COLUMN

You Wouldn’t Kill Margaret Thatcher if You Knew How Hot She Was

Why Hilary Mantel's controversial short story about an imagined assassination of the former prime minister misunderstands the Iron Lady.

Photo by TIM OCKENDEN / AFP / Getty Images
Photo by TIM OCKENDEN / AFP / Getty Images

There is no lower form of an English cultural event than a manufactured literary scandal. For a few blissful months, it seemed as though the seasonal eruption of belletristic bellyaching had ended. Martin Amis, after all, had moved to Brooklyn Heights. Salman Rushdie’s references to himself in the third person were two long years ago, and Zoë Heller has moved on from the trauma of having read it. Even the news of Russell Brand’s pop-Maoist tract, in which the recovering heroin addict explains how to "bring down the government and establish a personal and global utopia" in a "simple, accessible book," is not due out for a few more days, was only expected to kick up a modest fuss with the rumors that it was ghostwritten by recovering plagiarist Johann Hari. You might say it was a rather idyllic summer for English letters; that is, until Hilary Mantel set off an early chill to autumn.

A week ago, the two-time Man Booker winner who managed to make you sympathize with Thomas Cromwell and Maximilien de Robespierre came under fire from Tories for her latest book of short stories, specifically the one that furnishes the title for the collection: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher never negotiated away a national church or, so far as we know, instituted a Thermidor, but in Mantel’s latest historical fictional rendering, she’s only good for taking out at the height of her power.

The former British prime minister (and the imagined victim of Mantel’s work) has been dead now for just over a year, but the controversy over this work — specifically the writer’s wicked what-if imagining that Thatcher was killed by an Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist’s bullet — has prompted another round of national mourning.

In Mantel’s story, Thatcher is assassinated in August 1983, when Thatcher underwent eye surgery in a private clinic in Windsor, where Mantel had been living at the time just within eyeshot of the convalescent leader. It was just about a year after British naval forces recaptured South Georgia in the Falklands. When asked at the time about the military victory, Thatcher referred journalists to the secretary of state for defense, John Nott, who gave a terse battle assessment before returning the floor to the prime minister.* She then delivered one of her most memorable on-camera performances, telling the press scrum, "Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our forces and the marines" — before turning away to walk back into 10 Downing, the bleating of unanswered questions trailing behind her.

Mantel’s story is set in Windsor. The Irish gunman (who eventually fires the fatal bullet) breaks into a small flat with a good sharpshooter’s view of the hospital, taking its occupant, a local bourgeois woman of "cod-Irish" background, hostage. But as the story unfolds, we find that the woman tends to agree with her captor more than she fears or loathes him. "Assassination" opens with excerpts from the Falklands presser and ends with a grim allusion to it.

So Thatcher’s done in, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d conclude that the creator of this macabre counterfactual was cheerleading the murder herself. Mantel may not have done herself any favors by giving an interview to the Guardian, published on Sept. 19, in which she explained the 30-year evolution of her Maggie-murder. That caught the attention of Conservative MPs, Thatcher flame-tenders, and brand managers. Recalling that she once spotted the prime minister "toddling" around the hospital grounds from her own Windsor bedroom in 1983, Mantel said: "Immediately your eye measures the distance…. I thought, if I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead."

The subordinate clauses in that second sentence were duly skipped over in the ensuing outpour of disgust and anger. On top of which, it didn’t seem to matter that in the same interview Mantel did what ought never be required of any fiction writer — she drew the distance between herself and her own characters. "I am not either of those people in that room," she said of the IRA shooter and his accidental accomplice. "I am standing by the window with my notebook."

"Standing by with a notebook" is what novelists, short-story writers, and poets do, no matter if their subject is incest, war, genocide, or falling in love. Do they "fantasize" about such things? By definition, they must. Only philistines conflate the conjurer with what has been conjured, much less assign pathological conditions to the former. But MP Stewart Jackson took to Twitter to condemn author and work, thesaurus clearly in hand. Mantel’s story is "sick & deranged," he said, the woman herself "puffed up with bile &hate." MP Nadine Dorries tweeted more in sorrow than in anger, "having loved every word Mantel has ever written," and could only think — poor dear — of Thatcher’s heirs, none of whom, it bears mentioning, has come forth yet to admit to reading the dark tale, much less to complain of suffering the loss any more acutely as a result of it.

