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 web editor of the New Statesman.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses