Mantel comes from the working class—Irish Catholic immigrants, textile workers. She was born in 1952, in the village of Hadfield, near Manchester. Her mother went to work in the mills at fourteen. Her father was a clerk. Her childhood, she writes, was “distinguished by a pervasive quality of fear. The dead whistled in the walls; drawers contained photographs of babies who had failed to thrive, of a little girl burnt up in her own nightdress.” For a while when she was eight, her field of vision was filled with “a constant, moving backdrop of tiny skulls.”
Around that time, a curious transition occurred in her home. The family took in a lodger, named Jack Mantel, and he replaced Hilary’s father in her mother’s life. The father didn’t move out; he just moved to a different bedroom. In the evening, the mother and Jack would stay in the kitchen, the father in the front room. This went on for four years.
WHAT? This is so much more interesting than that stodgy British Council site.
Hilary was the eldest of three children—a smart, bookish girl. Her mother was ambitious for her, and when Hilary was eleven the family moved from Derbyshire to Cheshire so that she could attend a good convent school. With the move, the father vanished; Hilary never saw him again. The family changed its name to Mantel, and Hilary was told to say that Jack was her father.
At the convent, Mantel became “top girl”; after graduation she proceeded to law school. She married young, at twenty, whereupon her health broke down: she began having crippling pains in her legs and her gut. Her doctors, concluding that this was all in her head, treated her with psychotropic drugs, which, for a time, turned her into a raving maniac. She left school and took a job as a social worker. In 1977, her husband, Gerald McEwan, a geologist, accepted a post in Botswana; they lived there for five years. Then McEwan’s work took them to Saudi Arabia, where they spent four years. In between, Mantel became sicker, figured out from medical books what her illness was (endometriosis), underwent a hysterectomy, divorced her husband, and married him again. As a result of hormone treatment, she seems to have more or less doubled in body weight. She says she is a size 20. “I’m like a comic-book version of myself,” she told an interviewer.
I was just talking with some people last night about thinking writers are locked in turrets typing away all day and probably a bit boring. I think I dispelled them of that notion; this article would have helped.
We have bad relationships, just like you. We have messed up childhoods, just like you. Only we write about them.