Raising the dead22 June 2017 | by D.J. Taylor
Hilary Mantel has always written engagingly about her family’s history. Remembering her childhood in the memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, she noted that the relatives who referred to her as “Our ’ilary” had “aspirations but no aspirates”. The starring family member in the first of this year’s Reith Lectures (13 June) was her maternal great-grandmother, Katherine O’Shea, a mill worker from County Waterford who migrated to a town on the edge of the Peak District in the early years of the last century.
Mantel’s title for this five-week defence of the historical novelist’s calling is Resurrection: The Art and Craft. As she acknowledged, there was little chance of resurrecting Mrs O’Shea, who could neither read nor write, and of whom only a solitary photograph survives. On the other hand, a catchphrase of hers had been passed down the generations (“The day is for the living, and the night is for the dead”) and she had functioned as the community’s “layer-out”, preparing corpses for burial.
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