No one, however, exceeded Lord Timothy Bell in upholding his friend and client’s posthumous honor. Formerly one of the paid image consultants hired to instruct a Grantham shopkeeper’s daughter on how to instruct a nation to rejoice at routing an Argentine strongman, Bell was so appalled at Mantel’s made-up killing that he asked Scotland Yard to nose in. "If somebody admits they want to assassinate somebody, surely the police should investigate," he told the Sunday Times, perfectly misconstruing what Mantel had actually said, assuming, of course, he ever bothered to read her original remarks. He whinnied, "This is in unquestionably bad taste." As the Guardian’s Damian Barr, who conducted the interview with Mantel, subsequently noted, Bell has cashed PR checks for his services rendered to Augusto Pinochet and Asma al-Assad, putting him rather closer to real assassins past and present than the author of Wolf Hall will ever be.

If Tory indignation seems a bit contrived, it’s no doubt because the Mantel scandal actually began as an intramural argument. The highest-circulation conservative broadsheet in Britain, the Telegraph, first purchased the rights to serialize "Assassination" at great expense before the editors decided they’d upset their readers and pulled the publication, whereupon the Thatcher-hating Guardian happily took up the opportunity. In fact, Mantel’s first-person account of how her creative juices got flowing might never have been outed at all had the Telegraph run the story as agreed in the first place, thereby depriving the newspapers’ left-wing rival of a complementary publicity-generating Q&A with the author.

In February 2013, Mantel found herself fending off a different indictment: aesthetic republicanism. In a lecture she delivered at the British Museum, later published by the London Review of Books under the title "Royal Bodies," she spoke of the looks, fashions, and physical miseries of distaff monarchs, from Anne Boleyn to Kate Middleton, whom Mantel described as "designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished." The Duchess of Cambridge’s only purpose in life, Mantel said, was breeding. The monarchy, she said, is comparable to pandas: expensive and difficult to maintain, but captive specimens nonetheless whom the public loves to gawk at. And so a fairly prosaic assessment of the dehumanizing effects of the Crown was transformed by the tabloid press into a scabrous (or "bitter" as the Daily Mail described it) attack on the dignity of the future queen, similarly more misquoted than actually read. (Even Barr has invented a string of words from that lecture that Mantel never used.)

For the best-selling chronicler of King Henry VIII’s court to compare the duchess to a Stepford wife was one thing, but to bring up Thatcher’s body only to bury it again was quite another.

So, just how serious was this crime? Poets, novelists, and essayists have been murdering elected and unelected officials for ages, whether as a primitive form of personal catharsis, a jejune exercise in shock-value art, or an earnest commentary on the advancement of political economy.

"[O]ne thought-murder a day keeps the psychiatrist away," wrote Saul Bellow in Herzog, a book about a liberal intellectual in an advanced state of mental agitation who only engages with former heads of state by writing rambling, egg-headed letters to them ("Dear General Eisenhower …"). In 2004, American pacifist author Nicholson Baker published Checkpoint, a forgettable novel about a would-be shooter of George W. Bush and the "friend" who attempts to talk him down from the action, which was viewed by liberals in advanced states of mental agitation as a coded act of wish fulfillment, or so Leon Wieseltier found, sniffing the exhalation of his own herd in the New York Times.

In England, there’s a longer and more storied tradition of actively pining for, or just entertaining the thought of, the death of national. "Margaret on the Guillotine" was written by Morrissey, sung by Morrissey, and dedicated to Morrissey’s desire to see Margaret on the guillotine: "And people like you / Make me feel so old inside / Please die." These boring lyrics were sufficient grounds to merit a visit by Special Branch to the musician’s — or as he was then known, the Pope of Mope — house in 1988. Though nothing came of it (Mozzer lived to croon again) it’s an episode from late Thatcherana which might even make a good short story someday. And how does Mantel’s offense compare to John Milton’s The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, an entire volume justifying the beheading of Charles I and that of any hypothetical sovereign turned tyrant? When Lord Castlereagh, Britain’s notorious foreign secretary, cut his own throat with a pen-knife in 1822 after descending into depression and madness over what he believed to be attacks on his suspected homosexuality, Byron’s obituary ran in the radical journal The Examiner: "So Castlereagh has cut his throat; the worst / Of this is-that his own was not the first." To John Cam Hobhouse, his lifelong friend, Byron was even crueler (and funnier):

Posterity will ne’er survey

A nobler grave than this:

Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:

Stop, traveller,-[and piss.]

 

In the introduction to Don Juan, Castlereagh is described as a "Cold-blooded, smooth-faced, placid miscreant! / Dabbling its sleek young hands in Erin’s gore" (incidentally, also how our IRA gunmen sees his quarry), and "A tinkering slave-maker, who mends old chains, / With God and Man’s abhorrence for its gains" – staves which could only be published after Byron’s death for fear that they would upset the masses more than anything else that was in the ribald and hugely popular epic poem. Following the shooting of reformers by British soldiers in Manchester, Shelley famously wrote that "Murder" had a "mask like Castlereagh," and fed human hearts to the "seven blood-hounds [that] followed him."

And, as it happens, in her "Royal Bodies" lecture Mantel even described her first encounter with Queen Elizabeth in similar appetitive terms: "I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones." (Perhaps because Mantel wasn’t being nasty about the Queen’s wardrobe, this creepy apercu escaped the attention of the Daily Mail.)

It’s a curiosity of the current quarrel that not once has anyone raised the idea of how Thatcher might have reacted to her invented demise. Personally, I think that far from being shocked, offended, or in any way bothered by this grotesque homage, she would have been more interested in seeing what Lord Bell calls "good taste" trump naked commercial interest among her reverential disciples. "Better the Telegraph earn the advertising revenue than those smug redistributionists at Guardian," she might have thought. Though she would not have objected to Mantel’s recollection of her general attitude of "boiling detestation," which is still a compliment in right-wing circles, and which Mantel expands on by claiming in her interview with the Guardian that Thatcher "saw herself as an Old Testament prophet delivering the truth from on high." There is mighty praise indeed.

Mantel professes, like every other litterateur in England, to dislike Tory policies and Tory politicians. And she makes a point of saying that she’d have gladly published "Assassination" while Thatcher was still alive but for her own failure to complete the story in time. "I just couldn’t see how to get [the characters] to work together. They must examine their own myths and those of their communities. Each colludes for their own reasons."

Except that their own myths aren’t much examined, just mildly satirized, which is — as I found it — the wasted opportunity of "Assassination." There’s a nice but brief description of the Windsor "intelligentsia," galvanized by the sudden arrival in their midst of a hated politician. Mantel channels Updike in her derision of a provincial smart set congregating in an ad hoc arts center that was "[r]ecently remodelled from the fire station…a place where self-published poets found a platform, and sour white wine was dispensed from boxes; on Saturday mornings there were classes in self-assertion, yoga and picture framing." That would have had Mrs. T smiling, all right. But then the IRA man doesn’t question his cause or his methods; nor, really, does his nameless hostage. Both are incredibly businesslike about the whole sordid business of murder, from beginning to end. "It’s a strange thing on Mantel’s side, almost Jacobean in that the emotion exceeds the given reason," the Norwich-based Hungarian poet George Szirtes told me about the forced furor of this row — and the literary let-down of reading "Assassination" itself. "But that was part of the celebrations of Thatcher’s death recently. She had become something else for some, a new kind of witch whose death you had to celebrate as if we all lived in The Wonderful Land of Oz before she came along. There is a pretty marvelous essay to be written about that from the psychoanalytic or feminist angle."

I doubt Mantel would be up the challenge, frankly. The silliest note Mantel struck in her interview was to describe Thatcher as an "imitator of masculine qualities," "not of woman born," "a psychological transvestite," a summary feminist judgment which she believes is the gravamen of her critique against the carapace-haired Boadicea. Yet it is so far from being the truth that it deserves to start a worthier English dust-up.

The lady may not have been for turning and she made have had a metallic resolve, but she definitely was all woman. Up until his last days, Christopher Hitchens could still recite some of the hate mail he’d received for writing an article at the New Statesman in which he referred to the then leader of the opposition as "sexy." Thatcher would later, upon first meeting the Hitch face to face, as it were, force him to "bow lower" and spank him on the ass with a parliamentary order paper before giving "almost imperceptibly slight roll of the hip while mouthing the words ‘Naughty boy!’" The story as it was retold in conversation was always so much better than the version Hitchens described in his memoir because there wasn’t a hint of camp or falsity to this performance — you were meant to understand that this was an act of sexual devastation by a studied professional.

