Hilary (Mary) Mantel Biography
Hilary Mantel Comments:
My first two novels are set in the north of England, in 1974 and 1984 respectively. Every Day Is Mother's Day tells the story of Muriel Axon and her mother Evelyn, two reclusive women who live together in mutual disgust, united only by their fear of the outside world. Their peculiar lives touch the lives of their neighbors at many points, but true contact is never made. Muriel Axon becomes mysteriously pregnant, and at the end of the story there are two violent deaths.
The mood of this book is comic and satirical, with excursions into the fantastic; at times it has the flavor of a ghost story. Some of the ideas come from a short period I spent as a hospital social worker. At a deeper level, I was interested by different theories of mental health and illness, and especially by Bruno Bettelheim's writings on autism. Muriel's internal world consists of a series of terrifying misapprehensions about the nature of cause and effect; but her major problem is that there is a gap where her imagination should be. Because of this gap, she cannot put herself in anyone else's place, or guess what their feelings might be. So she is equipped to evolve from a pathetic person into a wicked one.
Vacant Possession takes up Muriel's story ten years later. Released from a long-stay mental hospital, which is closing as a result of government policy, Muriel returns to her old haunts and begins to wreak havoc in the lives of the new owners of her mother's house.
Here I wanted to make some topical points about the hospital closures and the kinds of problems they might create; sadly, the points remain topical several years on. I also wanted to expand the character of Muriel to its logical limits. Since she had no center—no soul, really—it is possible for her to assume other identities at will. In one incarnation she is a cleaning woman called Lizzie Blank; in another, she is a depressive hospital orderly called Poor Mrs. Wilmot. She has the knack of finding out the fears and vulnerabilities of the people around her, and dealing with them accordingly.
Vacant Possession is superficially less serious than Every Day Is Mother's Day. It has a faster pace, more jokes per page, and a more farcical plot-line. As epigraph to the first book I used a quotation from Pascal: "Two errors: one, to take everything literally; two, to take everything spiritually." When reading anything I have written, my ideal reader would hear that warning in mind.
My third novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a psychological thriller set in Saudi Arabia, where I lived for some years. My fourth novel, Fludd is a comedy set in the north of England in the 1950s in a fictitious moorland village. The main characters are nuns and priests. Here I used motifs, mishaps and miseries from my own Catholic childhood; but the book is not a satire on the Church. Its central device is the notion of alchemy. I wanted to explore what alchemy meant, as a liberating and creative process, and to see what form my own earliest memories would take if I worked to transform them into fiction.
* * *