, and waterbirds, and long reaches of shingle and sea, and a vast expanse of painter’s sky.
By this stage we knew Norfolk fairly well. I had first come to the county in 1980, to stay with friends who were themselves newly settled in a Broadlands village. My own home was in Africa, but my marriage was breaking up. A wan child with a suitcase—an old child, at twenty-eight—I went about to visit people, to stay for a while and drift away again, ending up always back at my parental home, which was then still in the north. I seemed to be perpetually on trains, dragging my luggage up flights of steps at Crewe, or trying to find a sheltered place on the windswept platforms of Nuneaton. As I traveled, I grew thinner and thinner, more frayed and shabby, more lonely. I was homesick for the house I had left, for my animals, for the manuscript of the vast novel I had written and left behind. I was homesick for my husband, but my feelings about my past were too impenetrable and misty for me to grasp, and to keep them that way I often began and ended each day with a sprinkling of barbiturates gulped from my palm, washed down with the water from some other household’s cup. When you take barbiturates at night your dreams are blank and black, and your awakening is sick and distant, the day in front of you like a shoreline glimpsed from a pitching ship. But this is because you need some more. After an hour, you feel just fine.
My Norfolk host was a woman I had known in Africa. Her husband was working abroad again, and she didn’t like to be alone in the country dark. If our strained expatriate lives had not brought us into contact, we would never have been friends; after a while I realized we weren’t friends anyway, so I got on a train in Norwich and never came back. But our long drives about the county, lost in winter lanes, our limp salads in village cafés, our scramblings in overgrown churchyards, and our attention to the stories of old people had made me think deeply about this territory, and want to write a novel set there. After some years, this was what I did.
We had been separated for no more than two years when my ex-husband came to England, changed. I believe people do change; there’s no mileage, really, in believing the opposite. I also had changed. I was living alone. I was sick with a chronic illness, swollen by steroid medication, and a cynic in matters of romance. Of Freud’s two constants, love and work, I now embraced just one; I was employed six days a week at two illpaid jobs, days in a bookshop and nights behind a bar, and I got up at dawn to write my journals and stabilize my body for a venture into the world. I kept notes for future books; at that time, 1982, I had published only one short story. I had given up barbiturates. I don’t remember exactly when I stopped, or what I did with the endless supply of tiny pills from the big plastic tub I’d brought from Africa. Did I tail them off? Stop them cold? I don’t know. In view of the claims I will later make for my memory, this causes me concern. Perhaps they brought their own oblivion with them, each rattling little scoop of pinheadsized killers. Since then I have always been addicted to something or other, usually something there’s no support group for. Semicolons, for instance, I can never give up for more than two hundred words at a time.
Whether I was fit, that summer, to make a rational decision—well, who ever knows about that? It seemed that what I had left, with my ex-husband, was more than most people started with. So we got married again, economically, at the registrar’s office in Maidenhead, with two witnesses. It was September, and I felt very ill that morning, queasy and swollen, as if I were pregnant; there was a pain behind my diaphragm, and from time to time something seemed to flip over and claw at me, as if I were a woman in a folktale, pregnant with a demon. Nothing, except for having to get married, would have got me out of bed, into my dress, into my high heels, and into the street. The registrar was kindly, and wished us better luck this time around. There was no ring; as the size of my fingers was changing week to week, I didn’t see the point, and it is possible, also, that I didn’t want to resume the signs and symbols of marriage too quickly. We had lunch in a restaurant in Windsor, in a courtyard overlooking the river. We had champagne. A witness took a photograph, in which I look hollow-eyed, like a turnip lantern. This is how—I have to shake myself to say it—I have been married twice: twice to the same man. I always thought it was a film-people pursuit, or what peroxided football pool winners used to do, dippy people destabilized by good fortune. I thought it was what people did when they had stormy temperaments; it was not an enterprise for the prudent or steadfast. Though perhaps, if you’re prudent and steadfast past a certain point, it’s the only reasonable thing to do. You would go on getting married and married to that person, marrying and marrying them, for as many times as it needed to make it stick.
