I have a confession to make. I have not read Hillary Mantel's Booker-winning Bring Up the Bodies, the second in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, though I have read the first, Wolf Hall. Perhaps it was the subject matter, but the ponderous dealings of Henry VIII's court failed to enthuse me. I was pretty done in by the end of the first book and learnt to live with the suspicion that I had missed out on something great when the second book arrived.
The back-to-back Bookers did not help. You know how we Indians have this anal relationship to the Booker. I told myself that I would get around to reading Mantel with the last of the trilogy, the in-process The Mirror and the Light. But even as her Cromwell engine hums in the background, Mantel keeps popping on the scene with shorter works that play, incautiously, to the gallery.
Early last year, she wrote an essay for the London Review of Books (LRB) in which she infamously described Kate Middleton as "a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own". She took on the Queen as well, and described a scene in which she met the royal at an exhibition. Only she made the scene about herself, comparing her violent gaze(!) upon the unsuspecting Queen to tearing meat off a kebab.
I found the essay objectionable and said so in a piece I wrote then for this newspaper. Mantel had, among other things, called Middleton "precision-made, machine-made". I built on this and other instances from her essay to label her a misogynist. A colleague disagreed and wrote a rejoinder, taking exception to my labelling and, in turn, branded me the woman-hater.
One of the lines that had earned my colleague's ire was: "It is impossible not to espy a hint of that old misogynist feeling: the wildly successful career woman unable to get past her poor looks." But did Mantel really believe what she had said about the royals, or was she merely scouting for publicity? After the essay, her books flew off the shelves. I wondered which of the two, her snarky essay or the twin Bookers, helped shift more of her books.
Cut to the present. As Mantel prepares to release a short story collection, its title story has appeared in the Guardian. It's called The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, a story about, well, an assassin who uses a woman's house as a nest to take a hit at Thatcher. It's fiction, sure, but not if you believe fiction to be sly and Mantel to be using some of her well-worn tricks to drum up interest.
In an interview to the Guardian, Mantel traces the origin of the story to a day in 1983 when "she spotted an unguarded Margaret Thatcher from the window of her Windsor flat and fantasised about killing her". Regrettably, Mantel converts her chance encounters into nuggets that do little justice to her protagonists. If she chose to honour her meeting with the Queen in an essay, with Thatcher she has gone one step further and drafted an entire story. She seems to possess a remarkably cool-headed notion of a writer's obligation. With regard to her Thatcher sighting, she tells the Guardian: "Immediately your eye measures the distance. I thought, if I wasn't me, if I was someone else, she'd be dead."
In the interview, Mantel goes on to call Thatcher a "psychological transvestite", by which she means that Thatcher was forever trying to come across as macho. I don't know what I have a greater problem with: that Mantel is clearly abusing her literary success to kill, literally or otherwise, public personalities without any historical or political analysis, or whether she tends to couch these takedowns in such off-putting language.
As it happens, the Guardian interview brings up that LRB essay. This is Mantel's response to her Middleton bashing: "I was saying: 'Please back off and treat this young woman as human.' I was speaking in her favour. I wouldn't be so petty as to criticise someone for their appearance."
Sure. I wish I were any the wiser as to Mantel's reasons for that essay, or for this latest story. For a writer who has plumbed deep histories to bring the past to life, such a bad reading of the situation that warrants restorative explanations does not cohere. One can already see Mantel justifying her Thatcher story next year, with something along these lines: "When I called her a psychological transvestite, I was merely speaking about the pressures women face in a man's world. My intentions were hardly disrespectful."
The colleague who took exception to my piece might say Mantel is a deeply intelligent writer who really believes all that she says and that it is people like me who read her wrong. Or maybe Mantel is just someone who can write like a dream on the one hand and be confoundingly nasty on the other. I wish I knew.