Little Miss Neverwell

Hilary Mantel continues her memoir

By the time I was twenty I was living in a slum house in Sheffield. I had a husband and no money; those things I could explain. I had a pain which I could not explain; it seemed to wander about my body, nibbling here, stabbing there, flitting every time I tried to put my finger on it.

When I packed my bags for London, at 18 years old, I went to live in a women’s hall of residence in Bloomsbury. It was a haven of warmth, calm and order. My course was engrossing, and it was taught by lawyers and academics of stature and reputation. I got involved in student politics: meetings that dragged on towards midnight. It was what I liked, and student politics at the London School of Economics had at least some crossover with the real world. The rattling, down-at-heel, overcrowded buildings pleased me better than any grassy quad or lancet window. And I was doing well; my tutors were beginning to talk to me about where my interests lay, about how I might like to specialise, in my third year. My path seemed to have taken a new turn; it seemed I was a step or two from success.

But there are times in life when the next, clear, logical step seems one you can’t take at all. I found it difficult to see myself completing my course, and emerging as a grown-up London person on the verge of a career. I seemed to have less money than other people. I had the state grant and – in theory at least – the small yearly contribution that my parents should make. I schemed to do without that contribution, but my schemes didn’t work. Intermittently through my first year, I worried about this, and about something more serious and long-term. I wanted to be a barrister. How was I to do this? The facts of life pressed in on me. I was female, northern and poor. My family would not be able to help me through my post-degree studies, or my pupillage. Women barristers were then in a small minority. A few brave women from unhelpful backgrounds had crashed the system. I had assumed I would be one of them. But now my resolve was undermined, because I was in love.

I had known this for six months before I came to London, but by the time the calamitous fact was admitted, between myself and the boy who was in it with me, we had already chosen our universities, and secured places at different ends of England.

We were, respectively, 17 and just turned 18. We couldn’t do anything about the parting that loomed ahead of us, but we had decided to be married, whenever it looked possible: sooner than that, if by any mischance I became pregnant. When we had a daughter, my lover said, he would like to call her Catriona; would that be all right by me? I was very happy about it. We were both admirers of Robert Louis Stevenson. Kidnapped was really our favourite, but we couldn’t call our daughter David, or name her after Alan Breck. She’d have to be named for the sequel.

Like all my contemporaries, in those first years when the contraceptive pill was widely available, I only half believed I could coerce my body, and suspected that it might have some filthy tricks in store; but the filthy tricks would be in the line of putting a baby in your arms before you were ready. I assumed I would be able to have Catriona at a time of my choosing. I didn’t know she would always be a ghost of possibility, a paper baby, a person who slipped between the lines. It’s a pity we didn’t like Travels with a Donkey. There’s a good name for a ghost: Modestine.

In our year apart my boyfriend and I wrote to each other every day. There was a hiatus when the postmen went on national strike; I don’t think it was to protest at us personally, though some of the letters were very weighty. In later years, we carried the correspondence about with us, in a plastic bin-bag, but when we first went to work abroad we threw it away. After all, we were planning never to be parted again.

Though I was happy in my London life, I looked forward with a sick intensity to his arrival for weekend visits. He had to be smuggled in, and kept like contraband in my room, my room-mate quartered elsewhere and a whole corridor of girls sworn to complicit secrecy; it was like Malory Towers, but with sex. When the girl along the corridor had a boyfriend stay, the fire alarm rang in the small hours, and I met her among the crowds on Malet Street, two hundred girls turned out in their night attire into the winter cold. Her face was white, her eyes were staring; she whispered: ‘I put him in the wardrobe.’

The expense of travelling, the logistical manoeuvres required, the wear and tear on the nerves, meant that the visits had to be well spaced out. And gradually, I realised that my world was changing. Light and colour were draining from the streets, and even spring didn’t restore it. The grey ache of absence was too much to bear; why bear it, if it could be remedied? I thought it could. By early summer, when my surroundings had taken on the chewed, grainy monochrome of crumpled newsprint, I went to the university authorities to put my case. Did they think I could go up to Sheffield, and continue my course there? My boyfriend couldn’t come to me, I explained, because he was studying geology, and geology isn’t portable. He had already chosen his mapping area and walked it at weekends, and it was rather easier to move one law student with a suitcase than to relocate a massive chunk of Carboniferous limestone in the Peak District, four square miles of rock swarming with corals, nautiloids and the ancestors of starfish.

Sheffield University’s law faculty was housed, in 1971, in a former maternity home, with ramshackle partitions and makeshift corridors. The students seemed dull, hostile, and pitifully young; they were my own age, in fact, but I felt I had had different experiences and was older. They were afraid of their teachers, and before tutorials they stood in rigid knots outside closed doors, waiting, tension building between them; those rooms, full of the awe and anticipation of women’s pain, were now darkened by juvenile dread of donnish sarcasm. But ‘donnish’ is pitching it too high perhaps; one of my tutors was a bored local solicitor who made it plain that he didn’t think women had any place in his classroom. They were just a waste of space; they’d only go and have babies, wouldn’t they?

