September 23, 2014

Hilary Mantel vs Margaret Thatcher


Fact or fiction?

Fact or fiction?

In the past few years Hilary Mantel has become a literary superstar, winning a second Booker for her Thomas Cromwell series and being made a Dame in 2014 for her services to literature. After years of dedication and writing, she may have expected this. She probably did not expect to become an enemy of the state.

At least that’s what the right-wing press would have us think. Trouble began last week when The Telegraph was due to publish Mantel’s new short story, ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983’ which, as its title suggests, centres around a possible assassination of the former and much-detested British Prime Minister. According to The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph had reportedly paid tens of thousands of pounds to publish the story first.

But when Ian MacGregor, the Telegraph‘s weekend editor, read the story before publication he reportedly “went ballistic” and pulled the story immediately, believing the paper’s “readers would be upset by the title alone, let alone the sentiments behind it”, The Guardian reports. The Guardian, who has never hidden its dislike for Thatcher, happily ran the story on Friday.

But this hasn’t stopped other papers and members of the Conservative party from going “ballistic”.  Lord Timothy Bell, former adviser to Thatcher, was first to speak out. “Mantel needs to see a therapist…If somebody admits they want to assassinate somebody, surely the police should investigate”, he told the Sunday Times, clearly forgetting that Thatcher had died last year and so Mantel poses no threat either fictional or real. The Conservative MP for Peterborough, Stewart Jackson, tweeted:

He later followed this up with the even better if nonsensical:

Hialrious Stewart, Keep ’em coming. The Conservative activist and Times columnist Tim Montgomerie went with:

Montgomerie seems confused by why The Guardian would want to promote a piece of new fiction by one of the most esteemed and in-demand writers of our time. Is it really that strange?

Luckily The Daily Mail was on hand to remind us all of the real values of Britain. The newspaper described how Mantel’s story has “provoked fury across [the] political spectrum”, more so, we can imagine, than any debate about the Middle East or say, last week’s Scottish Referendum. It innocently wondered how Mantel could “concoct so nasty and dangerous a fantasy”, with no regard to its own journalistic concoctions, and helpfully provided a video of “Classic speeches of Margaret Thatcher’s political career” to bring us back to what really mattered.

Ever the voice of reason and calm, Mantel defended her decision to write the story yesterday, describing Thatcher as a “fantastic character” for a writer, “the very stuff of drama”. She told BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week:

I think it would be unconscionable to say this is too dark we can’t examine it. We can’t be running away from history. We have to face it head on, because the repercussions of Mrs Thatcher’s reign have fed the nation. It is still resonating.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Mantel has been in hot water with the right-wing press. Her essay “Royal Bodies” in the London Review of Books last year caused even greater drama because it dared to question the role that Kate Middleton had taken in marrying into the Royal family.

But we “tofu baking Lefties”, as Stewart Jackson put it, shouldn’t despair too much. Just like last year’s controversy, this new drama only cements Mantel as a major writer who causes a stir with every new publication. And when her subjects are so worthy of her scrutiny and her steady eye, we can only be grateful for the fiction that emerges, even if it comes very close to fact.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.