Belfast Telegraph

Hilary Mantel's misogyny clear in her Margaret Thatcher murder fantasy

By Gail Walker

Hilary Mantel's short story The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher imagines a woman just like Mantel who unwittingly lets an IRA killer into her home, then when she realises he is going to shoot the Prime Minister from her window implores him to let her see the moment of death.

It stems from an incident in 1983 when Mantel saw Thatcher standing unguarded outside the writer's Windsor flat. Mantel says in an interview she used her finger and thumb to form a gun: "Immediately your eye measures the distance, I thought, 'If I wasn't me, if I was someone else, she'd be dead'."

Amid the howls of outrage since the publication of the story in The Guardian, there's been much wittering about artistic right to self-expression.

Which, of course, should be defended. But that doesn't mean glossing over what it is – on a par with online celebrity rape fantasies.

The story is about a desire to murder someone. And it's a story about someone by name – not about the protagonists or the narrator, but entirely about the "real life" subject chosen for the tale. Indeed, substitute an anonymous victim who wasn't a female British Prime Minister and you have no story, Hilary. You also don't have it in The Guardian.

But aside from the fact the former PM has living relatives, we'd do well to remind ourselves that Margaret Thatcher was a democratically thrice-elected leader. Though she never lost an election, Mantel's dodgy little narrative makes clear there would have been some kind of justification in removing her at the point of a bullet.

Unlike Hilary Mantel, the IRA did actually try to murder Margaret Thatcher in the Brighton bombing, which left five dead and several people permanently disabled, including Margaret Tebbit. Another close friend, the MP Ian Gow, was murdered by the IRA in 1990. Years earlier the INLA had murdered her friend and mentor Airey Neave.

The idea of assassination by terrorists wasn't a literary conceit for Margaret Thatcher. It was an ever present reality. Which makes Mantel's stupid labours just depressing.

She justifies it because she didn't like Thatcher's politics. This is a popular left-wing board game: defeated endlessly by reality, they make pretend worlds where they win. All those TV docudramas on The Trial Of Tony Blair or Death Of A President (about the assassination of George Bush) and similar rubbishy daydreams all have extreme left-wing origins. You don't get Conservative fantasies about killing, say, Harriet Harmon or Gerry Adams.

Describing her "boiling detestation" for Mrs T in her promotional guff, Mantel says that Thatcher was anti-feminist and a "psychological transvestite". So, er, what? That makes her fit to be killed?

But now we get it. Mantel, who has form for singling out other women for abuse – last year she attacked the Duchess of Cambridge as "bland" – regards women who don't conform to her views as not "real women". They are pretending to be men. They are "damaged goods". Women who reach the top always face this criticism. That they are contemptuous of their own femininity.

Golda Meir. Indira Ghandi. Margaret Thatcher. All pretend women.

Of course, imagine the anger if left wing peacenik males were described as being "psychological transvestites", "behaving like a bunch of wimmin" or "big girls' blouses".

Quite rightly, we'd scorn such arguments. But when it comes to right-wing women, it is often the angle of attack taken by the sisterhood.

Margaret Thatcher faced two types of misogyny. The straightforward kind (read any article about Margaret Thatcher and you'll soon come across terms like "mad cow" and "bloody bitch". Even the greeting of her death with Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead treads on the well-worn tropes of sexist abuse).

And also the more sophisticated kind that had her as a kind of non-woman. And all because she believed in Britain, the free market and the individual and didn't like the unions, their three-day week and destruction of the economy.

Like all totalitarian turns of thought, the tenor of Mantel's comments involves denying an individual's right to believe what they believe.

Actually, Mantel's "psychological transvestite" is akin to Hitler's "asocial elements" and China's habit of branding opponents as mentally ill.

Margaret Thatcher was Britain's first female Prime Minister. She remains the only one. That makes her a figure of liberation, a role model for many women. Women who want to succeed in the real world of hard decisions, to see their views working in the real world. Not the pretend one.

By example, Thatcher taught us that women are individuals in their own right.

Fear her. Love her. Respect her. Hate her. She was her own woman, not some stereotype of what a woman should be. And that, Hilary, makes women subject to very real non-pretendy sentences of death the world over. Cheers for that.

Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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