Hilary Mantel: The exorcist

Hilary Mantel survived the devil of a girlhood and had to wrestle with serious illness. Now, as she tells Marianne Brace, the novelist has written a memoir to banish the demons

When Hilary Mantel was seven, she met the devil. Well, not exactly: but she did encounter something so evil that even now she finds it hard to explain what she chanced on in the garden. "I couldn't say I saw it," she says slowly. "I'm talking about something at the very border of sensory experience. I could walk to where it was, could say how high it was and describe the speed at which it moved. But how I got the information, through which sense, I don't know." What Mantel does know is that she felt she had witnessed something she wasn't meant to. "The experience was absolutely destroying, as if my body was falling apart at a cellular level, which expressed itself in intense nausea. The way I rationalised it was that it was the devil. As a Catholic, that was the theology I had at my command." The family home itself was haunted and this presence seemed like "a concentration of things that were going on in the house – the unhappiness of our family and the pressure of secrets and lies".

When Hilary Mantel was seven, she met the devil. Well, not exactly: but she did encounter something so evil that even now she finds it hard to explain what she chanced on in the garden. "I couldn't say I saw it," she says slowly. "I'm talking about something at the very border of sensory experience. I could walk to where it was, could say how high it was and describe the speed at which it moved. But how I got the information, through which sense, I don't know." What Mantel does know is that she felt she had witnessed something she wasn't meant to. "The experience was absolutely destroying, as if my body was falling apart at a cellular level, which expressed itself in intense nausea. The way I rationalised it was that it was the devil. As a Catholic, that was the theology I had at my command." The family home itself was haunted and this presence seemed like "a concentration of things that were going on in the house – the unhappiness of our family and the pressure of secrets and lies".

Evil makes itself felt in several of Mantel's works, from child abduction in Africa to murderous goings-on in a flat in Jeddah. And malevolence is not always far from home. In the story "Third Floor Rising", from her collection Learning to Talk, screams issue from an empty bricked-up department store. Mantel understands how the inexplicable disturbs and spooks us.

Now she is laying to rest a few demons of her own in the memoir Giving Up The Ghost (Fourth Estate, £16.99), and in Learning to Talk – a series of fictionalised out-takes from the memoir. "My childhood seemed very much haunted," she explains, "so I've tried to get a sense of that without doing the headless horseman and the rattling chains."

As a writer, Mantel always achieves a topical resonance. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) considers the implications of creeping Muslim fundamentalism. A Change of Climate (1994) involves "medicine murder". (Ten years ago, who could have foreseen the recent disposal of "Adam's" torso in the Thames?). The Giant O'Brien, with its freak-show character, poses questions about medical ethics and what it means to be human, while the marvellous epic A Place of Greater Safety charts the free-fall and chaos of the French Revolution. "I don't want to talk about Iraq," says Mantel, "but I keep thinking about what Robespierre said: 'Who likes armed missionaries?'"

In turning to memoir, Mantel joins a host of writers who have used the absence of a parent to question their own identity. Mantel's father vanished when she was young. But her story is not just a daddy-I-hardly-knew-you. Constant illness from the age of 19 meant that at times she hardly knew herself, as a result of the cocktail of drugs on which she has been forced to rely.

As a child, Mantel often missed school through illness. "Because of my absences I was squeezed into an observer's role." A large vocabulary also set her apart. "I didn't know that you didn't use all the words at your command," she says, smiling. "So I retreated into being virtually dumb and hardly uttered during the rest of my primary education." That all changed at grammar school, where she became head girl. "School saved my sanity. It was an oasis of civilisation and calm."

Mantel is the oldest of three children. Her mother, who went to work in a mill at 14, was ambitious for her daughter to excel academically. This wasn't the only pressure. Mantel's parents had taken in a lodger. "By the time I was 10, Jack was more of a power in the household and my father became marginalised, living in the house like a ghost." Her mother couldn't get divorced and later, everyone had to keep up the pretence that she was married to Jack. When Mantel's father finally left, they never saw him again. Does that sadden her? "In the scale of what's given grief it comes surprisingly low down," she says. "But I am what I am because of him. The quiet habits of the introvert were nourished by him."

