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Hilary Mantel: Margaret Thatcher "Wrecked This Country"

The controversial writer discusses Britain’s male-dominated literary culture and the legacy of a certain prime minister

Phil Fisk/Camera Press/Redux

The British writer Hilary Mantel may be best known for intricate historical reconstructions of life in Tudor England, but that doesn’t mean she is afraid of a modern-day tabloid brawl. The title story of her latest collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, describes the fictional assassination of the former prime minister in 1983 at the hands of an IRA gunman. Naturally, it has been interpreted by British conservatives as authorial wish fulfillment. Lord Timothy Bell, a former Thatcher adviser, called on the police to investigate Mantel, and a Tory member of Parliament described her as “sick and deranged.” The Daily Telegraph refused to even publish the story after having paid the author a hefty advance for it. 

This is not the first time Mantel, who is 62, has found herself the target of national condemnation. Last year, in a lecture, she referred to Kate Middleton as a “shop-window mannequin.” The talk was actually a subtle attack on the cult of monarchy and the fetishization of the female body (and rather sympathetic toward Middleton), but British paparazzi camped outside Mantel’s house and even Prime Minister David Cameron publicly criticized the speech.

A leap forward to Thatcher’s Britain may seem like a departure for Mantel. She won widespread praise for Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which serve as a reappraisal of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s often-reviled chief minister and enforcer, and Thomas More, the reactionary Catholic who has usually been cast as a saint and martyr. (Theatrical adaptations arrive on Broadway next year; she is currently working on the final book of the trilogy.) And yet Mantel’s primary talent is her ability to describe, with great precision, the endless mental calculations about status and desire and power that comprise politics in every era, and to capture the functioning of institutions with drama and wit. The century may vary, but the sensibility translates. 

When I e-mailed Mantel to schedule an interview, she responded with remarkable warmth. (She began signing off, “Love, Hilary,” after only a few communications.) We met on a rainy August afternoon at her top-floor apartment in the village of Sunningdale, just outside of London, which has a large fireplace and rugs and walls that are stunningly white. We were joined by her husband, Gerald McEwen, who cares for Mantel. (She suffers from the gynecological disease endometriosis, which somewhat limits her mobility.) I have never felt like I was visiting people who were more excited to see me, even though we had never met.

After the conversation turned to Booker Prize winners, McEwen broke into a wide grin. “You are sitting with a Booker Prize winner right now, for Wolf Hall,” he said playfully. “Don’t forget Bring Up the Bodies,” Mantel mischievously responded. (She is one of only three authors to have won the award twice.) Mantel has been a novelist and essayist for many years, but her fame arrived relatively late, and she and McEwen evidently view it with wry amusement. During our conversation, we discussed the differences between historians and novelists, Britain’s male-dominated literary culture, and the legacy of a certain prime minister.

Isaac Chotiner: How do you view Margaret Thatcher today?

Hilary Mantel: I think it is going to take another fifty years for the report to be in. If I were to give a preliminary report, I would say that she wrecked this country. I loathed her. But that’s not so interesting. 

IC: It’s interesting to me. 

HM: She aroused such strong loathing in so many people. That’s the fact that interests me. What is it we are hating? It goes beyond politics. I suppose that my fascination with her is not just with her political record but with her as a phenomenon. I think psychologically she is really worth studying. I am reading Charles Moore’s biography of her, and he has gotten us right there with a woman who lived the unexamined life, and lived it deliberately, and who has contempt for history, even her own. 

IC: Do you think that is what bothers you, the contempt for history?

HM: I think it does, hugely. This is a woman who, when she wrote her entry for “Who’s Who,” didn’t include her mother. Now whether that was corrected in subsequent editions, I do not know. Perhaps when it was pointed out to her that she was born of woman ...

IC: It wasn’t a virgin birth.

HM: [Laughs] She admitted to being the daughter of her father but not the daughter of her mother! 

IC: Do you think some of the fascination has to do with the fact that she is a woman in the public eye? 

