Hilary Mantel, I'm told, writes historical fiction. I haven't read anything that she has written before today.I am unlikely to read anything she has written or will write in the future.
However, Ms Mantel has written a little short story about the assassination of Margaret Thatcher and is defending herself from the criticism that her writing inevitably precipitated. Now, I've no real issue with Ms Mantel writing such a story, just so long as she is willing to countenance counterfactual history written from a perspective that challenges her prejudices (which I somehow doubt - imagine a story where the assassination of JFK failed and he led the US into WWIII or one where Nelson Mandela was executed for terrorism).
However, her defence (or at least the part quoted in The Guardian) is something of a confused concoction:
“I think it would be unconscionable to say this is too dark we can’t examine it. We can’t be running away from history. We have to face it head on, because the repercussions of Mrs Thatcher’s reign have fed the nation. It is still resonating."
The first sentence is fine. Of course we can contemplate why someone might want to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, we don't have to go far to understand that mindset because a man who actually did try to assassinate Margaret Thatcher is alive, well and living in freedom (which says a great deal about our society). However, the second sentence - from someone who has made a fortune from exploiting history - displays a profound misunderstanding of even some history within my living memory. It is Ms Mantel who is running away from history, choosing instead a slanted rewrite formed out of prejudice rather than a real analysis.
In the end all this is fine - I've read the story and it's filled with the sort of bien pensant hatred we've come to expect from the UK's literary elite. It gives us a sort of stage Scouse Irishman as a suitable mirror to Mantel's personal hatreds, a kind of justification for her carefully crafted bigotry:
''It's the fake femininity I can't stand, and the counterfeit voice. The way she boasts about her dad the grocer and what he taught her, but you know she would change it all if she could, and be born to rich people. It's the way she loves the rich, the way she worships them. It's her philistinism, her ignorance, and the way she revels in her ignorance. It's her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can't cry?''
As an analysis of Margaret Thatcher this is useless but as a revealing insight into Hilary Mantel's hateful bigotry it is really valuable. Everything about the paragraph resonates with the dismissal of an inferior (Thatcher) by her superior (Mantel). Just as the working class man in Ms Mantel's little story is shallow, cardboard, a thing to be patronised, Margaret Thatcher is provincial, suburban, a little bit ordinary. In both cases unlike Hilary Mantel. But the working-class terrorist is portrayed as a victim whereas the lower middle-class shopkeeper's daughter who became prime minister is the villain.
Speaking personally, I find it hard to contemplate creating a false history purely from blind - and ignorant - hatred. Not the fictional vehicle of a conversation between a terrorist and a women whose home he'd barged into - that's a fine basis for a short story. The blind and ignorant hatred is the caricature of Margaret Thatcher, the view that this is the sort of women - indeed Ms Mantel can barely call her a women - who is so unlike me as to be a monster. Ms Mantel goes on and on about how Margaret Thatcher wouldn't like her hair, how she doesn't like the way Thatcher walks, her handbag - she casts herself as some sort of Anti-Thatcher, as a thing entirely built from the PM's disapproval.
What we see here from Ms Mantel is something that, in truth, is foreign to those of us who share Margaret Thatcher's lower middle class background. Taking the trouble to construct a fiction based entirely on your hatred of a caricature of a women you have never met is something peculiar to the bien pensant left. What this short story tells us about Hilary Mantel - bitter, bigoted, ignorant - is far more important than any flicker of insight into the motives of the Provisional IRA or the character of Margaret Thatcher.