In mid-January 1993 we made our headquarters at the Blakeney Hotel, a flint ship sailing the salt marshes. We were equipped with sheaves of property details, most of them lying or misleading. For two days we drove the lanes, crossing houses off as soon as we saw their location or exterior. I was recovering from a bad Christmas—bronchitis and a lung inflammation—and I had no voice. But voice was not necessary, only an ability to peer at the map in fading light and at the same time monitor faded fingerposts, leaning under the weight of Norfolk place-names. At five on a Sunday afternoon, in near-dark, we were up to our calves in mud somewhere east of East Dereham, a stone’s throw from an ancient crumbling church and a row of tumbledown corrugated-iron farm buildings, trying to find a track to a forlorn little cottage at the end of a forlorn little row. We gave it up, sat disconsolate inside the scarlet monster, and turned our minds to the M25.
When we returned, still in bitter weather, I had got my voice back and we had narrowed our search. Often, when I was staying with my friend from Africa, we had come to Reepham to shop, and I had looked up at the long Georgian windows of the Old Brewery. It was a pub and small hotel, an elegant redbrick building with a sundial and that Latin inscription which means “I only count the happy hours.” By the time I returned there, ten years on, Reepham had a post office, two butchers, a pharmacy, as well as a telephone kiosk: a hairdresser, one or two discreet antique dealers, a busy baker’s shop which sold vitamins and farm eggs and organic chocolate, and a greengrocer-florist called Meloncaulie Rose. A well-arranged town square was surrounded by calm, wide-windowed houses, and a jumble of cottages tumbling down Station Road. There was no longer a station, though in Victorian times there had been two, and twelve beer-houses, and a cattle market. There had been three churches, but one of them burned down in 1543 and was never rebuilt; the history of the town is of a slow decline into impiety and abstemiousness. On a January day, after I became a resident, a huddled old lady beckoned me from her doorway and looked across the deserted Market Place to the church gates. “What do you make of it?” she said. “More life in the churchyard than in the street today.”
The people of Reepham and the surrounding villages gather in the post office on a Saturday morning. They discuss rainfall—“not enough to wet a stamp,” I once heard a man say. They talk about whether they have put their heating on, or switched it off, and about nonagenarian drivers who crawl the lanes in their Morris Travellers. They are not inhospitable. They don’t make a stranger of you till you’ve lived there for twenty years. They don’t in fact make much of you at all. People once employed on the land are now quite likely to work at a computer terminal. They don’t know you, but they don’t mind that. They’re live and let live. They used to greet each other with “Are you all right?” a question with a unique Norfolk inflection, but they don’t do that so much as they did. They go into their houses early on Christmas Eve and lock the doors. They leave their windfall apples and overproduce of vegetables outside their doors in baskets, for anyone to take, and sell bunches of daffodils for pennies in the spring.
When we went to see the house, the builder’s debris was still in it. We stood in its unfinished rooms and imagined it. We imagined it would be ours. It was cheap, and a minute from the Market Place. At midnight, we left our room at the Old Brewery and walked to the gate: or to where the gate would be. We wanted to see it again, in privacy and silence. As we stood, hunched into our coats on a night of obdurate cold, the tawny owl called out from the tree.
Later we had a plaque made to say “Owl Cottage,” with a picture. But the man did a barn owl, canary yellow and thin, with creepy feet like the feet of a rodent.
It’s a strange phenomenon, the “second home.” Like the second marriage, it’s not something that I ever associated with myself. I thought it was for rich people who drove up prices in the Cotswolds. I never felt guilty about Owl Cottage; there was hardly a queue for it, with its tiny backyard and weekday traffic noise. We hoped that buying it would be the first stage of a permanent move to Norfolk. Getting into our car, the BMW and its less flashy successors, I would imagine this was the final journey and that we were traveling in convoy with the removal van: that we were leaving the southeast behind forever. When I played this game, I would smile and my shoulders would relax. But then we would grind to a halt, at the sight of some carnage or disaster on the M25, and I would have to acknowledge that it was just another short, fraught weekend trip, and that the change in our lives would have to be earned.