HM: Yes, I think it is a very big part. I can’t think of any male politician who magnetizes love and hate—mainly hate—the way she did. But we have a number of very powerful women in the world now—Mrs. Merkel, who the Germans call Mutti. What did we call Mrs. Thatcher? 

IC: Salman Rushdie coined “Mrs. Torture” in The Satanic Verses

HM: Well yes, but worse. When she was minister of education, she stopped the children’s free school milk. This may sound quaint, but after the war we were such a malnourished nation that part of the founding of the welfare state were public health initiatives. Every little schoolchild got milk. Mrs. Thatcher stopped it. They called her “Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher.” Now imagine the consequences of having the first woman prime minister who is the milk snatcher. She takes away the nourishment of the nation. 

IC: It seems like part of what bothers you is indeed her being a woman and pursuing the policies she did.

HM: Yes, I think that is true. It was unfortunate for other women who might come after her that the first woman to become prime minister was a male impersonator. And in order to successfully impersonate men, the woman launched a war. [laughs]

IC: You mean the Falklands War?

HM: Yes. She scorned and despised other women, and predicated her values entirely on the values of her father, a small town shopkeeper. She was always talking about what the prudent housewife should do and what the prudent housewife knew. She was pretending that running a country was like running a household, which she knew wasn’t true.

IC: Sadly, the current American president does the same thing. He talks about how households need to balance their budgets and therefore the country does, too.

HM: True. And I am sure that all politicians seek the home connection with the voter. But she carried it to extremes. It was complete bullshit and she knew it. But she assumed somehow that this would get the woman voter and all those juvenile male voters who wanted a well-regulated household with a woman who knew what she should be doing. 

IC: You mean juvenile in terms of intelligence, not age, I assume. 

HM: I believe this was her estimate of the voter: “These people are so stupid that they will vote for me because they think I know how to run the household.” 

IC: She did win three times though.

HM: She did. I can’t deny that. [pauses] It was not possible at that time to see where it was trending. What she made a play for was the acquisitive: our greedy nature. She set aside other things like an identification with community, altruism. The only collective that she understood was: Rally around and slay the enemy. Otherwise, she said there was no thing such as society. This is what I find so interesting psychologically. Where did she come from? She had no mother. Her father came from a very identifiable background: religious, highly conformist.

IC: Methodist, right?

HM: Yes, but public duty to the fore. One of the ideals she grew up with was self-denial and postponement of gratification, and yet she went about to create a greedy, short-term society. It is a paradox. 

IC: Hillary Clinton is often seen as acting tougher because of the constraints of being a woman in politics. Do you see Thatcher parallels?

HM: Everything you say may be true about what women need to do in public life. To me, Hillary looks alright. She looks like the kind of woman I admire. She doesn’t seem to have distorted her essential nature. 

IC: I think most Americans, whether they like Thatcher or not, view her as sincere rather than constructed. And I think many people view the Clintons as constructed. Maybe this is the distance with which Americans view British politics and vice versa. 

HM: That is very interesting. To a Brit of my generation, one of the most objectionable things about Thatcher is her falsity. She is a total construct. For one thing, she had a made-over accent. 

IC: That is a bigger thing in the United Kingdom. 

HM: It is. It would be comic if it weren’t so tragic. 

IC: For the record, is this your real accent?

HM: It is. It is. It is not the accent I was born with.

IC: Oh, we are getting somewhere.

HM: But I have lived a lot of different places.1 Thatcher could fake her class background, but she couldn’t fake the quality of her mind. 

IC: How did you come to think about the title story, which concerns her assassination in 1983?

HM: I saw it happen, so to speak. I lived on the street described [in the story]. I looked out on the window described. And I saw her come out on the grounds of the hospital as described. And certain thoughts passed through my head. 

I have been living with it ever since. I have tried to write it any number of times, but I couldn’t make it come out. Then a few months ago, I just got so tired of the whole thing and I said, I am not leaving the house until I make the story work. I had nine stories and I needed a tenth.

IC: You must know you are going to get some trouble for this.