The first person in her family to go to university, Mantel found herself having to beg for money, much like Carmel in her girls-of-slender-means semi-autobiographical novel, An Experiment in Love. Jack, now her stepfather, refused to support her financially. When Mantel wanted to marry, her parents cut her off. "If I hadn't married I would have had to leave university. It was a difficult situation and one where every choice was a bad one."

Married, Mantel spent several years teaching abroad, exposed to "the grievous things that Africa does to the European psyche." The expat experience led her to conclude "the world is profoundly other". She soon realised that some things simply couldn't be communicated. "Botswana was so remote and cut off. How can you talk to people back home who are still stuck in the same perceptions? The gap is too great."

Her health, meanwhile, was deteriorating. Misdiagnosis had led to Mantel being fobbed off with anti-depressive drugs. By the time doctors discovered the she was suffering from endometriosis she was 27 and her condition so advanced that her reproductive organs had to be removed. At this time, too, she submitted a 350,000-word manuscript she had been working on. It was A Place of Greater Safety, and it was rejected.

"I'm not even sure it was read," says Mantel, who explains how on its return a chunk was missing. "The rejection of the book and the end of my fertility seemed of a piece. It seemed terribly symbolic, part of the numb misery ... So I just went back and started life again." (When the novel was published in 1992, it won a major prize.)

The knowledge that she would never have children is something Mantel discusses in Giving Up The Ghost with an admirable lack of self-pity. Indeed, the whole memoir is written with a deft, wry touch. "What you're confronted with in memoir is unmitigated self," Mantel says. In order to be unselfconscious she focused on the sensory, to recover "the texture of the day, the light, the sounds. I can only do any sort of writing by seeding my intellect elsewhere. You do a lot of planning beforehand but when you sit down at the keyboard, it's not the time for thinking but just doing. It's when you get to the end you think, 'Oh, what have I done?'"

Mantel describes herself as "a creature of pharmaceuticals", compelled to be a non-participant. "I don't think I would have been a writer if I hadn't been ill," she muses. "Illness forces you to the wall, so the stance of the writer is forced on you. Writing keeps you still and as long as your brain is working it doesn't matter if your body isn't." When Mantel's thyroid failed, however, she couldn't even take that for granted. "My body and mind started to come to a halt. I would put in frustrating hours, trying to limp to the end of a paragraph and wondering why it didn't work. So now I think, what next? What other tricks does my body have up its sleeve?"

One of the more distressing tricks was an alarming weight-gain. "When this incredible extending woman thing started, I increased my weight by 50 per cent ... I just couldn't get into last week's clothes. It was as if God was teaching me to be humble."

Over the years, Mantel has observed, "how ignorable you become when you're fat – like a piece of furniture". She continues, "Catholics say that the sacraments are the outward sign of inward grace. Well, I have the outward sign of inward disgrace. I'm like a comic book version of myself." She laughs. "My body is intent on telling the story, so my mind had better go along with it and write the memoir."

Mantel has exorcised some ghosts, but isn't giving up yet. She is working on her ninth novel and recently judged the Granta Best of Young British Novelists selection. "I do have a sense of an era being over," she says. "Whether you're writing fiction or memoir, you come to a certain understanding by the end of it. I feel I have cast some light on my background and still there is so much that is untold."

Biography

Born in Derbyshire in 1952 and educated in Cheshire, Hilary Mantel read law at the LSE. Married at 20, she finished her degree at Sheffield University. She tried social work, then sold frocks in order to write in the evenings. She lived in Africa in the late Seventies. In 1982 she remarried her husband and his job took them to Saudi Arabia. Her first published novel was Every Day is Mother's Day. She won the Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love, and the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. Her other novels include Fludd, The Giant O'Brien and A Place of Greater Safety. A memoir, Giving Up The Ghost, and the short stories Learning To Talk (out in July), are published by Fourth Estate. Hilary Mantel lives with her husband in a flat in a converted lunatic asylum.

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