• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

Critiques of Hilary Mantel are misguided

ByTom Birch

Sep 30, 2014
courtesy of white house photo office

Mantel needs to see a therapist. This is what Lord Timothy Bell had to say concerning the short story the Booker Prize winning author published in The Guardian last week, entitled ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: 6th August 1983’. However, whilst Bell and others on the Right have lined Hilary Mantel up for her own character assassination, they have failed to grasp both the nuances of her story as well as their own political blindness.

What must be recognised first and foremost is that Mantel is writing a piece of fiction. To therefore take it as a genuine wish that Thatcher had been assassinated is to misunderstand the creative boundaries within which Mantel is writing. Through imagining the ultimate act of political dissent she highlights the violent division Thatcher created in British society – the foci of assassination can therefore be taken as a representation of the genuine ferocity with which many in Britain and Ireland regard the former Prime Minister. The literal interpretation by Mantel’s detractors fails to recognise the complexity of her writing. To continue from this point, to attack Mantel as “sick and deranged” is also to ignore the divisiveness of Thatcher, something that even the Right would struggle to achieve.

However, there is an uncomfortable tendency to place Thatcher on a pedestal, untouchable and immortal. The fact is that no leader, particularly one as controversial as the Iron Lady, should be removed from criticism in this way. Mantel’s critics seem to fail to understand the extremes which Thatcher pushed people to in her premiership – extremes which are so fiercely embodied in Mantel’s IRA sniper. But, as the assassin dejectedly notes himself, “They’re Englishmen […] They can’t remember bugger-all.” Ironically, the Right’s response to ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ has been as vitriolic as they claim the story itself to be. Any reader who, like Tory MP Stewart Jackson, finds it to be full of “bile and hate” should perhaps turn to it another, more critical, eye.

While the assassination itself is the climax to which the writing gradually but inevitably leads, the real political discussion takes place in the relationship between the uninvited assassin and his unwitting, middle class host. The dynamic of these characters explores the diversity of legitimate grievances shared by many under Thatcher, from the disgust of her “fake femininity”, to the seething anger at ten Republican martyrs who were the victim of hunger strike. Through the considered and sometimes humorous dialogue, Mantel crafts a thoughtful argument about the extent of the damage Thatcher did in Britain and Ireland. It is in the relationship between the characters, and not the ultimate act of assassination, that Thatcher is truly damned. Mantel’s critics have seen the word ‘assassination’ and have jumped to the conclusion that she would have supported the unquestioned and ritual execution of the late Prime Minister. This is not the case. Through the brilliance of her writing, Mantel has created a human criticism of Thatcher, which makes the extreme of assassination understandable

The vitriolic right wing response has shown a lack of understanding, not only of the nuances August 1983. However, whilst Bell and others of a fictive piece, but also of the strength of feeling some hold over the British Isles. Mantel provides the perfect assessment of such critics: to them, “all causes are the same, all ideas for which a person might care to die: they are nuisances, a breach of the peace, and likely to hold up the traffic or delay the trains.”


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