Interview with Hilary Mantel 'What's Happening in Britain at the Moment Is Really Ugly'

Hilary Mantel's historical novels are celebrated in Britain, but her critiques of the establishment are widely feared. In a SPIEGEL interview, she says her country is retreating into insularity and to attitudes prevalent in Victorian times.
Author Hilary Mantel on Thatcher's handbag: "She whirled it around like an outboard vagina."

Author Hilary Mantel on Thatcher's handbag: "She whirled it around like an outboard vagina."

Foto: Andrea Artz/ DER SPIEGEL

It isn't difficult to underestimate Hilary Mantel. In conversation, the prize-winning British author is quiet and almost shyly polite. But her novels, short stories and essays are full of trenchant and precise observations about society around her and she is famous for her barbs at the expense of the British establishment with a particular focus on political leaders, the media and royalty. Speaking of a reception with Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace several years ago, she once said that "I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner."

Mantel's latest work, a collection of short stories called "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," was just recently published in German translation. In the title story, the narrator and an IRA sniper discuss and plan a (fictitious) assassination attempt on the then-British prime minister in the 1980s. Although Mantel, 62, is among the most respected authors in the country, her provocations have often brought her biting criticism.

She achieved fame with her novels "Wolf Hall" in 2009 and "Bring up the Bodies" in 2012, both of which are set in the court of King Henry VIII. The main character in the works is Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who ultimately rose to become a key confidant to the king and an important figure in England's 16th century breakaway from the Catholic Church, though a later falling out resulted in his execution. As Mantel tells it, Cromwell was an eloquent strategist who had the king's ear, cunning but not disagreeable. His powerful adversary is Thomas More, who was later sainted by the Catholic Church. Mantel, however, portrays him as the cantankerous censor and Protestant persecutor that he likely was.

Mantel arrived for our interview through the back door of the Aldwych Theatre in London, accompanied by her husband, Gerald McEwen, who takes care of her business concerns. The theater is hosting the final performances of "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies," which Mantel adapted for the stage together with the dramaturge Mike Poulton. Next spring, the two pieces will debut on Broadway in New York. The highly anticipated final book in the trilogy is likewise expected to appear next year.

The author makes herself comfortable in a windowless room off the main auditorium where the afternoon staging of "Wolf Hall" is just coming to an end. Muffled sounds of the actors playing Cromwell, More and King Henry can be heard, as can the frenetic applause at the end. Mantel heaves a sigh of relief.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Mantel, why do you hate Margaret Thatcher?

Mantel: Hate her? I'm not sure I do. Ms. Thatcher was like a walking argument. She was a vehicle for paradox and contradiction and like a three-act drama in herself. This makes me value her. As an author, when you have a character who is such a gift that you can put into fiction, your attitude to them becomes highly ambivalent.

SPIEGEL: The title of your short story, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," doesn't sound very ambivalent.

Mantel: I'm really concerned in my short story to capture the feeling of the time, which was interesting, because she seemed to become separated as a person from her politics. In many ways, the issue seemed to be her personality and her persona. This provoked people and triggered violent extremes of feeling. As a writer of fiction, you want to know why. And this is the argument the characters have in my story.

SPIEGEL: Your story caused a minor uproar in Britain. The Daily Telegraph backed away from printing it. Lord Tim Bell called for the police to investigate. And a former Thatcher minister said the piece showed you were "sick and perverted". Were you hurt by these strong reactions?

Mantel: I was entertained. I was prepared, but bringing in the police for an investigation was beyond anything I could have planned or hoped for, because it immediately exposes them to ridicule. These people don't know how to read fiction, they were professionally outraged. I don't know if the reactions would have been the same if a male writer like Martin Amis or Ian McEwan had published this. I don't need a defense, but what I would ask them is: Do you think Ms. Thatcher shied away from controversy? Do you think she cared overly much about public opinion? Do you think she was afraid to be hated? It seems to me that, having set up this strong woman as their heroine, they are offended by this strongly held opinion of another woman.

SPIEGEL: Why did you write about Thatcher in the first place?

Mantel: Like the narrator in the story, I was living in Windsor in the 1980s with a bedroom that looked out to the gardens of the hospital (eds. note: where Thatcher had undergone an eye operation). And I saw her coming out of the hospital, walking slowly along the line of doctors and nurses who had lined up. She came along to thank them all. I had a very clear view of this.

SPIEGEL: The ideal moment for an assassination attempt?

Mantel: I immediately thought: This is a story. Thatcher was a carrier of myth, one of the myths was carrying Britannia in her armor. She carried these myths within her person, in the same way as Princess Diana did. Neither of them was conscious of it. Thatcher was the first woman in Downing Street, but imitated a man. When I say this, it seems like a joke, but I think Margaret Thatcher had a great deal of trouble understanding and coming to terms with her own femininity.

