Hilary Mantel’s Thatcher story: this author is no innocent in need of defence from right-wing critics

Of course Hilary Mantel knew what she was doing in writing her short story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” – the precise application of words is her speciality.

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There’s a question that needs to be asked of both Hilary Mantel’s detractors over her short story, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”, and some of her defenders. The question is this: do you even know who you’re talking about? There’s Nadine Dorries, for example, expressing her wounded bafflement. “I am gutted because Hilary Mantel is one of my favourite authors,” said the MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, as if Mantel had committed a personal betrayal by imagining the premeditated execution of a politician whose unpopularity means she was slaughtered in thought a million times before her actual death. (Dorries’ admiration for Mantel was not, sadly, one of the qualities that influenced the backbencher’s own unfortunate novel.)

Or we have Stephen Glover, huffing his disbelief that “a delicate writer like Mantel could concoct so nasty and dangerous a fantasy”. Delicate? There’s an interesting word for Mantel. She’s surgically precise, for sure. Exquisitely empathetic, yes. But “delicate”, like a loose-petalled flower or a fragile ornament? It’s hard to reject the suspicion that Glover as been mislead by his subject’s sex into a ascribing her a sensitive constitution that she simply doesn’t have. Mantel, in novel after novel, has demonstrated one thing: an intimate affinity for violence and power. Her Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is intoxicating, not just because of his fierce intellect and psychological depth, but because of his mass. A blacksmith’s boy with soldier’s hands who knows that just a flicker of his low-class muscle is enough to scatter the nobility and remake the state.

But this is where some of Mantel’s defenders get it wrong too, in imagining her an innocent who needs defending from the wild distortions of right-wing critics. Because, with her giant saucer eyes that see everything, she clearly knew what she was doing. She’s Hilary Mantel, after all. There’s no way in which the application of her own words is liable to have come as a surprise: words and their application are her specialty. That’s not to accuse “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” of shabby provocation, but it is a provocation – a taut and luminous one, one that tests and stretches the lines of affiliation between a probably-IRA assassin and the arts centre socialist whose flat he invades in order to get a sight line on the prime minister. “I don’t (I felt compelled to add) believe violence solves anything,” says the woman in the flat, in a tellingly stilted formulation, then later:

I had said to him earlier, violence solves nothing. But it was only a piety, like a grace before meat. I wasn’t attending to its meaning as I said it, and if I thought about it, I felt a hypocrite. It’s only what the strong preach to the weak: you never hear it the other way round; the strong don’t lay down their arms.”

Mantel says the woman in the flat is not her, but this is a very Mantel-ish line of thinking. It’s the kind of thing you’d entirely expect to come from the same brain that wrote A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel’s holographic summoning of the French Revolution and subsequent Terror. Violence, in that novel, is the answer – an answer that becomes the same question that requires itself again as its own answer, in a grotesque recursion. One of the reasons that Mantel is able to inhabit her three protagonists so brilliantly – Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre, three men with more than passing claims to monstrous reputations – is that she understands violence. She has a feeling for the thrilling overspill of revolution into bloodshed. She knows that the physical force of a populace is the power that those above must ultimately negotiate with. And she understands that once violence becomes the order of things, it will consume all.

Glover is clearly being absurd when he claims Mantel believes Thatcher “should” have been executed – the story merely says she could have been. But that in itself is a dangerous thought. Fiction – particularly fiction about real, historical people – does not exist in a quarantine chamber. The muted termination of Thatcher at the story’s end (I don’t think this can count as a spoiler, given the title) is an invitation to the chaos beyond: “One easy wink of the world’s blind eye: ‘Rejoice,’ he [the gunman] says. ‘Fucking rejoice.’” But what comes after? The vital, frightening power that pours out from the neck of the decapitated state is something Mantel leaves implied, and it is shocking to feel that implication bloom within you, like a flower of shattered flesh around a bullet hole. What if our rulers are only able to rule because we tolerate their force, asks Mantel. It’s an insurrectionary what-if, because it’s not actually hypothetical: all rulers’ powers really do derive from popular quiescence. Which leaves the revolutionary question: why, exactly, are we putting up with them at all?

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.