For a time, we would visit every two or three weeks, our two cats traveling with us. Released, squalling, from their cage, they would race through the rooms, bellowing, feet thundering on the wooden stairs, driving out the devils only cats can see. Exhausted, they would take to their basket, while we climbed the stairs to a room papered the pale yellow of weak sunshine: better people already, calmer, kinder. On Saturday morning we would make a leisurely circuit of the Market Place, shop to shop, talking to people, posting our parcels, filling my many prescriptions, buying meat for our freezer. In the afternoon we would drive up to Holt to see my parents, with a bag of scones or a cake, some flowers, a book or two; then on Sunday my parents would drive to Reepham, and we would have lunch at the King’s Arms or eat something cold at home: Cromer crabs, strawberries, Stilton. Then it was time to pack the car and go. Routinely, as we left, there was a small ache behind my ribs. I only count the happy hours.
My mother was a tiny, chic woman with a shaggy bob of platinum-colored hair. She usually wore jeans and a mad-colored sweatshirt, but everything she wore looked designed and meant; all the time I’d known her, since first I’d been able to see her clearly, she’d had that knack. My stepfather was younger than she was, by a few years, but he had undergone a coronary bypass, and his brown, muscular body seemed wasted. “Frail” was not a word I would have associated with him, but I noticed how his favorite shirt, soft and faded, clung to his ribs, and his legs seemed to consist of his trousers with articulated sticks inside. Once a draftsman, he had taken up watercolors, trying to fix onto paper the troubling, shifting colors of the coast; earlier in life, he would not have been able to tolerate the ambiguities and tricks of the light. Passion had wasted him, and anger; no one had given him a helping hand, he had no money when money mattered, and he was chronically exasperated by the evasions and crookedness of the world. He was honest by temperament; the honest, in this world, give one another a hard time. He was an engineer. He wrote a small, exact, engineer’s hand, and his mind was subdued to a discipline, but inside his chest his heart would knock about, like a wasp in an inverted glass.
I had been six or seven when Jack had first entered my life. In all those years, we had never had a proper conversation. I felt that I had nothing to say that would interest him; I don’t know what he felt. Neither of us could make small talk. For my part, it made me tense, as if there were hidden meanings in it, and for his part … for his part I don’t know. My mother thought we didn’t get on because we were too much alike, but I preferred the obvious explanation, that we didn’t get on because we were completely different.
Now, this situation began to change. Since his heart surgery, Jack had shown a more open and flexible personality than ever in his life. He had become more patient, more equable, less taciturn: and so I, in his presence, had become less guarded, more grown-up, more talkative. I found that I could entertain him with stories of the writers’ committees I sat on in London; he had been a man who sat on committees, before his enforced retirement, and we agreed that whatever they were for ostensibly, all committees behaved alike, and could probably be trusted to transact one another’s business. On that last afternoon, a bright fresh day toward the end of March, I hung back as we crossed the Market Place, so that my husband and my mother would walk ahead, and I could have a moment to tell him some small thing that only he would like. I thought, I have never done that before: never hung back, never waited for him.
He seemed tired when we got home after the meal. One of the cats, the striped one, used to lure him to play with her on the stairs. Until recently, he had loathed cats, denounced them like a Witchfinder General; he claimed to shrink at their touch. But this tiny animal, with her own strange phobias, fright shivering behind her marzipan eyes, would invite him with an upraised paw to put out his hand for her to touch; and he would oblige her, held there by her mewing for ten minutes at a time, touching and retreating, pushed away and fetched back.
