The Guardian published her story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983, previewing Mantel’s collection of short stories, published today. The story is fictional, but it is set in Mantel’s flat in Windsor, situated behind a private hospital, where the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had an eye operation in 1983. In an interview to The Guardian, Mantel admitted to feeling “boiling detestation" for Thatcher. Some condemned the author for her work and the views she expressed.
What are we to make of it? Is it “bad taste” to fantasise about the assassination of someone already dead? Is it ignorant to view a historic political figure in black-and-white? Or is criticising fiction for its content akin to censorship?
I will be honest with you. When I first came across this media story, I furrowed my brow at Mantel. Thatcher died just a year ago, and I am in favour of de mortuis nihil nidi bonus - let’s not speak ill of the dead. I’d like to think that The Telegraph, which decided against the publication of the story, had followed the similar reasoning, but in all likelihood, the editors simply feared antagonising The Telegraph readers.
On Sunday I read the story. It is a very well written work of fiction with Mantel’s effortless imagery and masterful storytelling. It is daring as Mantel describes the captive woman sharing the assassin’s sentiment and offering to trade places with him: “You go and make the tea and I’ll sit here and mind the gun.” The story's plot seems to me one-dimensional and lacking in depth, but it’s compelling enough. It is a very good story.
It is with this in mind, that I ask myself again: “Is it fair to criticise the artist for her choice of muse?” I think not. Mantel refers to Thatcher as “the very stuff of drama” and “a fantastic character”. Damian Barr has put it well: “It’s a horror story for Thatcher’s fans, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for her detractors. Either way, it’s shocking.” Isn’t it what we want from art?
Instead of condemning Mantel, I am now inclined to applaud her. I do not share her views on Margaret Thatcher but I admire her for her courage and determination to challenge herself and her audience. “As a writer you have a choice to make - are you going to accept censorship or not?” Perhaps it helps to have a couple of Bookers already standing on your mantelpiece, but equally, accolades may have a taming effect. Not for Mantel: “I believe in walking that line. You mustn’t be too timid to risk getting it wrong."