If it is true, as Saint Augustine says, that the dead aren’t absent but merely invisible, then somewhere round about, as I write about her and you read about her, Hilary Mantel is present. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she is present not only if Augustine’s statement is true but if I believe it, or if you do. Mantel believed it: she quotes it twice in her 2017 BBC Reith Lectures on the art of historical fiction, which are included among the essays and reviews that make up A Memoir of My Former Self. Elsewhere she says, apropos Princess Diana, “For some people, being dead is only a relative condition.” And I want to believe it too. I imagine her raised eyebrow, her incredulous laugh, as she looks over my shoulder at the computer screen.

I met her only twice: the first time when she was awarded an honorary degree by the University of London and I was asked to give the oration in her honor. The pomposity of the proceedings was beyond parody, and as we bowed and scraped, wearing our silly hats and gowns (royalty was present, in the form of Princess Anne, chancellor of the university), Mantel managed simultaneously to project genuine warmth and gratitude, and enormous skepticism. Not long afterward I went with a friend to the opening run of the adaptation of Wolf Hall in the West End, and as we sidled into our seats, there she was, sitting with her husband, Gerald McEwen, directly behind us. We whooped and giggled like teenagers meeting by accident in an unfamiliar setting (What? You here?) as she raised an eyebrow at her own royal entertainment. Mantel died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of seventy in September 2022, a week before a planned move to Kinsale in Ireland—not far from my own patch. I would have liked to have got to know her better, but maybe, as Augustine suggests, I still can.

Born in 1952 in the small town of Glossop in the north of England, Mantel described herself as “an uneasy mix of Derbyshire and Irish.” Her great-grandparents were millworkers in County Waterford in Ireland before they became millworkers in the Peak District; she was raised a Catholic by her mother and two fathers. (They all lived in the same house when she was small: stepfather in the main bedroom, father in the spare room.) A convent education; a degree in law, though she never practiced. (It’s no accident that so many of her central characters start out as lawyers but find the profession wanting.)

She described her concerns as a writer as “with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims.” She finished her first published novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985), in a flat in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she and her husband were living in the early 1980s because of Gerald’s work as a geologist: “Each room had many doors, double doors made of dark wood, so it was like a coffin showroom. We took some of them off, but the impression of death persisted.” She wanted the restless dead, not the coffined variety.

“If we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art,” she insisted, and she kept on conjuring animated specters across twelve novels; numerous short stories; a devastating 2003 memoir of childhood perplexity and illness, Giving Up the Ghost (“What’s to be done with the lost, the dead,” she says of her childhood phantoms, “but write them into being?”); and a large archive of journalism, essays, public lectures, and parapolitical interventions—more than seventy of which are now brought together for the first time in this collection.

By the time of her death Mantel had become a household name in Britain, in a celebratory sense for her twice-Booker-Prize-winning series of novels about England under the Tudors (adapted for the stage and for a BBC miniseries), and in a tabloid-outrage sense for her admission in 2014 that she had fantasized about the assassination of Margaret Thatcher and then written a story about it (there were calls for a police inquiry) and for her astringent takedowns of the ailing British monarchy’s attempts to manufacture and maintain itself through the bodies of its women.

The essays collected here offer personal reflections and trenchant opinions on fiction, film, politics, and the art of writing, published over a span of thirty years. Some of the earliest include a series of mordant film reviews published in The Spectator in the late 1980s. She sits in the cinema, rolling her eyes. (By 1990 Mickey Rourke’s career “has a gruesome fascination, like the site of an especially gory road accident”; the final scene in Fatal Attraction finds Dan and Beth “safe in each other’s arms, and the golden lighting gone up a notch; we are left with a family snapshot, basted in marmalade.”) There are autobiographical sketches: a portrait of her stepfather, Jack Mantel; several accounts of the misery of living in the Gulf region in the early years of her marriage; and a series of moving, enraged essays written in the early 2000s, recounting her years of suffering from misdiagnosed endometriosis, and blasting the misogyny of the medical establishment. Twenty-five years’ worth of reviews for The New York Review are scaled down to ten pieces, including a brilliant analysis of the myth of Jane Austen as “everybody’s dear Jane”—dutiful, self-effacing, stay-at-home—and several essays that take so-called middlebrow women writers (Rebecca West, Sybille Bedford) seriously and pinpoint the precise ways in which they ask the reader to think differently.


