Learning to Talk, originally published in Great Britain in 2003, is likely to be the last book we will ever have from Hilary Mantel. Mantel died suddenly in September of 2022. Her publisher described her, accurately I think, as one of Britain's greatest novelists.
26 October 2022
Hilary Mantel: Stories Of Her Youth
In her introduction to this new edition, Mantel gives us to understand that the stories sprung from her memories if her own childhood in a northern England "scoured by bitter winds and rough gossips tongues. "All the tales arose out of questions I asked myself about my early years. I cannot say that by sliding my life into a fictional form I was solving puzzles - but at least I was pushing the pieces about"
The rigid class structure that governed postwar Britain makes itself felt early and often, The little girl is sent to elocution lessons because " I hadn't learned to talk proper." "(E)veryone was policed by gossip," she remembered.
"Curved is the Line of Beauty" concerns her mother's new boyfriend Jack Mantel who comes to live with the family is "your definition of a man, if a man was what caused alarm and shattered the peace."
Her mother defied the conservatives mores of that time and place by living for a time with two men, two more than her Catholic religion would approve. "Mercy was a theory I had not seen in operation. I had only seen how those who wielded power extracted maximum advantage from every situation."Then when Hilary was eleven the family, except for her father, moved away to escape the local gossip and Hilary never saw her father again.
Mantel's descriptive powers are deceptively simple. She describes a neighbor girl as "meager like a nameless cut in a butcher's window;" a missing pet is "only my stepdog." Or this, "(W)e continued to live in one of those houses where there was never any money, and doors were slammed hard." Words that stay with the reader.
Image: Milton Avery - Poetry Reading, 1957, oil o canvas, Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, Utica