Magazine article The Spectator

Medical Marathon Runner

Magazine article The Spectator

Medical Marathon Runner

Article excerpt

GIVING UP THE GHOST by Hilary Mantel Fourth Estate, 16, pp. 246, ISBN 0007148410

In the course of this moving memoir Hilary Mantel explains that she turned from writing fiction to an essay in autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost, because `the book of me' was being written by other people, by parents, by the child she once was, and that this is `an attempt to seize the copyright in myself.' The result is bleak, uncompromising, frequently very funny, and at times harrowing in the extreme.

'Hilary, as she was called by her unaspirating family, grew up in the 1950s, the only daughter of a blue-collar Catholic couple living just outside Manchester; her grandfather had worked on the railway, her grandmother as a mill-hand. She was clearly an eccentric little creature, whose supersensitive intuition alerted her to the dark undercurrents within the home, in particular the uneasy relationship between her parents which eventually resulted in the supplanting of her quiet, bespectacled father by her mother's lover, the bullying Jack - an awkward situation in a solidly Catholic community. Another fact of life early absorbed was the subjugation of the female members of this tight-knit society, in which the women existed only to breed and to wait on their men; none of the women in Hilary's street, she notes, ever sat down.

Although avid for stories and fascinated by words, the little girl is at first uninterested in learning to read and appalled to discover that school is compulsory. 'I thought that you could just give it a try and that if you didn't like it you were free to revert to your former habits.' But if the nuns were uninspiring as teachers, the Church itself provided rich nourishment for the enquiring mind: the concept of transubstantiation was no problem, but nothing could make convincing the reality of hell-fire: being a practical child, 'I had some idea what would be the extent of the devil's coal bill'. At the age of seven she decided she would become a priest and started practising for her future profession with the help of a kindly aunt, Annie Connor.

`Mrs Connor, now, I've come for your confession.' `Oh, come in Father,' she would say. `Would you like a chocolate biscuit?'

At 18, a tiny, slender and determined young woman, Hilary wins a place at the London School of Economics, marries her sweetheart and in order to be with him moves to Sheffield to complete her law degree. …

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