SPIEGEL: But her handbag was a very feminine accessory, wasn't it?

Mantel: She whirled it around like an outboard vagina.

SPIEGEL: Is it risky for an author of historical fiction to write about the present?

Mantel: Artistically, the challenges of historical fiction are far greater. And even the chances of being abused by the public are still surprisingly high. My books, particularly "Wolf Hall," upset a lot of people who thought that I was making up evil things about Thomas More. He's a saint and often presented as a hero, but of course I didn't make up anything about him that was crucial to the narrative. I didn't make up that he banned Luther's books, persecuted Protestants and that heretics were burned at the stake during his Chancellorship. I only dug out the soil beneath Thomas More's pedestal. Some people don't like their public image disturbed.

SPIEGEL: How do you find the characters you're writing about?

Mantel: I'm interested in people who come from nowhere and make their own luck and their own story. It wouldn't interest me to write about people who were born great and privileged, like Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell starts off an outsider and infiltrates the heart of the establishment. You don't have to be an acute psychologist to guess what I'm doing here. I'm interested in people whose story I can relate to and who I know something about from the inside. That's how writers work. We find something in our own lives that draws us towards a character or certain circumstances where we say, I get it.

SPIEGEL: Cromwell gave you enough material for three books. What fascinates you so much about him?

Mantel: I picked the person who is actually at the center of everything (during the Tudor period), but who is usually presented as a dark shadow. The Cromwell books are a big shift for me, because this is me occupying the center ground of English history. When I was younger, I perceived myself as marginal to the whole literary enterprise and I didn't consider myself to have a straightforward claim on Englishness. My first book was about the French Revolution, then I wrote about Ireland and a book about the underworld of London freaks. Then, gradually, like someone working their way to the middle of a maze, I got myself to Tudor history.

SPIEGEL: In recent years, you've become an important part of the British cultural elite yourself. You can despise royalty from up close now.

Mantel: When I was given the Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth (in 2006), I went to the Buckingham Palace and there were hundreds of people. There were very, very young men who looked like they'd just hatched out of an egg, soldiers who were being given medals for real things. They had risked their lives. It was quite poignant. People like me felt we should just go.

SPIEGEL: In a lecture a few years later, you compared the royal family to pandas. Some in Britain have accused you of being ungrateful.

Mantel: But why? Everyone likes pandas! And people go to considerable expense to keep pandas in comfort so that they breed. It's not like I suggested the abolition of the royal family or the execution of the pandas. The truth is, of course, these honors have nothing to do with the queen or the royal family. The suggestions are made by arts organizations to committees of administrators. It's not done by the royals themselves. I don't suppose they care one way or the other.

SPIEGEL: In 2013, you said that Duchess Kate, with her plastic smile, "appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture." This might be true, but don't you think it was a bit harsh?

Mantel: Princess Diana is dead and beyond offense and the Duchess of Cambridge is an intelligent young woman. If at all, she would probably have taken an interest in my closing paragraphs in which I ask the press to consider that she is a human being and not a plastic doll of their making to be manipulated as they wished. Since then, she became pregnant, gave birth, and now she is pregnant again. The focus of press attention is still indecent. Everything I warned against is happening. I don't think they have learned from Diana. They're not treating her as a human being. I think I'm quite justified in querying the press whether this is a sensible way to behave.

SPIEGEL: Nonetheless, the prime minister said afterwards that you were "completely misguided, completely wrong".

Mantel: He was misguided in being rushed into comment about something he knew nothing of. It was unwise.

SPIEGEL: Have public debates in Britain become more trivial in recent decades?

Mantel: The quality of public discourse is low. There is a disposition in this country at the moment to take offense. It seems as if it's become a hobby for people to wait around for someone to express an opinion they don't like and then to react violently. There's a bullying mood. I think that the Internet has something to with this. I've written on current affairs as a journalist and I know that abusive letters to the editors have always existed, even obscene letters. It's just that the Internet makes it so much easier. It is rather frightening when you think about the depth of pathology out there.

SPIEGEL: Are people offended primarily because they think that the royal family is being criticized?

Mantel: It's not only about the royal family. A man was jailed recently for rape threats he made against a female member of parliament who had campaigned for Jane Austen's image to be put on the 10 pound note. You just don't know what gets these people going. For some, it's the presence of women in public life, women daring to say anything at all.

SPIEGEL: Is the monarchy the last force holding this country together?

Mantel: It's mostly the queen herself. I was born in 1952, the year of her accession to the throne. My generation and everyone younger will feel it tremendously when she dies. In that psychological sense, she provides continuity, but as an institution, I don't think it has importance now. People expect me to be Republican and to call for the abolition of the monarchy. But I think there's so much else vital to talk about. The monarchy is very low on the list.

