University of Worcester Worcester Research and Publications

Nightmares about Fossils: Spectral Children and Intergenerational Trauma in the Work of Hilary Mantel

Arnold, Lucy ORCID: (2021) Nightmares about Fossils: Spectral Children and Intergenerational Trauma in the Work of Hilary Mantel. In: An Overflow of Meaning: Reading and Re-Reading Hilary Mantel, October 14-15th 2021, Online (Huntington Library). (Unpublished)

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This paper analyses the persistence and significance of the motif of the ‘spectral child’ in the work of British novelist Hilary Mantel and maps the political and ethical work it does there. From Mantel’s debut duology through to her critically acclaimed Tudor Trilogy, the absent presence of the child who is missing, who is dead, who is ignored or marginalised, or who never was, seethes. The analysis is focalised through a reading of Mantel’s critically overlooked novel, A Change of Climate (1994), in which temporal and geographical shifts between 1950s Apartheid-era South Africa and the Bechuanaland Protectorate, and 1980s Norfolk expose the reader to a number of children whose ‘undeadness’ – literal and metaphorical - maps the legacies of a variety of imbricated acts of violence and marginalisation.
Taking as its jumping off point the image of the fossil collection belonging to protagonist Ralph Eldridge, which provokes a ‘peculiar horror’ in his children, and cause them nightmares, the paper plots the connections between the children in the novel who are spectralised through apparently random acts of violence, state neglect and colonial oppression. Through unpacking the significances of the multitude of missing children in A Change of Climate, who register in the text, like Ralph’s fossils, as insistently present absences, I propose a reading of these spectral children as inscribing the transmission of intergenerational traumas taking place at the level of empire, nation and family, traumas which Mantel’s novel demonstrates are intimately connected.
My reading is undertaken in the context of Derrida’s model for how we might relate to the spectre, and the political and ethical possibilities inherent in that relationship, as put forward in Spectres of Marx. These ideas are placed into dialogue with Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok’s concept of the phantom and the crypt, and Lee Edelman’s analysis of the child as bearer of political ideology, a critical conjunction which facilitates a negotiation between the intrapsychic and the international with regards to the novel’s significances.
As an inscription of the child’s profound doubleness - their status as profoundly other and simultaneously ‘of us’, their potential vulnerability and disempowerment in contrast to the unalienable ‘value’ of the child - the ‘spectral child’ in this text, and throughout Mantel’s writing, tugs at our critical sleeve with demands which are as insistent as they are enigmatic, and which put pressure on our understandings of generationality, temporality and inheritance: the demand to be remembered, the demand to be recognised as a human subject, the demand for a future now irrevocably lost. In this paper, I explore how A Change of Climate’s heterogenous host of spectral children act to interrogate and destabilise the status of the child and the function of childhood itself, disrupting the ways that the figure of the child is used in national, political and social discourses to prop up dominant narratives wherein certain children remain condemned to a nightmarishly fossilised existence.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Uncontrolled Discrete Keywords: Hilary Mantel, spectrality, child, intergenerational trauma, apartheid
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
Divisions: College of Arts, Humanities and Education > School of Humanities
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Lucy Arnold
Date Deposited: 11 Apr 2022 14:11
Last Modified: 11 Apr 2022 14:11

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