Some people have forgotten, or never known, why we needed the feminist movement so badly. This was why: so that some talentless prat in a nylon shirt couldn’t patronise you, while around you the spotty boys smirked and giggled, trying to worm into his favour. The birth control revolution of the late 1960s had passed our elders by – educators and employers both. It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of her mental life. It was assumed that she neither could nor would exercise choice over whether to breed; poor silly creature, no sooner would her degree certificate be in her hand before she’d cast all that book-learning to the winds, and start swelling and simpering and knitting bootees.

My transfer to Sheffield University was not as smooth as I had hoped. On paper, my first and second year fitted together. In practice, they didn’t. I found myself at sea, both baffled and bored. My fellow second-years mostly intended to be solicitors. They were going into daddy’s practice, or into their uncle’s. I got into trouble by claiming mischievously that law was all an elaborate bluff and that legal language was cognate with magic.

All the same, Sheffield was a good place to be if you were a student. The townspeople talked to you at the bus stop and in the shops, and they didn’t seem to have any money either, so you could buy cheap cuts of meat and bargain tins and sustaining fresh loaves hot from the oven. But it was a dark winter; the miners were on strike, and there were long cold hours without electricity. Then on a January night, we were called home.

My fiancé’s father was called Henry. He was 53, a professional man, wry and studious, a father of five. In summer he was well and in September he was sick and the following January he was dead: cancer. A year later, to the day, my grandfather would die of the same disease; more winter journeys, over the dark Pennines, to stand about in hospital wards while screens were drawn around beds. But we were married by then.

Married, why? Because in times of disaster, it’s what you do. When families are destroyed, suddenly, you pick yourselves up and glue yourself together to form new units. More practically, and immediately, we married so that we could spend the night together, so that he did not have to roll out of bed and roll home over the midnight cobblestones; even my landlady, a kindly divorcée, thinking of her two growing children and their moral development, would not let me have a man in the house till dawn.

Yet not everyone was hostile to romance. Some comfortable soul could always be found, in those days, to recall: ‘They say two can live as cheaply as one.’ Can they? My family fell out with me, and didn’t fill in the forms for my subsistence grant. So we were about to find out if it was true.

No. 78 Roebuck Road was the cheapest house in the world. We had to go right across town every fortnight to pay the rent, but even we, having paid the rent, could afford to eat. My grandmother gave us a water-boiler to hang over the sink. My new mother-in-law gave us a cooker and some furniture. We slept on a sofa that flattened in the middle and so made a bed. We couldn’t get the stately family wardrobe upstairs, so it stayed down, its fine mirror reflecting the flickering of the silverfish as they busied cheerfully about their lives. I made stews, pies, cherry cakes, chocolate cakes and chocolate cherry cakes. I answered, as law students do, my weekly ‘problems’, in the set legal language, and each week turned out essays which were simply a more prolonged exercise in sifting and shuffling the same chary formulations.

I complained I had a pain in my legs, and I went to the doctor: and that was my big mistake.

I set out my aspirin, one two three four five six. I swallowed them. Once, in error, I picked up and almost swallowed a shirt button, lying on the table waiting for me to sew it on.


‘Sick?’ said the doctor, down at the Student Health Service. ‘Throw up? I’m hardly surprised. You do know that taking six aspirin is no more effective than taking three?’

I didn’t. As it was double any ordinary pain, I’d thought I could double the aspirin. We weren’t very sophisticated in those days. I don’t think we even had paracetamol. I had a big bottle of 100 aspirin, and I used to take what I thought would get me through.

‘Well, Miss –’ said the doctor. He glanced down at his file, and a little jolt shot through him, as if he were electrified. ‘Mrs?’ he said. ‘Mrs? Pregnant, are you?’

I hope not. If so, I’ve overdone it with the aspirin. It’ll have fins. Or feathers. Three extra aspirins, three extra heads. I’ll exhibit it. It will keep us in luxury.

‘I’m on the pill,’ I said. An urge rose in me, to say: we are sexually very keen so I take three a day, do you think that’s enough? But then a stronger urge rose in me, to be sick on his shoes.

I can see him, now that the years have flown; his crinkly fairish hair sheared short, his rimless glasses, his highly polished brogues. He was a nervous man, and when I bowed my head towards his feet he shifted them under his desk. I wasn’t sick. I put my hand across my mouth, and then threw up somewhere else.

I went home. ‘He said, don’t take so many aspirin. I said my legs ached and he said it was accounted for by no known disease. Except one called idiopathic something-something.’

I didn’t let on how I had grinned, when he said ‘idiopathic’. I knew it meant disease about which we doctors have no bloody idea. So he bridled, and swallowed the rest of the medical term; he wasn’t, anyway, entertaining it as a possibility, he was just boasting. And my smile called his bluff; I shouldn’t have smiled it. He was not on my side now. I thought that probably he never had been.

Go back, said my mister, grimly. You haven’t really told him. How tired you are. And how upset.

I was upset, it was true. I couldn’t bear my smashed relationship with my family. That my brothers should think badly of me. That I should have no money to buy a present for Father’s Day, only a bag of toffee, and nothing to give for Christmas but a box of biscuits and a bottle of wine.

The full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in