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.

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.