Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead…

It is argued by some that Hilary Mantel has committed a crime in writing about the imagined ‘Assassination of Margaret Thatcher‘, and some commentators have suggested it is not simply a crime of taste or decency. However, I’m with Matthew Norman, writing for the Independent, when he asks ‘Under which precise law someone could be prosecuted for writing about the imaginary murder of a person now deceased..?’ Fortunately, I don’t think we have such a law in the UK. We are lucky, remember that.

I’m glad to see English PEN defend Hilary Mantel’s right to tell stories:  ‘authors are free to shock or challenge their readership by depicting extraordinary events or extreme acts … It is most disturbing when politicians and commentators in a democracy start calling for censorship on the grounds of offence or bad taste. Not only does it undermine the right to freedom of expression in the UK, it sends a very poor signal to politicians in authoritarian regimes who sue, threaten and sometimes kill writers and journalists for satirising or criticising the political class.’

As a writer, I also defend Mantel’s right to tamper with the past when writing historical fiction, and in this case to imagine alternative stories for a ‘real’ character. Writers use ‘reality’, ‘real people’ and ‘real events’ all the time. At one extreme, what they write is almost documentary-style in its fidelity to ‘the truth’. At the other extreme, the experiences and characters we draw on are filtered and explored and experimented with, and are then harder to spot without some pause for reflection or analysis.  (The disclaimer ‘All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental’ is almost always fiction, even if the writer doesn’t realise it at the time.)

Lord Timothy Bell apparently feels that the police should become involved: ‘If somebody admits they want to assassinate somebody, surely the police should investigate. This is in unquestionably bad taste’. As far as I know, you cannot in the UK be prosecuted for bad taste. Again, we are fortunate and can respect that. Indeed many chat-show hosts thrive on the freedom to act in what many of us feel is ‘bad taste’. You can, I think, be sued for being very very rude about someone, but that isn’t really the case here. Mantel isn’t the first person to shed a negative light on Mrs Thatcher’s policies or hairdo, and she couldn’t live the dream anyway, because her target is deceased… it’s a problematic assertion in various ways. And I’m not sure what the police would do: I can picture officers standing around while she offers them tea and waits for them to decide. It’s nice that Lord Bell ‘told the Sunday Times’ that ‘Mantel needs to see a therapist.’ Doesn’t he realise that that’s why writers write in the first place? Kathy Lette has always been honest about this, saying that she only writes ‘because it’s cheaper than therapy’.

My defence of Mantel is not simply that of a PEN member (WalesPENCymru, we’re one of the newest branches), but that of a person with feelings which can be hurt too. She has suffered illness, pain, infertility, confused diagnoses and quite some distress over the years, and she has been left physically affected by all this and by the medication involved. Some people notice that she isn’t thin or conventionally beautiful, and they mention this alongside (or instead of) her work. Her appearance seems to have been used as a weapon by Stuart Jackson MP, who tweeted:

‘Oh dear weirdo @hilarymantel … Sad to be puffed up with bile &hate’. Mr Jackson, your tweets are playground-nasty. You call people who express different opinions to your own ‘deranged’ and goad us to ‘Keep em coming’. How alarming that you represent us at government level. I suppose, with a heavy heart, that you use playground-speak and playground-tone in your work.

Katie Roubaix  replies to the tweet above by reminding us that Kate Atkinson wrote alternative second world wars in her book ‘Life After Life’ – but then Hitler is a different case (children do it at school, when they discuss morality: ‘if you could go back in time and meet Hitler as a child, would you shoot him? I don’t think they do this with Margaret Thatcher, at least not in our constituency).

Hilary Mantel’s remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge are being misquoted all over again, to support the view that the writer is horrible, and in this case that she is specifically horrible to conventionally pretty people who can have babies. Look behind the out-of-context quotes and you will see that Hilary Mantel was not being nasty about Kate Middleton so much as vividly critical of how the media – and as a result many individuals – are packaging her.  Mantel did not say that Kate is a ‘doll’, she said ‘I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll’ in the eyes of the gawping world. She did not say that ‘Kate’s eyes are dead’, she said that a portrait had killed them, and that in that portrait, Kate ‘wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off.’ I suspect royal people often wear such smiles.

Hilary Mantel attempted to clarify things at the time: ‘when I used those words about the Duchess of Cambridge, I was describing the perception of her which has been set up in the tabloid press…My speech ended with a plea to the press and to the media in general. I said ‘back off and don’t be brutes. Don’t do to this young woman what you did to Diana’…My whole theme was the way we maltreat royal persons, making them one superhuman, and yet less than human. I do think that the Duchess of Cambridge is an intelligent young woman, who if she cares to read my essay will see that I meant nothing but good to her.’

As a writer, I am glad to see people engaged in the debate about what constitutes fiction, what is ‘acceptable’ material, and where the line might be that separates ‘truth’ from ‘fiction’. At the Open University Arts Faculty, we continually encourage this debate. I do hope that most people will communicate rather more respectfully and precisely than Mr Jackson, Lord Bell and company.

 

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