Mantel’s ghost – my fury

Hilary Mantel – Giving up the ghost, a memoir

This book has roused profound emotions in me. I should wait until we discuss it next week, but by then the iron will no longer be so hot.  Reading it has cured me – possibly only temporarily – of envy and prejudice; it has also aroused in me a retrospective anger on a vast scale for the treatment of women in the past as well as firing me to write better.

This memoir is very short. As I read, I ached with envy over Mantel’s delicious touch with words and her self-deprecating humour. After admitting that she hardly knows how to write about herself, and listing her usual recommendations to writers, she continues:

“Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips, and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage!

But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre. (Don’t use foreign expressions; it’s élitist.)”

She takes us back with her to the smells, sensations, fears, confusions and delights of very early childhood. She captures that total sense of being the centre of the world, that we all once had. She hammers on about the family Catholicism that is an unavoidable, and mostly pernicious, influence in her upbringing. She enables us to follow, step by step, as her body is consumed by an ill-defined disease. Her ‘unwellness’ is alternately treated or dismissed by her relatives and doctors.

As a young married woman, taking her body and its persistent pains to doctors, she meets  breathtakingly patronising assumptions: that she will be fine once she starts breeding, that she is perhaps overestimating her intellectual capabilities (as a law student), that she really needs mental treatment – in that period that would be tranquilizers and antidepressants. When these fail to cure her pain, she is hospitalised on antipsychotics and then given the whole pharmacopeia. No one actually listens to her.

In her mid twenties she finally researches and correctly diagnoses her acute form of endometriosis. By the age of 27 she has had a total hysterectomy and a medically induced menopause. In the succeeding years the problem returns crippling her already stick-like body.

Treatment, including steroids, then turns her from a wraith into the substantial woman with which we are familiar. And yes, I tend to make assumptions about substantial people. I try not to, and reading this memoir will help me to greater compassion.

I still envy Mantel her writing skills, but I no longer wish to swap places with her. I think she would have developed her astonishing skills with or without the extreme trials in her life and the sadness induced by her loss of fertility. But I remain furious with the ignorant, presumptuous people who prolonged her pain and made her achievements such hard work.

I think this book should be compulsory reading for all doctors – not to teach them to diagnose better, but to LISTEN.

Sorry, far too long a post, but her courage in writing this tricky memoir should be celebrated.

6 thoughts on “Mantel’s ghost – my fury

    • Yes, I have Bring up the Bodies on my shelf waiting for a big enough gap in my schedule, I shall get stuck in now. It is several years since I read Wolf Hall and I was totally absorbed by it, though my arms ached holding the hardback up in bed!

  1. This has always been a problem, but way back in the 1960s and 70s, as far as most doctors were concerned, women – particularly young women – were just big children. At least you can choose a woman doctor now if you wish, though it doesn’t always make much difference.

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