In A Memoir of My Former Self: A Life in Writing, Hilary Mantel writes: “There is no failed writing, only work pending.” She’s referring to the 97 notebooks that she kept in a wooden box. Mantel promised: “There is nothing I won’t say, only what I haven’t said yet.”

These words were written in 2016, just after her epic novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, was published. After that, Mantel released the third and final book in her Wolf Hall trilogy, a series that earned her two Booker prizes. But what Mantel hasn’t said “yet” is precisely the problem. The author suffered a stroke and died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2022. Reflecting on her death, her admirer and peer Margaret Atwood asked: “What might she have written next? I don’t know, but I will miss it.”

A Memoir of My Former Self celebrates the breadth of Mantel’s reading interests and the precision of her voice. The book is a selection of her writing for journals, newspapers and public lectures, published together for the first time. One section is dedicated to film reviews and another to book reviews, each of which was a voluminous part of Mantel’s output. Her 1997 Reith lectures on history, art and literature are an important inclusion. Other pieces concern Mantel’s childhood, family and marriage, her health and physical life, her career and public life, and her reflections on religion, society, politics, education, place and art. Reading and writing form the spine of every piece.

The book discloses the lifelong physical and psychological impact of her endometriosis, intensified since doctors misdiagnosed her pain as hysteria and depression. Her feminism, evident throughout the collection (not least in her discussion of Hillary Clinton), evolved as a direct response to her medical experience. The short pieces reveal careful and expansive reading, wit, intellect and daring. But above all, they share secrets – Mantel’s own, alongside those of the writers, historical figures, books, events and places that she describes.

The life of a writer

A Memoir of My Former Self positions Mantel at the centre of her nonfiction writing. Perhaps the only person who rivals her for our attention is Jane Austen, whom she often allows to take centre stage, mentioning Austen and her works throughout the book. Mantel’s main essay on Austen addresses her novels, life, family, juvenilia, the few letters and portraits that remain, and several biographies. In just 13 pages, Mantel reveals the complex material circumstances that Austen navigated and their impact on her writing. She approaches Austen’s archive with objectivity and scholarship, and the result is twofold: a desire to reread Austen and a deep regret that the book Mantel was working on will never be completed. Provocation was to be a humorous adaptation drawing on Austen’s full catalogue of works but focused on Mary Bennett, the least prominent sister in Pride and Prejudice.

For Mantel, the writer’s life is a promiscuous one – with so many other lives to pursue and so little time for the task. This book leaves the reader certain that her imagination and resources would never have been exhausted.

Mantel’s Booker-winning historical novels assembled period worlds with something of the Victorian novel’s attention to detail. Groups came together to witness iconic historical events, such as the beheadings of queens and royal courtiers. But instead of the overburdened, maximalist interiors of 19th-century realism, Mantel’s histories were sparse and sharp. A well-placed wooden chest evokes a time when a carefully chosen meal reveals the substance of a person. Atwood describes the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall, as authentic yet contemporary: “If Cromwell had had a phone Mantel could hack, you’d scarcely be brought closer to the inner wheels and cogs of his bloody-minded and bloody-handed machinations.”

Obituaries remarked on the wealth of writing that Mantel produced. Her work is far-reaching and genre-crossing. It has been described as “guarded, intimate”, with “sly wit”, “deceptive indirection” and “slow subtlety”. It is “mischievous”, “bleakly comic and politically astute”. For me, her writing is boundless, breathtaking, and conveyed with immense clarity.

Actor Ben Miles played Cromwell in the Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. He and Mantel became good friends and worked on a picture book together. Speaking to the Guardian, Miles suggested that Mantel’s novels had the power to reveal worlds that were historically and culturally distant as if they were within effortless reach. Her worlds felt at once intimate, sensory, funny and horrific.

This sense of closeness is what many readers will hope to experience by reading A Memoir of My Former Self – and they will not be disappointed.

A Memoir of My Former Self, Hilary Mantel, John Murray.

Jenni Ramone is an associate professor of Postcolonial and Global Literatures at the Nottingham Trent University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.