A Memoir of My Formal Self by Hilary Mantel
Published by John Murray

HILARY Mantel’s death a little more than a year ago deprived us of a writer seemingly at the peak of her powers.

Her Wolf Hall Trilogy was widely praised and so it comes as no surprise to see this collection of her shorter pieces.

The National: TImeloy reminder of the talent we have lost – and a sliding doors moment for Scottish historical fiction

One of her first big gigs was being appointed film critic for The Spectator in the 1980s. Her reviews were fast-paced and succinct; droll, unafraid to slay sacred cows.

The bullish figure of Mickey Rourke arrives at her abattoir with his performance in Wild Orchid: “No connoisseur of the preposterous should miss it.”

His acting in Barfly is dismissed in two lines – you might say Mantel performs a wild orchidectomy.

Her opinions were carefully finessed as with her thoughts on Wings Of Desire by Wim Wenders. She correctly considers the harsh judgement it might seem “a piece of mannered, indulgent emptiness”.

We admire her description of Richard E Grant as Withnail with his “greenish Pre-Raphaelite pallor”.

Then there’s Vanessa Redgrave in Prick Up Your Ears as “her usual brittle self, wearing an antiseptic smile like a kindly school nurse”.

Mantel’s articles for The New York Review of Books are longer, more serious. Here her gimlet eye spots “maddening imprecision” in Gitta Sereny’s book on the child killer, Mary Bell. Simultaneously Mantel is quick to acknowledge Sereny’s fearlessness, that “she has travelled further than most of us in the realms of moral squalor”.

Another piece focuses on capital punishment in the United States and concludes: “A modern nation that deals in state-sponsored death, becomes, in part, dead in itself; dead certainly, to the enlightened ideals from which America derives its existence as a nation.”

Mantel is more generous on the skills of other writers.

Take these lines on VS Naipaul: “Each sentence pounces on its meaning, neat as a cat. Each paragraph has attack, dash, elan.”

But she admits he isn’t jokey, that there’s “no bravura display”. Which might be why some take against his work.

Jane Austen was Mantel’s literary heroine, and she quotes Auden’s line that “beside her, Joyce seems as innocent as grass”.

Walter Scott’s admiration for Austen’s naturalism is critiqued as a “backhanded, self-limiting compliment for one author to pay to another”. Mantel celebrates Austen’s filleting of men who are “bumbling, inept, malicious, or ridiculous”, and stresses Austen’s big lesson: “Men do not know what are the events of women’s lives”.

As for Mantel’s own life, we read with horror her experience of endometriosis, how she was diagnosed on the operating table. With a pithy pitilessness at her own fate, she notes: “… to make me viable, I had to lose part of my bladder and my bowel, my womb and my ovaries.”

She underlines how the medical profession, and others, must understand that endometriosis is “unpredictable, capricious, tenacious, a destroyer of careers, families and relationships.”

But she knew better times – a day in 1986, in Limassol, Cyprus, is lovingly described as the happiest day of her life. She feels lucky to “pinpoint it, to log it, to feel it while it’s happening and skewer it down.” Mantel’s incessant desire to nail the ineffable is vividly apparent here.

We learn too how she became a writer after a push from reading the Glaswegian psychiatrist R.D. Laing, then “fashionable and famous”. Reading his sentences, “alive to language and gesture”, and a placement in the Probation Services in the early 1970s taught Mantel: “If I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t have to worry about inventing material, I’d already got it.”

Which brings us to her historical fictions. She thought Scottish politics of the Tudor era, “… so violently interesting that if I once began on them, they would monopolise the plot”. Our loss.

She thought Scott, “a writer of great power”, a “shrewd manager of his own talent”.

As for herself, she thought being described as a British writer “meaningless” and rejected the title “English writer”, saying ‘it is simply what I am not”.

She notes correctly that English schoolchildren learn no Scottish history, only English, and call this “British history”.

Her big worry was this: “All these markers – descent, religion, region, accent – are quickly perceived and decoded by those who possess Englishness, and to this day they are used to exclude …”