Hilary Mantel

  • Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
    Black Swan, 382 pp, £6.99, January 1996, ISBN 0 552 99618 1

On the day after Kate Atkinson’s first novel won the Whitbread Prize, the Guardian’s headline read: ‘Rushdie makes it a losing double.’ Thus Rushdie is reminded of his disappointments, Atkinson gets no credit, and the uninformed reader assumes that this year’s Whitbread is a damp squib. But read on. ‘A 44-year-old chambermaid won one of Britain’s leading literary awards last night.’

Was this the Guardian? Was this 1996? One felt spun back in time to, say, 1956: up jumps a saucy little piece with a feather duster, whisking a notebook from under her frilly apron and pencilling a few lines of a craggy-jaw-and-warm-baritone book, her pretty brow puckered in concentration and her tongue-tip just visible. But wait. This is a 44-year-old chambermaid, so would she have a vast bosom, varicose veins, a vengeful sniffle? Yes indeed: she sounds the sort who would pen what is (according to the Times) ‘a chronicle of working-class life in York over several decades’.

Then began what the Scotsman referred to as ‘Scenes from a Maul’. The London media descended on Atkinson. A man from the Daily Express asked her to explain what Post-Modernism was; Richard Hoggart, chairman of the Whitbread judges, said that Atkinson had written a Post-Modern novel, but might not know it. (She did the whole thing absent-mindedly, perhaps, while polishing brass doorknobs.) The Daily Mail sent a woman who found the author ‘pale, rather pimply, her hair unwashed’. Atkinson’s private life was probed. She was found to be divorced, with two children, and happy with that arrangement. She was dubbed ‘anti-family’, and abused accordingly. Julian Critchley, one of the Whitbread judges, wrote an article in which he blamed the ‘Corps of Lady Novelists’ for her victory. The book, he said, ‘resembles the Life of Jackie Charlton as written by Beryl Bainbridge’. He clearly meant this as a huge insult – but to whom?

Interviewers who had not had time to look at the book went to see Atkinson with a set of expectations which she quickly shattered. Atkinson has a degree in English literature, and has done postgraduate work in the field of American contemporary fiction. The job as a chambermaid was a holiday job, and the other menial occupations cited were those which any would-be writer takes up to pay the bills – and which, in the case of young men, are thought to broaden experience and convey prole credentials. ‘She doesn’t even have a Yorkshire accent,’ wailed the woman from the Independent, who had clearly expected some kind of idiot savant. As the interview wore on, Atkinson became ‘chippy and cussed’. This is not surprising. ‘Never,’ she has written, ‘have my hair, my nails, my clothes, my marital status been of as much interest to anyone as they were to the women of the London press.’ The Sunday Times quoted Anita Brookner recently: ‘I think literature is without gender.’ Think again. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Salman Rushdie – and we know nothing of his manicure.

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