That last Sunday, when she took up her stance and invited him to begin, he stayed on the sofa, smiling at her and nodding. I thought, perhaps he is sickening for something: flu? But it was death he was sickening for, and it came suddenly, death the plunderer, uncouth and foulmouthed, kicking his way into their house on a night in April two or three hours before dawn. The doctor came and the ambulance crew, but death had arrived before them, his feet planted on the hearth rug, his filthy fingerprints on the pillowcase. They did their best, but they could have done their worst, for all it availed. When everything was signed and certified, my mother said, and the men had gone away, she washed his face. She sat by his body and because there was no one to talk to she sang in a low voice: “What’s this dull town to me?/Robin’s not near/He whom I wished to see/Wished for to hear …”
She sang this song to me when I was small: the tune is supersaturated with yearning, with longing for a lost love. About six o‘clock she moved to the phone, but all her three children were sleeping soundly, and so she received only polite requests to leave the message that no one can ever leave. On and on we slept. “Where’s all the joy and mirth/Made life a heaven on earth?/O they’re all fled with thee/Robin Adare.” About seven o’clock, at last, one of my brothers picked up the phone.
You come to this place, midlife. You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led. All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been. The wraiths and phantoms creep under your carpets and between the warp and weft of your curtains, they lurk in wardrobes and lie flat under drawer liners. You think of the children you might have had but didn’t. 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 that child that has already formed in your mind? You keep it filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like a short story that wouldn’t work after the opening lines.
In the February of 2002, my godmother Maggie fell ill, and hospital visits took me back to my native village. After a short illness she died, at the age of almost ninety-five, and I returned again for her funeral. I had been back many times over the years, but on this occasion there was a particular route I had to take: down the winding road between the hedgerows and the stone wall, and up a wide unmade track which, when I was small, people called “the carriage drive.” It leads uphill to the old school, now disused, then to the convent, where there are no nuns these days, then to the church. When I was a child this was my daily walk, once in the morning to school and once again to school after dinner—that meal which the south of England calls lunch. Retracing it as an adult, in my funeral black, I felt a sense of oppression, powerful and familiar. Just before the public road joins the carriage drive came a point where I was overwhelmed by fear and dismay. My eyes moved sideways, in dread, toward dank vegetation, tangled bracken: I wanted to say, stop here, let’s go no farther. I remembered how when I was a child, I used to think I might bolt, make a run for it, scurry back to the (comparative) safety of home. The point where fear overcame me was the point of no turning back.
Each month, from the age of seven to my leaving at eleven, we walked in crocodile up the hill from the school to the church to go to confession and be forgiven for our sins. I would come out of church feeling, as you would expect, clean and light. This period of grace never lasted beyond the five minutes it took to get inside the school building. From about the age of four I had begun to believe I had done something wrong. Confession didn’t touch some essential sin. There was something inside me that was beyond remedy and beyond redemption. The school’s work was constant stricture, the systematic crushing of any spontaneity. It enforced rules that had never been articulated, and which changed as soon as you thought you had grasped them. I was conscious, from the first day in the first class, of the need to resist what I found there. When I met my fellow children and heard their yodeling cry—“Good mo-ororning, Missus Simpson,” I thought I had come among lunatics; and the teachers, malign and stupid, seemed to me like the lunatics’ keepers. I knew you must not give in to them. You must not answer questions which evidently had no answer, or which were asked by the keepers simply to amuse themselves and pass the time. You must not accept that things were beyond your understanding because they told you they were; you must go on trying to understand them. A state of inner struggle began. It took a huge expenditure of energy to keep your own thoughts intact. But if you did not make this effort you would be wiped out.
Before I went to school there was a time when I was happy, and I want to write down what I remember about that time. The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me. It resists finishing, and partly this is because words are not enough; my early world was synesthetic, and I am haunted by the ghosts of my own sense impressions, which reemerge when I try to write, and shiver between the lines.
