Hilary Mantel, Margaret Thatcher, and the story of an assassination that didn’t happen

On a Saturday in the middle of 1983, author Hilary Mantel looked out of the bedroom window of her flat in Windsor, west of London, and saw something she never expected to see: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wandering around the garden of a nearby hospital. Thatcher was by herself, and Mantel could see her clearly.

Her first thought was that if she were an assassin, Thatcher would be dead.

“Immediately your eye measures the distance,” says Mantel, measuring each syllable, her finger and thumb forming a gun. “I thought, if I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead.” (The Guardian)

As someone who grew up in a working-class town near Manchester, Mantel had a visceral dislike for Thatcher, a feeling she calls a “boiling detestation.”

Those thoughts and feelings embedded themselves in Mantel’s head. There was a story there, but it wasn’t immediately apparent. She decided to let them stew for more than 20 years.

Meanwhile, she produced two volumes of a trilogy of historical novels on Thomas Cromwell, chancellor to King Henry VIII. Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) won her Man Booker prizes (the top award for books in Great Britain). She is the only author to win the award twice.

As her readers were awaiting the final volume of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light (available in March 2020), Mantel came out with a volume of short stories that took its title from the final story of the book, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014). The idea that had begun in those few moments in 1983 had finally come to fruition in a short story about a woman whose house had been invaded by IRA-like assassins who were waiting for Thatcher to emerge from her hospital stay.

Thatcher, who died in 2013, remains one of the most controversial of Britain’s politicians, and the Daily Telegraph’s decision to publish the story, followed by the revocation of that decision, caused a firestorm in 2014. The Guardian then published the story after the Telegraph dropped it, and you can read it at this link.

To her credit, Mantel wasn’t cowed by her critics. In fact, she poured gasoline on the flames with an interview in The Guardian that reiterated her feelings about Thatcher.

“When I think of her, I can still feel that boiling detestation. She did long-standing damage in many areas of national life, but I am not either of those people in that room [the characters in the story]. I am standing by the window with my notebook.” And yet, the trigger is pulled.

“I never voted for her, but I can stand back and appreciate her as a phenomenon. As a citizen I suffered from her, but as a writer I benefited.” The Guardian, Sept. 19, 2014.

And Mantel, despite her personal feelings, admires Thatcher as a character:

“Creativity in politics is rare but I think she had it,” Mantel admits. “Cromwell did too. But he was a negotiator and she detested consensus – she saw herself as an Old Testament prophet delivering the truth from on high. Cromwell used history to pretend the new things he was doing were old, and thus to soothe the English temperament. Mrs Thatcher despised history as a constraint.”

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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