The tale of a life by a master writer, in her own words

Review: Vivien Horler

A Memoir of my Former Self – A life in writing, by Hilary Mantel (John Murray)

Hilary Mantel was a serious writer, but not above the odd deliciously snide remark.

While we know her for her novels, especially the brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy that raked in two Booker Prizes, she also wrote extensively for newspapers and periodicals, including The Guardian, The Spectator, The New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.

Many of the pieces were film reviews, some of which are included in this volume.

She describes Babette’s Feast as “a perfect film”, adding pointedly: “There may be some people who don’t like it; but they will not be the sort of people you would like to dine with.”

In a piece on reading and writing – she of course was a ravening reader – she asked: “How do you live a life without stories – live in just a single narrative, and that one your own? Show me a man – it’s usually a man – who ‘doesn’t see the point of fiction’, and I’ll show you a pompous, inflexible, self-absorbed bore.”

Mantel died in September 2022 of a stroke. She was 70, and she and her husband Gerald McEwen were on the verge of leaving the UK to settle in Ireland, her Catholic family’s original home. The move was partly a rejection of the state of the UK today, and also tied up with Brexit, which she had opposed. She had firm and beautifully expressed opinions.

This collection, published after her death, is not to be confused with Mantel Pieces, a selection of her writing from the London Review of Books. I think this new one is better – it certainly includes a wider range of writing.

It has been put together by Nicholas Pearson, her book editor for 20 years, who says her “wicked sense of humour, which was a mark of her in person, comes shining through many of these pieces”.

Writing, he says, was how Mantel processed who she was and how she fitted into the world. “What emerges is a portrait of Hilary Mantel’s life in her own words, ‘messages from people I used to be’.”

The collection is divided into several parts, about her life, her family and problematic health, her film reviews, her writing about other writers – the essay on Jane Austen is particularly fine – and the 2017 BBC Reith Lectures which Pearson describes as “perhaps the finest distillation we have on the art of the historical novelist”.

And then there is the final personal section on memory, on writing, on how she became a writer, a piece on Elizabeth Jane Howard (a favourite writer of mine,) the invisibility of women over 50, and several pieces about the writing of the Wolf Hall trilogy.

It turns out she loved cricket. She ponders the question of why, until 1998, women were barred from being members of the Middlesex County Cricket Club (or Lords). “It can’t be that these days gentlemen fear their view will be blocked by bonnets, or their concentration broken by gusts of piercing chatter about the servant problem or the price of beef. But if, as anciently believed, the glance of a woman can sour cream, it can probably warp willow, crack the pitch, cause the umpire’s fingers to twitch.”

The bit I liked in this essay was the hint of procrastination when it comes to the business of writing. “Cricket is far more like a novel than life is like a novel. So I can at least persuade myself, when guilt gnaws, that by watching cricket I am actually working, absorbing principles of form and structure and bearing professional witness to the strange machinations of fate.”

There is a wonderful piece on her addiction to stationery. She bought it online and could read the catalogue “for hours”. She talks about notebooks and how vital it is to have ones you can tear pages out. She is not a fan of Moleskine – “Chatwin, Hemingway: has the earth ever held two greater posers?”

The point is, it must be possible to pick notebooks apart, because “the hard-spined notebook is death to free thought”. Writing is all about ring binders.

We fans of Wolf Hall must be grateful she lived long enough to finish the final volume in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light (published just two years before her death). Unlike the first two volumes, it didn’t win the Booker Prize, but it was longlisted, and I thought it was better than the second volume, Bring Up the Bodies. (Which is one reason I’m not a Booker judge.)

She offers insights into writing historical fiction – you are allowed to make up things in the gaps, but you cannot change facts, you cannot cheat and you must not lie. One falsification trips another, she says, consequences cascade.

“The reason you must stick by the truth is that it is better, stranger, stronger than anything you can make up.” And the writer has freedom to decide where to focus.

She talks about the writing of Wolf Hall, and says she was partly inspired by a biography of Cardinal Wolsey, for whom Thomas Cromwell worked before his service to Henry VIII.

The biography was a contemporary one, written by George Cavendish, a gentleman usher in the cardinal’s entourage. It served as a textbook for Mantel, she says, one called Learn to Talk Tudor. “I reread him till the rhythm of his prose was natural to me.”

And she imparts an interesting factoid: Cardinal Wolsey had commissioned a marble sarcophagus for himself, but after his fall from grace it was never used for him.

“… but now, I understand, it is at St Paul’s, with the bones of Lord Nelson rattling inside it.”

A Memoir of My Former Self is not to be read straight through like you might a novel; it is to be dipped into and savoured. An interesting, informative and great read by a master writer.

  • A Memoir of my Former Self was one of Exclusive Books’s top reads for January.




3 thoughts on “The tale of a life by a master writer, in her own words

  1. David Bristow

    I suspect the Booker people thought three might be viewed as gluttony, or at least favouritism. I am still at odds with The Promise.

  2. Archie Henderson

    Imagine what it would be like to sit alongside Mantel at Newlands, under the Oaks (before they took away the benches) during Test match. Not the comic-book T20 stuff


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