'Many People Are Poorer than They Were'

SPIEGEL: You spent several years abroad early in your career. What effect did that have on you?

Mantel: I was out of the country with my husband for nine years intermittently; we lived in Botswana and in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It affected my thinking about everything. To go to Jeddah in the early 1980s was a real educational experience. I wasn't allowed to work as a woman. I did some teaching in my own home, but there was no way I could go out and get a job. Many of your ideas are shaken, because you hear first-hand a very different view point about how Islam regards the West. I was confronted with a completely different ideology. What we take to be true, by axiom, is not taken to be true there. Freedom of speech, which all in the West understand to be desirable, is not necessarily something envied or admired in the Muslim world. Values are quite different. To encounter these ideas first hand is very powerful.

SPIEGEL: Did the visit provide you with inspiration later for your Cromwell books?

Mantel: The debate about the king's position as head of the state and the church is of course relevant in my books. But Henry's state in the 16th century was not a theocracy. In Jeddah, I realized that everything we think is axiomatic and desirable -- freedom of speech and so on -- is not there. It was intriguing, but hard, a feat of endurance.

SPIEGEL: How is the Britain of today different from the country you grew up in?

Mantel: I was born into a working class family in a village near Manchester. My grandmother worked as a weaver in a mill when she was 12, my mother at 14. That was what you did: As soon as you left school, you had to work in the mill. By the time I was a child, the mills were closing and I was lucky to get a government grant for university. In the years after the war, both big parties, Labour and the Conservatives, were becoming ever-more centrist, drawing together on a social democratic path -- a period known as the postwar consensus. Maybe it couldn't have lasted, but we perceive Ms. Thatcher as the person who knocked it down. Going to university is a seriously expensive business now.

SPIEGEL: It seems as though Britain today wants to retreat from the world, as though it has become war-weary, disinterested in global affairs and obsessed with immigration . Where does this come from?

Mantel: It's a retreat into insularity, into a mood of harshness. When people feel they're being mistreated, they lash out against people who are weaker than themselves, immigrants for example. What's happening here at the moment is really ugly. The government portrays poor and unfortunate people as being morally defective. This is a return to the thinking of the Victorians. Even in the 16th century, Thomas Cromwell was trying to tell people that a thriving economy has casualties and that something must be done by the state for people out of work. Even back then, you saw the tide turning against this idea that poverty was a moral weakness. Who could have predicted that it would come back into style? It's myth making on a grand scale, and it's poisonous.

SPIEGEL: Is there a new form of nationalism emerging?

Mantel: I'm not sure it's nationalism pure and simple. But there is certainly a big turn to the right in government. The populist party UKIP (eds. Note: UKIP is demanding that Britain secede from the European Union.) is on the rise; it's the party at the moment for people who are angry. They may not know what they're angry about, but they're going around declaring their intention to vote for UKIP as if that's going to make everyone terrified. It's like, I'm holding a hand grenade, can you see it?

SPIEGEL: Where does this anger come from?

Mantel: Many people are poorer than they were five or six years ago. The last few years of austerity after the banking crisis have opened up a wider gap between rich and poor. It has taken quite a while for people to see that it wasn't just a matter of a year or two. Transport, gas, electricity, housing: All those things that one must have are significantly more expensive. Wages remain low while the government is freezing and cutting benefits. Traditionally, working class voters would have turned to the Labour Party for remedy. But at the moment, they don't feel that they can do that. There's a mood of disaffection.

SPIEGEL: Austerity is the new dogma.

Mantel: What's put to the electorate is: You can't have this, you can't have that, because there's no money in the pot. But it's not really a question of resources. It's a question of ideology, which is moving to the right. It wishes to reduce the role of government and it strives for a small state. Unfortunately, it's the very people who protest the loss of their public services that go to vote for the Conservatives, as if they don't see the tie-up.

SPIEGEL: In June, you were appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Does that mean you are now part of the establishment?

Mantel: I don't think a medal is really a mark for being part of the establishment. Twenty years ago, giving a reading in a book shop, someone referred to me in a very contemptuous way as "being at the heart of literary establishment". It really shocked me, but then I thought, it really depends on where you're standing. If you are unpublished and struggling to be published, then you perceive anyone who's published as part of the establishment. The dame-hood thing -- it's like putting a line on the wall to see how tall the child is, but it's not the thing that makes the child grow.

SPIEGEL: Are people now referring to you as "Dame Hilary"?

Mantel: Only friends who want to make fun of me. Of course, as an artist you're quarrelling with yourself: How do I maintain my status as observer? I think most writers think of themselves as being on the margins. They're the ones leaning against the wall watching the party. That is always where I will be, even if they make me queen.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Mantel, we thank you for this interview.