Hilary Mantel’s Double Vision

Hilary Mantel’s earlier works exhibit her ability to make the most of the least.Photograph by David Levenson / Getty 

When Hilary Mantel was a young girl, she started seeing things that weren’t there. Along with the growing pains that plagued her adolescence, she suffered from frequent and debilitating headaches that were often presaged by visual disturbances. Floating specks or gold flares would play hide-and-seek in the corner of her eye. “Over the years the premonitory symptoms of migraine have become more than the dangerous puzzle that they were earlier in my life,” she writes in “Giving Up the Ghost,” her 2003 memoir chronicling her severe, long misdiagnosed endometriosis. “They have become a psychic adornment or flourish.” Even, she hazards, “an art form.”

Mantel’s endometriosis was eventually identified in her late twenties, but not before a hysterectomy. (A few years later, hormone replacements would double her weight.) The prodromal migraines, however, never went away. “I had known days of my life when everything hurt,” she explains, and yet “it was within the migraine aura that my words came out wrong.” The headaches unmade the world around her. Language faltered in the face of indescribable pain. But the auras also remade her world. “Migraine stirred the air in dull shifts and eddies, charged it with invisible presences and the echoes of strangers’ voices; it gave me morbid visions, like visitations, premonitions of dissolution.”

This difficulty in distinguishing what was real in her field of vision led Mantel, however uneasily, to her vocation. In response to the migraine-induced “gaps in the world,” she reached for a concrete, tangible pursuit. On days when she was “half-well,” Mantel began to read up on the French Revolution, assembling her notes, organized across charts and index cards, into what eventually became the historical epic “A Place of Greater Safety.” “I was too sick to do a responsible job, a professional job,” she writes in her memoir. The book gave her something to do. The work of historical reconstruction, of distinguishing established fact from speculation, was a way to negotiate her internal disorientation. “I wrote and wrote it.” She struggled to get the book published. She got sicker. She kept writing. “Bald, odd-shaped, deaf but not defeated, I sat down and wrote another book.”

Toward the end of “Giving Up the Ghost,” Mantel offers up a qualified confession, or writerly origin story, that soon grows into something stranger:

I am not writing to solicit any special sympathy. People survive much
worse and never put pen to paper. I am writing to take charge of the
story of my childhood and my childlessness; and in order to locate
myself, if not within a body, then in the narrow space between one
letter and the next, between the lines where the ghosts of meanings
are. Spirit needs a house and lodges where it can; you don’t kill
yourself, just because you need loose covers rather than frocks. There
are other people who, like me, have had the roots of their personality
torn up. You need to find yourself, in the maze of social
expectations, the thickets of memory: just which bits of you are left
intact? I have been so mauled by medical procedures, so sabotaged and
made over, so thin and so fat, that sometimes I feel that each morning
it is necessary to write myself into being—even if the writing is
aimless doodling that no one will ever read, or the diary that no one
can see till I’m dead.

Writing enabled Mantel to locate herself in a body that felt increasingly alien. In the face of confusion and loss, she began to tell stories. Autobiography or confessional writing is often viewed as a genre of exorcism, but in Mantel’s description it is an act of incorporation, or fleshing out. Despite its title, “Giving Up the Ghost” does not end by giving up its ghosts but by reanimating them.

In her fiction and essays, she continually returned to the body in pain. Her work is strewn with bodies in various contortions, from the schoolgirls who shrink and grow in her 1995 novel, “An Experiment in Love,” to the anorexic saints of her cult essay “Some Girls Want Out.” (The symptoms of Gemma Galgani “are an art form and a highly successful one,” Mantel writes in the essay. “Survivors are reluctant to admit that anorexia, which in the end leads to invalidity and death, is along the way a path of pleasure and power: it is the power that confers pleasure, however freakish and fragile the gratification may seem.”) There are phantom pregnancies and infertile wombs. And then there are dead bodies. As she explains in a lecture on why she became a historical novelist, her own great-grandmother was known as “the woman who laid out the dead.” Mantel once described the genre she felt most at home in as horror. Fair enough.

Her writing eschews the simplistic cliché that great art emerges from great suffering. But her novels and essays repeatedly center around figures who invent new ways of ordering the world in response to desperate circumstances. Her most famous creation is arguably Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless, implacably organized antihero of the “Wolf Hall” trilogy, who is the fulcrum of a world-historical epic that features a cast of hundreds of major and minor characters. Yet it is Mantel’s earlier novels, which give voice to narrators in more modest, meagre circumstances, that might be her most exemplary. They exhibit her ability to make the most of the least.

Her inspired 1998 historical novel, “The Giant, O’Brien,” is loosely based on the life of Charles Byrne, the eighteenth-century “Irish giant” who toured London as a spectacle until his premature death at the age of twenty-two. In Mantel’s version, the Giant is not only a sufferer but also a storyteller—a tall man who tells tall tales. On his way to London, the Giant spins out fables that mix “bliss and blood” to entertain and placate the men who act as his agents. Throughout, his relationship to his surroundings is perilous. He is besieged by frequent aching both in his body and in his brain. During one of his headaches, “the skin at his temples seemed frail, and he wondered if inner provocation would break it.” At times his headaches make him fear his skull will burst. At other times they fill his mind with strange visions. In his sleep, “the Giant sat among the dead, and heard the voices of the old men . . . dry whispers, like autumn leaves rubbed in a bag.” But it is not the Giant’s second sight that makes him valuable in his lifetime. No one wants to pay for what he sees; they just want to look at him.

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