HM: It is describing a “might have been.” And every leader operates under the threat of assassination. I will get into trouble, I am sure, because since my Kate Middleton speech and before, certain papers were after me. I am not saying, however, that it would have been moral or right to assassinate Mrs. Thatcher, but I know it will be read that way. I know it will cause a problem. 

IC: Have you been following this debate in Britain about how patriotic to make the curriculum?2

HM: In a mild way. I do myself think that history is a set of skills rather than a narrative. When people begin to talk about “our island story” my hackles rise. It is deluded and conservative. 

IC: I was wondering how you feel about the monarchy today, and how much the existence of the monarchy strengthens things you find distasteful about the national story. 

HM: I think if the monarchy were removed tomorrow, it wouldn’t have a huge effect on the national mind-set. I think the monarchy today is. . . mildly interesting and largely harmless. I can’t find I can get very heated about it. In the next couple of generations, it is bound to go. There is so much else in the world that is more interesting. My concern is less the monarchy as such than the attempt of a fading colonial power to hang onto grandeur.

When I came to write my Thomas Cromwell books, I moved onto the center ground of English history, but I was never there before. I didn’t feel it was my history particularly, coming from Northern Britain, being of Irish extraction, being a cradle Catholic. The image of England I grew up with felt somewhere else. There was an official England in postcards, but it wasn’t one I had visited. But I decided to march onto the center ground and occupy it whether it was mine or not. 

IC: You mention being a cradle Catholic, and I gather you don’t practice anymore?

HM: No.

IC: In your books, the picture of Thomas More, who is a Catholic hero to many people, is very bleak. It feels like you set out to correct the record about him and the fact that he was an extremist.

HM: To my astonishment, when Wolf Hall came out, people asked if I made it up—his burning of heretics. It was well documented. And he was proud of it! The Brits love lost causes. 

IC: Dunkirk.

HM: Yes. The worship of Thomas More goes beyond Catholics. 

IC: I am not sure Catholics have just been romanticized in England. They have been persecuted.

HM: Yes, of course. But people will identify with a persecuted minority without asking themselves what they are identifying with.

IC: What is that experience of adaptation into theater like?

HM: When we began, there was only one book. What was actually commissioned was one play. Now that we have two plays, the complexities multiply. And then the Royal Shakespeare Company got involved. I’ve become more and more drawn into it. 

At the same time as the play adaptations, the BBC adaptation has been marching forward. A different take on the material. I have been less involved with the television production than with the theater. But this is unique because it is a work in progress. I haven’t finished the third book. In this case, it is alive! 

IC: Is it strange to see actors give their own spin to your characters?

HM: It helps hugely with the third book. The third book, in subtle ways, feeds back into the plays. 

IC: It makes you think about the characters in different ways?

HM: It concentrates you on the present moment. It also reminds me, watching it, that characters did not know their fate. 

IC: They must have had some sense, dealing with Henry VIII.3

HM: That was a tricky business. You might think you can outlive him. Watching live actors onstage, in something that changes night by night, real people picking up cues from each other, it concentrates you on the process rather than the result.

IC: Speaking of process, I am curious what the step is between historical research and then writing fiction from that.

HM: For me, it is about using everything that is there and using the gaps in the record, figuring out why the gaps might be there. And then when you move on to the level of what historians said, laying the interpretations side by side. You also have to look back at the documents and make your own judgments. What the record says and what people say about it. A novelist can fill the gaps in a way that a biographer cannot. One of the frustrations of someone like Thomas Cromwell is that, before they step into the light of history, and become extremely well documented, they are not known. A king might be well documented but not everyone.

IC: So you feel like you have more license if we don’t have the facts?

HM: Yes, but it is not favored. The more facts I can have, the better. I can operate very nicely between them, but I am not very good at making things up. I am not sure how ethical it is. [laughs] I am not a historian. I don’t see what I do as being a rival to biography. It’s complementary. It’s fairly clear where the boundaries are. When I start telling you the contents of his head, I am making it up. But I try to make it up based on what is on the record. So even my wildest speculations will have a root somewhere. 