The book’s editor, Nicholas Pearson, sensibly reprints all five of Mantel’s Reith Lectures—what we might think of as the crowning achievement of her public persona, if only the phrase weren’t so royalist. Named after Baron John Reith, the champion of postwar British public service broadcasting, the tradition began in 1948 with a series of lectures by Bertrand Russell on “Authority and the Individual.” That was the subject of Mantel’s Reith Lectures too (although she titled them “Resurrection: The Art and Craft”), and arguably of all her writing. What motivated her was the attempt to imagine or to understand (the two verbs are almost interchangeable in her lexicon) the relationship between people and the structures of power that support and constrain them. The remarkable thing is that she managed to persuade that most philistine of bodies, the British public, that the way to do this was through fiction—and not just any fiction, but historical fiction, that lowly genre, nearly as bad as sci-fi.

Not since Sir Walter Scott has historical fiction enjoyed such a reputation in English letters. At the height of Wolf Hall fever Mantel was giving interviews comparing Thomas Cromwell with Boris Johnson’s once-favored courtier Dominic Cummings (though Cromwell was undoubtedly “much better dressed”). But the transformation of the genre’s fortunes didn’t come easily. She wrote her first novel, about the French Revolution, in the 1970s and couldn’t get a publisher interested until the early 1990s (it was the fifth of her novels to come out) because “historical fiction wasn’t respectable or respected. It meant historical romance.” Mantel’s description of herself as subject to “marauding” ideas, “fettered” in the service of a violent past, is about as far from romance as it is possible to get. “You have to keep shocking your psyche,” she writes, “or nothing happens in your writing—nothing charged, nothing enduring. It’s imaginary encounters with death that generate life on the page.”

To make those imaginary encounters feel real she spent years verifying the details of the lives of her lawyers-turned-revolutionaries—Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins—understanding the politics of the factions and the counterfactions, researching the fortunes of the relatives left behind in the country, assembling backstories for the wives, the lovers, and the countless enemies. Accuracy was important to her. She checked her facts and wove in actual speeches, verbatim newspaper reports. If a historical character missed the storming of the Bastille, as Danton did, his fictional counterpart couldn’t make up for the omission, however much a novelist might wish to place him in the middle of the action.

One of the most beguiling aspects of A Place of Greater Safety (1992) is the amount of time we spend indoors, with the wives and the cooks and the part-time revolutionaries who would have liked to get out more. Mantel’s chief concern, she explained, was with “the interior drama of my characters’ lives. From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think and feel.” But she was determined not to falsify the other kind of interior in her quest for feeling: “I would make up a man’s inner torments, but not, for instance, the colour of his drawing-room wallpaper.”

This balance between fact and fiction was the driving force behind all her writing, and it sustained her because it offered not only a shape for her novelistic inquiry, a question for the novels to answer—How do people manage their hopes and desires and the forward momentum of their lives within the limits imposed on them?—but also a purpose, one bordering on moral justification. Her books were canvases or tapestries (she was fond of both analogies) on which she displayed characters rebelling against order, hierarchy, and sentiment: the revolutionaries against the ancien régime, badly behaved teenagers against the biddable, pragmatic Thomas Cromwell against dogmatic Thomas More, skepticism against faith.

There are moments in these essays when she comes close to promoting skepticism as a moral virtue, and she thinks reading novels helps cultivate it. In a 2008 essay, “Real Books in Imaginary Houses,” she draws up her battle lines in favor of the doubting, the irreverent, and even the fickle, against conservatism, against nostalgia. “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.” And then there are the sentimentalists:


There are people who declare, “I love reading,” which is a lame-brain statement like “I love children.” When anyone refers—as papers and magazines do at holiday time—to the pleasure of “escaping” into a good book, you can be sure the writer has no idea what books are for. They are not there to allow you to escape, but to give you information about the human condition, which is a thing you cannot escape. You find out the use of books when you are very young. History, biography, and novels in particular lend you experience that is not yet your own. They are an advance paid on life. They hand you different scripts to try. They rehearse you. If you want entertainment, roll dice; then you can maintain your happy-go-lucky innocence. Novels teach you that actions have consequences. They help you grow up.

