Hilary Mantel has said she feels “ashamed” by the UK government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers and is intending to become an Irish citizen to “become a European again”.
In a wide-ranging interview with La Repubblica, the twice Booker prize-winning novelist also gave her view on the monarchy, told how endometriosis has “devastated my life”, and how Boris Johnson “should not be in public life”. She also addresses the criticism of JK Rowling and her stance on transgender rights.
In response to a question about Priti Patel’s rhetoric on migration and asylum seekers and whether it marks the “ugliest side of the new ‘global Britain’ post-Brexit”, the writer told the Italian publication: “It was my grandparents’ generation who were immigrants [from Ireland]; sometimes my life gets confused with my fiction, because a number of my characters have Irish parents.
“We see the ugly face of contemporary Britain in the people on the beaches abusing exhausted refugees even as they scramble to the shore. It makes one ashamed.
“And ashamed, of course, to be living in the nation that elected this government, and allows itself to be led by it.”
Asked about whether Britain’s “soft power” could be sustained, she said: “Our present government sends mixed signals – boasting of ‘global Britain’, while at the same time diminishing the country’s standing by cutting foreign aid, as if this was a broken little country that couldn’t afford to keep its promises.”
The novelist, who was born in Derbyshire, was also asked about the obsession with the British monarchy.
She said: “The popularity of monarchy as an institution is something that baffles me.
“I don’t want to think that people are naturally slavish, and actually enjoy inequality … I might breathe easier in a republic, and may be able to arrange it. I hope to loop back into my family story and become an Irish citizen.”
She says that she is hoping to leave England and relocate. “Our projected move has been held back by Covid, but much as I love where I live now – in the West Country, by the sea – I feel the need to be packing my bags, and to become a European again.”
Interviewer Antonello Guerrera also asked Mantel about Johnson, and whether she agreed “that he has a much more complicated personality than the stereotyped ‘Brexiter/buffoon/etc’”.
Mantel, who attracted criticism for her story on a previous prime minister, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, said: “I have met him a number of times, in different settings. I agree he is a complex personality, but this much is simple – he should not be in public life. And I am sure he knows it.”
Mantel’s autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost, which was published in 2003, is now coming out in Italy.
The 69-year-old said writing it allowed her to open up about her endometriosis. “For me, the condition and attempted cures have devastated my life. Many cases go undiagnosed for years, causing immense distress. I am glad to have played a small part in starting the conversation around the condition.”
The writer added that when she was a young woman she did not want children before being diagnosed with the condition aged 27, when “my physical catastrophes removed the choice”. Now, however, she yearns for grandchildren.
“No one likes a closed and locked door. Luckily for me, I have never been subject to the gnawing lack that some childless women feel. But I wish that I had grandchildren. It is at this stage of my life that I feel it most.”
Mantel was also asked about the controversy surrounding Rowling’s beliefs on transgender rights which have divided the literary world.
The Harry Potter author wrote a personal essay last year which included examples of where she believes demands by transgender activists were dangerous to women, which were described by LGBTQ+ advocacy groups as divisive and transphobic.
Later Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood and others wrote an open letter warning that the spread of “censoriousness” was leading to “an intolerance of opposing views” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism”.
Mantel said the online attacks on Rowling after her essay were “unjustified and shameful”.
She added: “It is barbaric that a tiny minority should take command of public discourse and terrify those who disagree with them.”
She said: “I recently found myself ‘misgendered.’ I received a university publication, with news items relating to alumni, where I was referred to as ‘they’, not ‘she.’
“My books were ‘their books.’ I wasn’t singled out – the other alumni were similarly treated.
“I thought: ‘Being a woman means a lot to me. I do not want my womanhood confiscated in print.’”
• This article was amended on 6 September 2021 to clarify that Mantel gave her view about the JK Rowling controversy after being asked about it by the interviewer.