Hilary Mantel: “I have absolutely no regrets at all”

Author responds to the media furore surrounding her supposed “attack” on the Duchess of Cambridge.


I wrote a piece in the magazine a couple of weeks ago about Hilary Mantel’s apparently “venomous” attack on the Duchess of Cambridge – I attended the lecture that inspired all the outrage, and it was nothing of the sort. The whole affair, I felt, said far more about the media’s approach to women in general and royal women in particular than it did about Mantel’s supposed malice:

It’s hard to accept the outrage about Mantel’s “hurtful attack”, coming as it does from the same media outlets that daily train their cameras on the duchess’s stomach, revelling voyeuristically in any hint of rotundity. Royal women are and always have been a vehicle for our petty prejudices and problems, and in the case of the Duchess of Cambridge much of this emanates from the very publication that was so eager to traduce Mantel.

Now, Mantel has appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves and reflected on what it was like having her words extracted from their context and splashed all over the front of the tabloids. She told Anne McElvoy that she felt there was no simple misunderstanding – she was “deliberately misunderstood”, and I agree with her. She also made the point that as a writer and lecturer of many years experience, she’s pretty precise about saying what she means, so there was no inadvertance about it.

Most importantly, though, she remains unapologetic – quite rightly, since there is nothing for her to apologise for. It’s bad enough that we have to put up with the way the media treats the Duchess of Cambridge (constantly training their lenses on her stomach and analysing the way she folds her hands). It would be worse if one of our most celebrated authors felt she had to apologise for a subtle, nuanced, insightful critique of the situation.

You can listen to the interview here, and I’ve transcribed it as well below.

Anne McElvoy: You’ve been in the news recently for some of your comments about the Duchess of Cambridge, some of the language you used when you referred to her in an essay on royal bodies – a “shop window mannequin without risk of emerging character”. They were taken as very negative and there was a strong adverse reaction to that. What do you think about it now?

Hilary Mantel: My lecture and subsequent essay was actually supportive of the royal family and when I used those words about the Duchess of Cambridge, I was describing the perception of her that has been set up in the tabloid press. My speech ended with a plea to the press and the media in general  - I said: “Back off and don’t be brutes. Don’t do to this young woman what you did to Diana.” My whole theme was the way we maltreat royal persons making them at once superhuman and yet less than human. It was a plea for the consideration of human feeling.

AE: It wasn’t understood that way, was it?

HM: It was deliberately misunderstood. I don’t believe for a moment that there was any lack of clarity. After all I have been practising my trade for a number of years now, and what I say, I mean to say, and if I introduce an ambiguity, it’s meant to be there. It was a matter of taking the words completely out of context, twisting the context, and setting me up as a hate figure.

AE: But when you got that reaction, did you think “Ooo, it may have come across as cruel to her and I didn’t intend that.” Did you have any regrets?

HM: I have absolutely no regrets at all. What I said was crystal clear. Anyone who takes the trouble to read the essay, which is easily available online, will see that it is a nuanced argument but always a clear argument. And of course most of my speech had nothing to do with teh Duchess of Cambridge at all. It was about the Tudors and it was just a question of taking a few lines and using them for a pretty evil purpose.

AE: You don’t feel you should apologise to her?

HM: I have absolutely nothing to apologise for. And I do think that the Duchess of Cambridge is an intelligent young women, and if she cares to read my essay she’ll see that I meant nothing but good to her.


Hilary Mantel, photographed for the New Statesman by Leonie Hampton in 2012.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.