The title essay in this volume, “A Memoir of My Former Self,” was first published in The Guardian in 2010, five years after her mysterious, witchy novel Beyond Black. The first of her books to be long-listed for the Booker, Beyond Black is about a psychic who works the soulless function rooms of the English suburbs and is subject to the claims of the malicious, unquiet spirits she conjures—it’s a surreal take on the familiar fictional situation of a character haunted by her traumatic past. Mantel encountered her “former self” during her research for that book, when she paid a medium (she found him so irritating that in the essay she calls him Twerp), selling his wares at a stall in a hired hall, to experience “past-life regression”:

What is hard to convey about the next hour is how my attention was riven, split. One part of me was in the roaring room, despising Twerp, annoyed with myself for producing a past life that was, in light of my background, predictable: born in the north to a family of millworkers, I had produced a child of the early industrial revolution, a miserable illegitimate infant called Sara, of an age to clutch her mother’s skirts. Go on to when she’s twelve, Twerp suggested; irritated by the interruption, my fantasy obeyed him…. I told Twerp that my mother was dead and I was running away. On a hill above the town, I looked down on the sooty world I had known, turned my back on it and commenced a new chapter in my penny novelette.

I very much wanted to know how Sara got out of her plight—friendless, uneducated, destitute. But Twerp wanted her to be twenty-one now and so she was: “Are you courting, Sara?” Now it wasn’t just me who was cross with Twerp; Sara was nettled too.

This battle between Twerp and Mantel is over how to write a historical novel. Twerp wants his characters’ lives to fit the established pattern of sentimental fiction, punctuated by the traditional highs and lows—he’s constructing the kind of plot where the reader knows where she is going and it doesn’t take long to get there. Mantel is interested in the gaps in the historical record—she wants to pause and consider (and get her reader to consider) all the bits we can’t know of past lives. She wants to open up new perspectives on the past, and she is unapologetic about the fact that it will require some work on our part if we are to understand them properly.

She had no time for fiction or film that doesn’t ask something (often quite a lot) of its audience. We don’t tend to think of her as a didactic writer, but she had lessons to teach, and some of those lessons were quite specific. One of her tasks in Bring Up the Bodies (2012), for example, was “to persuade my readers that the broken stones of the abbeys can lie, that their pathos is unearned, and that dissolving the monasteries was a reasonable thing to do.” But the broader moral lying behind her portrayal of Cromwell’s campaign was that people should (like Cromwell) think for themselves: it is dangerous to sacrifice “our need for freedom” to the confirmations of plot and the safety of traditional authority, in society or in books.

But as she implies, this split is also inside Mantel. Like all writers, she needs the established pattern in order to get anywhere at all with filling out the pages of her fiction. Plot, the more predictable the better, closes down possibilities, and that is a boon for a writer, who is otherwise subject to the chaos of reality. You want the teeming spirits, the badly behaved and random details—but to make a story you also need what Mantel calls the “preordained.” In a 2009 essay, “Persons from Porlock,” she claims that “fear of commitment lies behind the fear of writing”:

You dread setting off down any one narrative path, because you know your choice will make most of the others impossible. Select one, write it, and it begins to seem in some sense preordained, natural, correct; the other options fade from memory.

The writer is the lonely, godlike creator of the narrative situation, and the burden of that role can be “anguished” and “wretched.” How handy, then, if the outlines of the story are not only preordained but have in fact already happened. In historical fiction numerous choices (characters, setting, plot) have already been made, and by an entity far more reliable than Twerp, leaving the novelist free to get down to the business of exploring the gaps between what characters do and what they think and feel.

Historical fiction’s predetermined plot appears to set it in opposition to the kind of stuff a novelist makes up. But the distance between Mantel’s historical fictions and her contemporary novels is merely a matter of degree. “The most meaningful things in their lives have happened already,” she says approvingly of the characters in John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002); she commends Sybille Bedford for her conviction that “the forces that shape our behaviour…lie further back than we know.” These aren’t, I think, merely commonsense statements about how individuals are shaped by the history from which they have come. Rather, Mantel is interested in plots that can’t unfold any way other than the way they unfold, in the relentlessness of consequences set in train by the past.

