A new year is generally considered to be a good time to look ahead. We are told to bury the ghosts of the past, say goodbye to our inner demons, purge the irritants from our outer world, and make a fresh start.
The late Hilary Mantel, one of the greatest historical novelists of our time, would likely have scoffed at this myth of a clean break. She’d spent her life dealing with the dead, listening to what they said and what they left out. Kings and queens, royals and commoners, ghosts and witches, spoke to her, not only about the things that had once happened, but also about stuff happening here and now.
Like the angel in artist Paul Klee’s iconic monoprint Angelus Novus, Mantel always had one twinkling eye looking behind her, even as she kept up with the goings-on of her time. As her long-time editor Nicholas Pearson puts it in a note in A Memoir Of My Former Self, her recently published posthumous collection of essays, “What emerges is a portrait of Hilary Mantel’s life in her own words, ‘messages from people I used to be’.” We are haunted as much by messages from beyond the grave, as from the selves we have buried inside us.
For me, this volume of journalism, book reviews and occasional pieces, collected between 1987-2017, felt like the best companion with which to begin the new year. If you haven’t read the Cromwell Trilogy, Mantel’s immortal masterpiece, this volume is, without a doubt, one of the tastiest appetisers to the treat that’s awaiting you. And if you are already a fan of Mantel’s historical saga, the pieces here will help you appreciate her masterwork even better.
In spite of the dazzling brilliance of each of the pieces in A Memoir Of My Former Self, there isn’t any trace of the perfectionist’s anxiety in this volume. If Mantel is cutting and unsparing about others (“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.”), she doesn’t hesitate to change her mind, revisit an idea with a reformed perspective.
In an essay dating back to 2007, she looks back on Princess Diana’s death in 1997, and the intensity with which the British public grieved their beloved ex-royal. Mantel sounds mildly repelled by the “teddy bears, doggerel verse, and flowers rotting in cellophane”, left by the public as tribute to their Princess. A decade later, she seems to have had a softening of heart. In another essay, she refers to the same excess of wilted flowers and padded hearts with far more sympathy. By this time, these relics present themselves as evidence of “the struggle for self-expression of individuals who were spiritually and imaginatively deprived”.
One of the biggest advantages of being a career critic (or columnist) is that you usually get an opportunity (or several) to redeem yourself in print. The longer, and more storied, your professional life becomes, it is less and less likely that readers will remember, let alone hold you accountable to, all the (consistent or conflicting) opinions you may have expressed on record. For Mantel, of course, criticism was not a career. It was, rather, an extension of the prodigious gift she had as a writer of fiction, a side hustle that enabled her to earn a living by flexing her thinking muscles as she worked on her tomes, often for years on end.
For Mantel’s admirers, though, reading A Memoir Of My Former Self is like looking through a scope into the inner workings of her mind. In these pages, we see her thoughts in action as they plunge into the deep vault of her reading, unspool complex webs of ideas, or spar with her own sensibilities. Like a diligent gardener who likes a good adventure, she tends to the soil carefully, but scatters the seeds that will eventually grow into an eclectic arbour. There is always a sense of excitement about what history might reveal or the surprising turns that the world of the living might take.
It is perhaps a sign of Mantel’s greatness that her highest praises for others hold equally true for her own body of work. In a gem of an essay, Nostalgic For Disorder, she sings paeans to a genre she calls “RIBs” (“really interesting books”). These books, Mantel goes on to explain, “are like treasure maps, the marks on the paper are only symbolic indications of the riches to be recovered”. It’s hard to think of a better blurb to describe the achievement of Mantel’s own collection.
Like an inscrutable RIB, A Memoir Of My Former Self hides more than it reveals. At its most obvious, it describes the evolution of an inspired genius, Mantel’s decades of toil and trouble to get to the bottom of truths that are ephemeral, obscure, and often deeply contested. But, for us, the reader, reading this volume is like sitting in on a masterclass taught by Mantel. It is a 400-page journey that makes us learn and unlearn, teaches us the art of asking good questions, and, most of all, pushes us to reject cliches and stereotypes in the rulebook.
For instance, it takes Mantel a few carefully chosen words to put to rest the debate about fact and fiction. “In any novel, once it’s finished, you can’t separate fact from fiction—it’s like trying to return mayonnaise to oil and egg yolk.” Even as she writes about women and their lives (especially of her own body, riddled with the pain of endometriosis), Mantel likes to call a spade a spade. She has no patience with fellow writers “who want to write about women in the past but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them”. That’s why her estimation of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Jane Howard shine through, because she sees through their fallibilities, rather than papering over their slips.
History, for Mantel, isn’t an inferior form of the present that needs to be sanitised. The past, she wrote, “isn’t a rehearsal: it is the show itself”. We need to remember that “our ancestors were not us, in an unevolved form”. Fundamentally, “history is not the past—it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past”.
In a world where truth and falsehood are getting dangerously mixed up every day, where our moral compass can’t identify genocide from self-defence, and myth keeps getting in the way of truth, we need the relentless rigour, clinical eye, and uncompromising humanity of Mantel to forge ahead.
Rereadings is a monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times.
Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.