Hilary Mantel and the art of missing the point

Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall. (Photo: David Rose)
Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall. (Photo: David Rose)

Around this time last year, Hilary Mantel infuriated a certain kind of tabloid newspaper and a certain kind of tabloid-pandering prime minister by saying some things about the Duchess of Cambridge. Her long, subtle speech was clearly a comment on the media coverage of our young queen-to-be – that the real person is imprisoned in a cage made by the headlines about her perfect hair and high-street fashion – but that was too nuanced, too complicated an idea for easy parsing into more headlines.

Mantel used terms like “designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished”; but she also referred to the “compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken” that surrounds the Royal family. It was a speech steeped in irony, in awareness of her own compulsion to comment on others’ compulsion to comment. So naturally it was entirely, and perhaps purposefully, misunderstood, as a chippy smartarse novelist’s attack on Our Beloved Princess, rather than a careful dissection of how the whole Our Beloved Princess trope reduces a human being to a grinning dressmaker’s dummy.

More on Hilary Mantel

The Woman’s Prize for Fiction is a sexist embarrassment
Mantel’s portrait of Kate Middleton is snobby and inaccurate
Cameron on Mantel: politics as demented entertainment

Mantel has now published a collection of short stories, under the title The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. That title is just screaming to be misunderstood as an attack by the former student radical/chippy smartarse novelist on Our Beloved Dead Prime Minister. But nothing Mantel writes is as lumpen and pigeonholable as that. In everything she writes she is aware of the layers of meaning, of the impact the words have. Pray that commentators, including our prime minister, read the book before condemning it. And they might want to read her Duchess of Cambridge speech, properly. And Wolf Hall, while they’re about it.

Not Beyond Black, though, that’s a dreadful book. Sorry, Hilary.

More by Tom Chivers

Is there such a thing as a ‘Muslim child’?
Kew’s ‘codebreaker’ mourns his lily
The best way to increase freedom may be stricter laws

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