Take one of my favorite novels, An Experiment in Love (1995). It is many things: an account of a character very like Mantel (she’s called Carmel) growing up as a Catholic in a poor family, in a mill town in the north of England, who moves to London to study law; a book about “appetite” that features the bodies of some young women growing thinner as they starve themselves and others much, much fatter as they try to disguise unplanned pregnancies; a dissection of class politics in postwar Britain, explored through a group of women who end up living together in a dorm in their first year at university. But it is also an experiment in narrative preordainment and the struggle for freedom from the engine of plot.

When Julia, Carmel’s friend from convent school, turns up at the dorm, excited for a new London adventure, she wonders whether their situation most resembles a novel by Edna O’Brien or one by Muriel Spark. If the setup were limited to Carmel and Julia this would be O’Brien territory—a crisp, knowing, realist bildungsroman exploring the inevitably dashed hopes and desires of convent girls in the big city. But there is a third girl, Karina. Karina’s parents are from an unidentified Eastern European country, she has an unpronounceable surname, and her family history is telescoped by Carmel’s mother into the muttered phrase “cattle-waggons.” Shadowy, vaguely threatening, Karina belongs in a novel by Spark. Carmel’s fated relationship with her begins in primary school, when the two girls are five years old and Carmel kicks Karina’s baby doll out of her toy stroller.

There is no hope of brushing this aside as the casual action of an innocent child, because novels teach you that actions have consequences. The plot (which I won’t spoil) moves inexorably toward a catastrophic denouement, though it takes nearly fifteen years to get there. On the way, Mantel plants several clues to her experiment with Sparkian predestination. The London Hall of Residence where the girls live recalls the May of Teck Club in Spark’s 1963 novel The Girls of Slender Means; Carmel grows ever more slender due to her lack of means; and there is a fur coat that serves the same purpose in the plot as Spark’s Schiaparelli dress. Carmel thinks she is stepping out into the world as a free agent, but the most meaningful thing in her life has happened already—not only in the plot of this novel but in a novel before that. All Carmel has power over, under Mantel’s pen, is how she thinks about it.

One way of understanding Mantel’s interest in the preordained is that she was experimenting with how to think about the narrowing of possibilities in her own life, and particularly her infertility—a consequence of her misdiagnosed endometriosis. Her own unborn children, she wrote in Giving Up the Ghost, were “stretching out their ghost fingers to grab the pen.” “I wasn’t certain, and I’m still not certain, whether I wanted children,” she told The New Yorker in 2012. “What I wanted was the choice.”

Novels may be an advance paid on life, they may rehearse you, but for scripts you are mostly not going to be offered, parts you won’t get to play. “When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led,” and though fiction can accomplish a sort of secular resurrection of those other lives, it can’t change the main plot. Imprisoned in a body that is determined to thwart you, and subject to a medical establishment that refuses to listen, what is there to do but think differently? All that is left is skepticism—the raised eyebrow that can do little to alleviate pain, except help you distance yourself from it.

“For most of my career I wrote about odd and marginal people,” Mantel explains in her fourth Reith Lecture:

They were psychic. Or religious. Or institutionalised. Or social workers. Or French. My readers were a small and select band, until I decided to march onto the middle ground of English history and plant a flag.

Given Mantel’s open distrust of hierarchical structures of power, and of English royalism in particular, we might expect that her move from the periphery to the center of English political life would have the effect of destabilizing the middle ground. But championing meritocracy, questioning deference, and advocating for the common man and woman are not, or haven’t been in Britain for some time, revolutionary doctrines; nor is skepticism a particularly radical quality. It shouldn’t be a surprise that middle England took her to their hearts.

Mantel warned against deriving lessons from the past, mostly, I think, because the lessons drawn in British politics have been principally for conservative, nostalgic ends—from Margaret Thatcher’s praise (via Edmund Burke) of Britain’s Glorious Revolution as superior to France’s bloody one, to the myth of blitz spirit or that of the benign, chummy, colonial empire (think of Boris Johnson quoting Kipling’s “Mandalay” on a state visit to Myanmar). “The past is not a rehearsal,” Mantel insisted, warning against drawing didactic contrasts between great Britain past and declining Britain now: history is not “a branch of morality.” But historical fiction may be. In Mantel’s hands it teaches us that life is not for changing, only for considering differently.