Hazel McHaffie

convent education

Giving up the Ghost

Knitting and bookMay, chez nous, is a month of concerted efforts to raise money for several charities close to my heart. I’m hoping to keep the new novel simmering gently, but plans are in hand for assorted foodie events and sales and door-to-door collecting and creating goods to sell, as well. The knitting needles are already clacking ten to the dozen, at the same time as I reduce the size of my tbr pile of books. Happy days!

I won’t bore you with the domestic saga but all you bookworms and thinkers might well be interested in the reading. First up was an autobiography which proved fascinating.

Hilary Mantell has become a household name: the only woman to win the Man Booker prize twice, a prolific writer, reputedly one of the greatest living literary authors. But she’s arrived at this reputation, this successful place, through much tribulation. Giving up the Ghost: a Memoir is her own story, written back in 2003, not ‘to solicit any special sympathy’, she says, after all, many other people have survived far worse and never committed anything to paper. Rather it was an attempt ‘to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness’; to lay a few ghosts to rest – the ghosts of past relations, past mistakes, the ghosts of her own unborn children. It was never intended to tell her whole story, and it doesn’t.

As a youngster ‘Ilary’ was weighed down by the burdens of her Catholic indoctrination: ‘You grow up believing that you’re wrong and bad. And for me, because I took what I was told really seriously, it bred a very intense habit of introspection and self-examination and a terrible severity with myself. So that nothing was ever good enough. It’s like installing a policeman, and one moreover who keeps changing the law.’  Her whole world was distorted through the lens of a perpetual guilt that started within five minutes of each confession. However, she lost her belief in God at the age of 12, a circumstance which had it’s own repercussions, although to the dispassionate observer some of her adult hauntings seem uncannily like the metamorphoses of her childhood superstitions, simply in a different guise.

There was little money and few luxuries when she was growing up but her situation resonated for me: it wasn’t unusual in the post-war years. I too remember looking on with wonder and not a little fear at the early vacuum cleaner – a Hoover Constellation which I was led to believe would gobble me whole if I allowed the nozzle anywhere near my long hair. I too vividly recall the flexes and tubing on appliances more sticky tape than original casing, coaxing each appliance to survive way beyond its sell-by date.

Secondary education for Hilary at a ‘rather posh‘ convent school was perceived through a more cynical eye, nevertheless, tales of humiliating punishments for unknown crimes, physical and psychological abuse inflicted by teachers, make sobering reading in these days where teachers are chary of even comforting a distressed child lest their contact be misinterpreted and reported.

For a long time ‘Protestantism’ carried much baggage in her mind, but it’s clear she harboured a great number of other misapprehensions and misunderstandings too, not all related to religious indoctrination and mystery, and perhaps more a consequence of the prevalent practice of simply not explaining things to children, coupled with her vivid imagination. Once again I identify with all of this. For her as well as for me ‘council housing’ carried sinister undertones. Aged three, Hilary was ‘waiting to change into a boy. When I am four this will occur‘, and she was nine before life disabused her of this notion, at which time she plummeted from ‘hero to zero‘. Neither, she discovered, was she actually destined to form a band of knights errant, nor become a parish priest, nor be gassed if she didn’t attend school.  She listened and overheard the adults but was forced to put her own construction on the meagre facts she gleaned.

Life was further complicated by the irregular arrangements within their household with her mother’s paramour, Jack, living under the same roof with the family. Hilary’s ‘childhood ended‘ (aged 11) in the autumn of 1963 when they moved to a semi-detached house in a different county, leaving her father behind, Jack now posing as her stepfather (although the relationship was not regularised through marriage), ‘the past and the future equally obscured by the smoke from my mother’s burning boats’. They now had a lawn, a rockery, an apple tree, new carpets … but another name. Nevertheless, their relocation didn’t stop new neighbours and school children taking a prurient interest in their private living arrangements, which Hilary resented greatly.

Even though her autobiography reveals a curious child with her fair share of scepticism, in many ways she remained a young woman of her time, and looking back she is amazed that she wasn’t more challenging; perhaps nowhere more so than in respect of her health. Even as a pre-teen she was never robust, but as time passed she was plagued with chronic and severe pain in many parts of her anatomy: ‘Miss Neverwell’ as she puts it. For years she was treated as psychiatrically ill, with devastating consequences. By the time she eventually diagnosed her own illness as endometriosis it was already so widespread and invasive that she was robbed of any chance of having children or ever recovering fully. Now she wonders why she didn’t insist doctors paid more attention to her complaints; back then ‘The proper attitude to doctors was humble gratitude; you cleaned the house before they arrived’. But the humiliation and shame of not being believed had a profound effect on her.

In spite of her frequent absences from school, she was clearly a very bright and able student, becoming head girl and entering law school. Once there, though, constant ill-health and an all-consuming passion for a young man changed the course of her life. They married while both still students, living in a hovel and close to the breadline. The marriage fell apart at one stage but some years later they re-married, and today she declares her worst fear is ‘losing my husband’, although curiously in the book she never gives him a name. His work as a geologist took them abroad for years – to Africa and Saudi Arabia – all rich fuel for Hilary’s active imagination and growing portfolio of writings.

Her body image was another ongoing issue for her. Following her diagnosis, a combination of medication and an underactive thyroid made her weight balloon. She went from being frail and skinny to being so large she had to move into ‘loose covers rather than frocks’. This affected not only her own behaviour – ‘When you get fat, you get a new personality’ – but also that of others – ‘When I was thin and quick on my feet, a girl with a head of blonde hair, I went for weeks without a kind word. But why would I need one? When I grew fat, I was assumed to be placid. I was the same strung-out fired-up person I’d always been, but to the outward eye I had acquired serenity. A whole range of maternal virtues were ascribed to me.’

Like many before her, Mantell was not always the hugely successful writer she is today. Publishers rejected her manuscripts – how sick they must be in hindsight! But perhaps the most surprising thing for me, reading her autobiographical account, is that she is addicted to colons and semi-colons, using them with an extravagance and abandon I have never seen elsewhere; I counted ten within two paragraphs early on in the book! A tutor on a creative writing course would make short shrift of that kind of obsession, but when you’re a writer of Mantell’s stature it seems it can become part of your signature.

On with the next ball of mohair!Charity knitting And the next book.

Knitting and latest book

 

 

 

 

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