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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.