Nor was Thatcher’s thoroughgoing femininity the sole diagnosis of a Trotskyist cheekily in search of exploding the prejudices of his own radical set. "I did some market research as to whether people find her as attractive as I do and all, including Vidia, were in complete agreement," declared Anthony Powell after a 1982 dinner party hosted by the historian Hugh Thomas who hosted not only Thatcher but an eclectic mix of writers among them the Vidia in question (V.S. Naipaul), V.S. Pritchett, Stephen Spender, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Al Alvarez, the lefty English poet, was evidently part of the aroused consensus: "I hate to say it, but she had good skin and a good figure and I found her rather attractive." Tom Stoppard (then minus the Sir), must have sent Thatcher’s "antennae quivering," in Nigel Farndale’s reconstruction of the evening, owing to her fondness for "clever, good-looking men," especially ones who bashed the Soviet Union, which the Czech-born playwright unfailingly did.

So you might say that for a "psychological transvestite," Thatcher was actually quite adept at unmanning heterosexuals of all ideological backgrounds. And what a pity this characteristic should have been missed in Mantel’s sketch of her quarry in the Guardian, especially as she is otherwise attuned to the varieties of feminine experience. As she deftly observed in "Royal Bodies" just how sloppy the historiography of famous women can be:

"It used to be that Anne Boleyn was a man-stealer who got paid out. Often, now, the lesson is that if Katherine of Aragon had been a bit more foxy, she could have hung on to her husband. Anne as opportunist and sexual predator finds herself recruited to the cause of feminism. Always, the writers point to the fact that a man who marries his mistress creates a job vacancy. ‘Women beware women’ is a teaching that never falls out of fashion."

So the ghost of the Iron Lady might heartily agree.

Also in attendance at the dinner hosted by Thomas in ’82 was Philip Larkin, who hated the evening but adored the only female guest. Thatcher professed little interest in literature or the arts – the purview of socialists, gays, and spoiled children- but plenty of interest in Larkin’s poems. He asked her to recite a favorite line. "You know, her mind was full of knives," came the reply, which was Thatcher’s misquotation of Larkin’s "Deceptions," a short poem written about a 19th-century girl from London’s underclass who had been savagely raped. The girl’s story had been brought to light by Henry Mayhew in his London Labour and London Poor, published in several volumes in the mid-1800s. It was this urban social chronicler who did the standing by with a notebook as a "ruined" girl told him of her horrifying ordeal. And Larkin’s gothic tribute leaves an indelible mark on your mind:

Even so distant, I can taste the grief,

Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.

The sun’s occasional print, the brisk brief

Worry of wheels along the street outside

Where bridal London bows the other way,

And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,

Forbids the scar to heal, and drives

Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day,

Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.

"I took that as a great compliment," Larkin matter-of-factly wrote to Julian Barnes about his admirer’s slight screw-up of a haunting stanza. "I thought if it weren’t spontaneous, she’d have got it right — but I am a child in these things. I also thought [Thatcher] might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines, not that I don’t kiss the ground she treads."

As Hitchens later noted, in probably the best essay ever written about Larkin, here was Britain’s finest and most conservative postwar poet praising "Britain’s most reactionary (and revolutionary) postwar prime minister" by suggesting that she was psychologically akin to a Victorian victim of sexual assault. I wonder if this intriguing contact between the artistic and the political in the 20th-century English experience has ever registered with Jackson, Dorries and Bell, or if they consider it more disturbing than what Britain’s finest historical novelist has done to their heroine.

But the failure of imagination is as much that of Mantel as it is the Tory prigs. The author who has so ably transmitted the plight of Tudor dowager princesses and disinherited offspring couldn’t quite grasp the point of Britain’s first and only female prime minister, or begin to account for why even those who despised her politics still found something to admire in her person. She nearly gets there after the fact, in a necessary follow up interview with the BBC following the "Assassination" kerfuffle, by calling Thatcher a "shaper of history," a "walking argument." But this is never reflected in the story, which treats her as a villainous cutout, a literal bull’s eye.

I recall an English editor telling me once that she has discontinued publishing a scabrous journalist enemy of Tony Blair. "Well, he did win three consecutive elections, didn’t he? If you can’t come to terms with that, you’ve no business writing about him." So it was with Thatcher. Perhaps some writer will come along someday to do this justice.

*Correction, Oct. 6, 2014: John Nott was British secretary of state for defense during the 1982 Falklands War. An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Michael Heseltine as secretary of state for defense at that time. (Return to reading.)

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