This anti-institutional bent is what drives Mantel’s imaginative intelligence, flaming out in unexpected places. It drives her to describe the Virgin Mary statuettes that haunt her Catholic girlhood, perched in niches like CCTV cameras, watching her every move with “painted eyes of policeman blue.” It drives her in “The Hair Shirt Sisterhood,” a brilliant disquisition on eating disorders, sainthood and the church’s misogyny, to a defense of young girls who choose anorexia: “It is a way of shrinking back, of reserving, preserving the self. … For a year or two, it may be a valid strategy; to be greensick, to be out of the game; to die just a little; to nourish the inner being while starving the outer being; to buy time.”
The origins of her resistance to institutional power, her sympathy for the unsympathetic, Mantel has examined in an earlier memoir, “Giving Up the Ghost.” She describes the first day of school in her industrial Derbyshire village: “I thought that I had come among lunatics; and the teachers, malign and stupid, seemed to me like the lunatics’ keepers. I knew you must not give in to them.” Education is the traditional leg up for clever children from rackety working-class backgrounds like hers. Mantel, however, from her first glimpse of a classroom, recognized “the need to resist what I found there.”
She might say the same of her experience of the medical establishment, as glanced at in “Meeting the Devil,” an essay in “Mantel Pieces.” Riven since puberty by agonizing period pains and torrential bleeding, Mantel is gaslighted for decades by (male) doctors who palm her off with antidepressants and, yes, antipsychotics. Even after she has correctly diagnosed her own endometriosis and undergone an operation removing her ovaries and uterus, as well as part of her bladder and bowels, the pain and exhaustion are unrelenting. The drugs Mantel will need to take for the rest of her life cause gargantuan weight gain. The author of these essays, you are reminded, is someone in chronic pain, someone whose own body has become unrecognizable to her. What she’s left with is the ferociously lucid mind, the unruly delight of her mocking and self-mocking humor.
My favorite sentence in this book is uncharacteristically quiet, almost plaintive, let fall sotto voce in the middle of a hospital-bed memory: “I wonder, though, if there is a little saint you can apply to, if you are a person with holes in them?”
I suspect we all are people with holes in them, and there are many saints to apply to. For those who feel compelled to examine not just their own “perforations” but the world’s, St. Hilary is your woman.