We are taught to be chary of early memories. Sometimes psychologists fake photographs in which a picture of their subject, in his or her childhood, appears in an unfamiliar setting, in places or with people whom in real life they have never seen. The subjects are amazed at first but then—in proportion to their anxiety to please—they oblige by producing a “memory” to cover the experience that they have never actually had. I don’t know what this shows, except that some psychologists have persuasive personalities, that some subjects are imaginative, and that we are all told to trust the evidence of our senses, and we do it: we trust the objective fact of the photograph, not our subjective bewilderment. It’s a trick, it isn’t science; it’s about our present, not about our past. Though my early memories are patchy, I think they are not, or not entirely, a confabulation, and I believe this because of their overwhelming sensory power; they come complete, not like the groping, generalized formulations of the subjects fooled by the photograph. As I say, “I tasted,” I taste, and as I say, “I heard,” I hear: I am not talking about a Proustian moment, but a Proustian cine-film. Anyone can run these ancient newsreels, with a bit of preparation, a bit of practice; maybe it comes easier to writers than to many people, but I wouldn’t be sure about that. I wouldn’t agree either that it doesn’t matter what you remember, but only what you think you remember. I have an investment in accuracy; I would never say, “It doesn’t matter, it’s history now.” I know, on the other hand, that a small child has a strange sense of time, where a year seems a decade, and everyone over the age of ten seems grown-up and of an equal age; so although I feel sure of what happened, I am less sure of the sequence and the dateline. I know, too, that once a family has acquired a habit of secrecy, memories begin to distort, because its members confabulate to cover the gaps in the facts; you have to make some sort of sense of what’s going on around you, so you cobble together a narrative as best you can. You add to it, and reason about it, and the distortions breed distortions.
Still, I think people can remember: a face, a perfume: one true thing or two. Doctors used to say babies didn’t feel pain; we know they were wrong. We are born with our sensibilities; perhaps we are conceived that way. Part of our difficulty in trusting ourselves is that in talking of memory we are inclined to use geological metaphors. We talk about buried parts of our past and assume the most distant in time are the hardest to reach: that one has to prospect for them with the help of a hypnotist or psychotherapist. I don’t think memory is like that: rather that it is like Saint Augustine’s “spreading limitless room.” Or a great plain, a steppe, where all the memories are laid side by side, at the same depth, like seeds under the soil.
There is a color of paint that doesn’t seem to exist anymore, that was a characteristic pigment of my childhood. It is a faded, rain-drenched crimson, like stale and drying blood. You saw it on paneled front doors, and on the frames of sash windows, on mill gates and on those high doorways that led to the ginnels between shops and gave access to their yards. You can still see it, on the more soot-stained and dilapidated old buildings, where the sandblaster hasn’t yet been in to turn the black stone to honey: you can detect a trace of it, a scrape. The restorers of great houses use paint scrapes to identify the original color scheme of old salons, drawing rooms, and staircase halls. I use this paint scrape—oxblood, let’s call it—to refurbish the rooms of my childhood: which were otherwise dark green, and cream, and more lately a cloudy yellow, which hung about at shoulder height, like the aftermath of a fire.
GIVING UP THE GHOST Copyright © 2003 by Hilary Mantel
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read almost half of this book in a used book store so had to buy it. I found it fascinating and finished it that evening. Ms. Mantel's powerful intellect sustained her through a difficult childhood and an adulthood blighted by ill health.
The back of this book is unhelpful; it makes it seem as though the whole thing is about her infertility. That's part of the story, but it's not even most of it. Most of it is about growing up Catholic, going to schools taught by nuns, growing up in a family, trying to make sense of life from a child's perspective. The mysteries of adults and the struggle to unravel them. How it is when Father is displaced by another man who is unkind, and how the neighbors know and try to shame your mother. Later she talks about health problems that dogged her most of her life, and she was ill served by doctors and modern medicine. She was diagnosed as a young woman as having psychiatric problems and given drugs that altered her vision and her memory, and finally got her self off of them and away from doctors. Later her illnesses and the drugs she had to take made her body change shape and she is eloquent about how strange that was. For me that was the most moving part of the book. How being fat changes you, changes the way people look at you. Besides this she remakes her life again and again, and mentions those changes in the most casual way, which puts me in awe of her. She begins the book as a child and as a young woman with no agency, no certainty, and ends it as someone who seems to understand herself and the world well and to have taken charge of her life. It's good to see.