While studying law at London School of Economics and Sheffield, Hilary Mantel’s favourite non-academic activities at university were ‘sex and housekeeping’. In the surprisingly prudish age of the 1970s, Mantel had to marry her boyfriend in order for them to live together.
She explains, ‘no one would rent us a flat without a marriage certificate, and we couldn’t afford to pay rent twice, even if we’d wanted to. Even in those days of grants and no fees, the system didn’t always work and students could find themselves very poor.’
I ask Mantel whether her flair for writing showed itself when she was a student. It turns out that initially, writing was not something that came naturally to her at all.
‘When I went to LSE to study law I had no thought of being a writer in the creative sense of the word. I had a serviceable style and sometimes a flash turn of phrase, but I felt style breaking down under the pressure of answer- ing ‘problems’ in a set format and reading case law. It took me a year for my prose to regain flexibility.’
For Mantel, university was a time that revealed to her ‘a huge frustration about the way life could have been.’ Arriving two years after the activism of 1968, she was ‘a bit late to be a student revolutionary, and to be truthful, I’d already got through that stage. But it’s probably no accident that my characters in A Place Of Greater Safety were revolutionaries and lawyers.’ Mantel started writing her first novel in 1974, a work centred on the French revolution. Though she spent her twenties writing it, it was not published until much later in her life.
Meanwhile, the Law Faculty lost track of Mantel, who preferred to spend her time in psychology lectures and the University’s Labour Club. In fact, being a Labour Club girl is what helped her realise that ‘politics, besides being desperately serious, was desperately funny’ – a sense of humour that has translated directly into her books.
Mantel moved to Sheffield part-way through her course at LSE to be with her boyfriend. She says, ‘there were some difficult events in both our families, and they drove us together rather than apart’. She didn’t make friends in Sheffield, however, though her Geologist boyfriend (and future husband) enjoyed the camaraderie of university field trips. They also struggled to make ends meet: ‘I devoted myself to the art of shrewd shopping and stewing cheap cuts. We were very ingenious with two electric rings and probably ate better than we do now.’
Mantel remembers working very hard – too hard to take up student theatre – ‘though maybe not at my subject’, she admits. However, law did in fact influence Mantel’s writing in unforseen ways. She explains, ‘lawyers have a way of thinking and reasoning that’s hard for non-lawyers to pick up.’ Translating this into her two Man Booker prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, has been her life’s endeavour, and she is now being
richly rewarded with critical and popular success. Whilst Mantel does not attribute this solely to her diverse university experience, she has certainly been influenced by her unorthodox path through the pit-falls of post-adolescent life.
And after all, ‘the more ways of thinking you have, the better.’