Hilary Mantel, whose remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge caused something of a stir last year, has now courted controversy with her short story about the assassination of Margaret Thatcher. This was triggered by Mantel’s own passing fantasy about shooting the Prime Minister when she glimpsed her from the window of her Windsor flat back in 1983.
“Immediately your eye measures the distance,” she told the Guardian, her finger and thumb forming a gun. “I thought, if I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead.”
The publication is clearly intended to provoke, and much has been made of the Telegraph’s decision to drop the story. It has been implied that such a staunch Tory paper couldn’t stomach Mantel’s choice of topic. But you really don’t need to be a Conservative supporter to find ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ troubling. Mantel invokes a straw man in her Guardian interview.
Mantel is unfazed at the prospect of further fuss over the Thatcher story. “As a writer you have a choice to make – are you going to accept censorship or not?
Anticipated expressions of distaste shouldn’t be described as ‘censorship’. I wouldn’t dream of saying this story shouldn’t be published – but I didn’t like it.
This is only in part because I don’t care for the topic. I can imagine a thought-provoking and inventive counter-factual along these lines – perhaps set in a world in which the Brighton bomb’s impact was still more devastating. But, although there are one or two nice moments, such as when a description of a crucial door is opened out to comment on gateways to alternate realities – the story is clogged up with overwritten detail:
When the wind strips the petals, they flurry in pink drifts and carpet the pavements, as if giants have held a wedding in the street.
But on days of drizzle and drifting cloud the keep diminishes, like an amateur drawing half-erased.
Also – at least in the light of Mantel’s own comments about Thatcher – the story does flirt with being a vehicle for a personal-attack-as-death-fantasy, even though she disclaims identification with her female narrator – a woman who enables the IRA killer to escape after stumbling across the assassination plot.
When I think of her, I can still feel that boiling detestation. She did long-standing damage in many areas of national life, but I am not either of those people in that room [the two characters]. I am standing by the window with the notebook.
Mantel’s analysis of Thatcher’s supposed masculinity makes it more difficult for the reader to distance her from the complicit narrator. She is quoted as saying:
“The idea that women must imitate men to succeed is anti-feminist. She was not of woman born. She was a psychological transvestite.”
Here’s the story’s narrator:
”It’s the fake femininity I can’t stand, and the counterfeit voice. The way she boasts about her dad the grocer and what he taught her, but you know she would change it all if she could, and be born to rich people. It’s the way she loves the rich, the way she worships them. It’s her philistinism, her ignorance, and the way she revels in her ignorance. It’s her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can’t cry?”
Mantel’s allusion to Macbeth seems meaningless, and her other points problematic. If it’s anti-feminist that women have to imitate men in order to succeed, should women be blamed? And in any case Thatcher wasn’t simply masculine – it’s sometimes said she used difference of sex as a kind of weapon.
The narrator’s voice is disdainful, and I was unsure how far either she or Mantel was ironising statements such as these:
Windsor’s not what you think. It has an intelligentsia. Once you wind down from the castle to the bottom of Peascod Street, they are not all royalist lickspittles; and as you cross over the junction to St Leonard’s Road, you might sniff out closet republicans.
I find a similar scorn in Mantel’s own voice:
Mantel is no stranger to controversy, having hit the headlines last year when a London Review of Books lecture she gave called “Royal Bodies”was misinterpreted by some sections of the press. When she described the Duchess of Cambridge as “a plastic princess born to breed”, the Daily Mail reported it as a “bitter”, “astonishing and venomous” attack.
In the case of the duchess, the great outraged weren’t at the lecture and didn’t read the article. I was saying: ‘Please back off and treat this young woman as human’. I was speaking in her favour. I wouldn’t be so petty as to criticise someone for their appearance.
The phrase ‘great outraged’ is unusual; it seems to echo ‘great unwashed’, and arrogantly brushes aside the views of those who did read the article, and still didn’t like it.
But what was most disturbing about the story was its casual treatment of the assassination itself. Of course it could be argued that this was a deliberate effect, that we are meant to find this disconcerting, and push back against the narrator. But Mantel hasn’t done much to encourage this.
He spoke as if he had companions. He was only one man. But a bulky one, even without the jacket. Suppose I had been a true-blue Tory, or one of those devout souls who won’t so much as crush an insect: I still wouldn’t have tried anything tricky.
The implication here is that someone who was passionately opposed to the policies of Margaret Thatcher would be considerably more likely to aid and abet a murderer than a Tory, and that squeamishness about murder is on a par with reluctance to kill a fly.
I’d be interested to hear what other readers thought of the story.