Hilary Mantel: why I became a historical novelist

Saint Augustine says, the dead are invisible, they are not absent. You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true. We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. Are these good times, bad times, interesting times? We rely on history to tell us. History, and science too, help us put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.

There is a poem by WH Auden, called “As I Walked Out One Evening”:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead

The purpose of this lecture is to ask if this lane is a two-way street. In imagination, we chase the dead, shouting, “Come back!” We may suspect that the voices we hear are an echo of our own, and the movement we see is our own shadow. But we sense the dead have a vital force still – they have something to tell us, something we need to understand. Using fiction and drama, we try to gain that understanding. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look. There are techniques we can use.

My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims. My own family history is meagre. An audience member once said to me, “I come from a long line of nobodies.” I agreed: me too. I have no names beyond my maternal great-grandmother – but let me introduce her, as an example, because she reached through time from the end of the 19th century to form my sense of who I am, at this point in the 21st: even nobodies can do this.

She was the daughter of a Patrick, the wife of a Patrick, the mother of a Patrick; her name was Catherine O’Shea, and she spent her early life in Portlaw, a mill village near Waterford in the south of Ireland. Portlaw was an artificial place, purpose-built by a Quaker family called Malcolmson, whose business was shipping and corn, cotton and flax. The mill opened in 1826. At one time Portlaw was so busy that it imported labour from London.

The Malcolmsons were moral capitalists and keen on social control. The village was laid out on a plan ideal for surveillance, built so that one policeman stationed in the square could look down all five streets. The Malcolmsons founded a Thrift Society and a Temperance Society and paid their workers partly in cardboard tokens, exchangeable in the company shop. When a regional newspaper suggested this was a form of slavery, the Malcolmsons sued them, and won.

As the 19th century ended, textiles declined and the Malcolmsons lost their money. The mill closed in 1904 – by which time my family, like many others, had begun a shuffling stage-by-stage emigration.

Two of Catherine’s brothers went to America, and in time-honoured fashion were never heard from again. Catherine was a young married woman when she came to England – to another mill village, Hadfield, on the edge of the Peak District. Like Portlaw, it was green and wet and shadowed by hills. As far as I know, she never left it. She must have wondered, does the whole world look like this?

Her first home was in a street called Waterside – for many years the scene of ritual gang fights on Friday nights between the locals and the incomers. I know hardly anything about Catherine’s life. I suppose that when a woman has 10 children, she ceases to have a biography. One photograph of her survives. She is standing on the doorstep of a stone-built terraced house. Her skirt covers her waist to ankle, her torn shawl covers the rest. I can’t read her face, or relate it to mine.

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