IC: I am going to make up things you said for this interview based on things you said previously. Fill in the gaps.

HM: But you have me here to ask any question you like!

IC: We have been talking about monarchy, but you lived in a non-constitutional one, in Saudi Arabia, in the 1980s. And one of your stories takes place there. 

HM: What a wonderful opportunity! How many people in the present day have the chance to not only live in an absolute monarchy but in a theocracy? They were domestic circumstances. It was like a Gothic novel if you are a woman. When I landed at King Abdullah International Airport at three a.m. for the first time, I thought, I am going to get a book out of this. I hadn’t published anything, but I knew. That’s what made me able to stand it. We got to live in a flat in the city. That meant we got to see society. 

IC: When 9/11 happened, did you feel like you had a different perspective than other people?

HM: I thought totally so. I have a great and genuine respect for Islam, which I got when I was there. But I also saw the tendencies that led to war against the West. That was in every conversation. 

IC: Where do you think it comes from?

HM: It comes from quite primitive impulses. Where does anti-Semitism come from? To see the vile cartoons in the Arab press ... The Holocaust denial. You have maps and Israel isn’t on them! That is institutional, it is official. The information that people had about the West was so heavily distorted. Of course it comes as a shock, however much you know it theoretically. It’s an education. It’s beliefs about women and law and morality and society. It was quite fascinating. You can’t get it out of books. You have to have the conversations. 

IC: I was going to ask about other historical novelists you might like. In the last fifty years or so, Norman Mailer has tried it. Gore Vidal.

HM: My first book was a historical novel. I started writing in 1974. In those days, historical novels meant ladies with swelling bosoms on the cover. Basically, it meant historical romance. It was not respectable as a genre. People who wrote literary novels about the past probably didn’t want them pegged as historical fiction. Certainly that was true in England. I loved Gore Vidal’s Burr. That book gave me courage. Thomas Keneally, the Australian author. 

IC: What other writers and essayists have you been influenced by? You also write essays.

HM: When I began to read as an adult, my first big enthusiasm was Evelyn Waugh. I read almost exclusively novelists of a generation back. I did the Russians, then I started getting more up to date. When you become published and become a reviewer, piles of books come along and you are pushed by fashion and what you are commissioned to do. The writer I adore is Ivy Compton-Burnett.4 Usually saying this ends a conversation.

IC: I am going to leave. 

HM: I couldn’t get more than a few pages in when I first read her. In many ways, she is very clumsy and her plots are rubbish. But we don’t read her for that. There are pages and pages of dialogue. What it requires is real effort and attention. If I am feeling broken, I can pick up one of her books and the next morning I can write again. It puts my mechanism back. In terms of essays, I would say Oliver Sacks. His breadth of hard knowledge and imagination and empathy seems to constitute the perfect mind to me. 

IC: I heard a story that you were at a literary event with Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan. And Hitchens said that he stood in a corner being social only with his friends and that he felt so embarrassed afterward. He said he acted like a high-schooler. 

HM: Oh, bless him. It was a very funny conference. I knew him before that. He had always been a good angel to me. He once stole a phrase from me that came out of his mouth on television. I saw his eyes move sideways. I thought, It’s alright, you can have it! The conference was light on women. Salman Rushdie showed up, they were doing their own thing. I didn’t feel neglected! 

They took us on a walk for miles and miles. It was a themed garden. Hitchens was so unfit that he kept trying to take shortcuts. It was like Alice in Wonderland, because he would appear on top of a hill and realize he was on the wrong side of a river or in the wrong place. I remember the helplessness on his face. I was rather fond of him. 

  1. Thanks to her husband’s work as a geologist, Mantel has lived in the Middle East and Africa.

  2. Michael Gove, the UK’s former secretary of education, had pushed for a more patriotic curriculum; this was opposed by many academics and writers.

  3. He had a tendency to execute his enemies.

  4. The English writer who wrote about the upper classes, and is famous for her witty dialogue.