By Michael Faulkner – 03.03.13
Britain’s execrable tabloid news media are at their most sickening and hypocritical when dealing with matters royal. The worst of a thoroughly bad bunch are the Sun and the Daily Mail. This week they have both acted true to type in their gleeful character-assassination of Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel. She has been attacked for some remarks she made in the course of a London Review of Books Winter lecture entitled ‘Royal bodies’. Mantel is best-known for her two recent books Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, chronicling the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s powerful minster, Thomas Cromwell. The lecture, delivered at the British Museum more than two weeks ago, dealt thoughtfully with the history of royal fecundity and procreation. The transcription of her lecture contains more than thirty paragraphs. Three of these make some observations about the Duchess of Cambridge, wife of Prince William, who, if the marriage survives, should one day be queen consort to King William V. It is these remarks that the tabloids have seized upon. Tearing them from their context and distorting Mantel’s meaning, they have accused her of “vicious” and “venomous” attacks on the serenely beautiful and delicately pregnant Kate.
Here, a short digression may assist those unfamiliar with the dynastic line of the British monarchy. After his father Charles, Prince of Wales, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge is second in line to the throne. As has been suggested before in this column, the present queen, Elisabeth, who is 86, could live for another ten years or more. (The Queen’s mother lived to be 101.) Should she do so, Charles will be in his mid-70s when he succeeds her. Should he live another twenty years after becoming King, and on the assumption that the monarchy itself survives that long, William and Kate, at present the young darlings of most of the British media, will both be in their 60s when, in the mid-2040s, they become King William V and Queen Kate. Even princes and princesses get old.
Hilary Mantel had nothing to say about the Duchess of Cambridge, about whom very few outside her immediate circle can know much anyway. What she said had to do with the media creation that Kate Middleton has become. She is sylphlike and good-looking in the way that cat-walk models are; she smiles and looks dutiful without betraying any hint of individuality or independence of spirit. This is not to suggest that she doesn’t possess these qualities; simply that the straightjacket into which her prescribed role has pressed her, requires her to forego any and every outward expression of them. She has to live up to the image that the tabloids choose to project of her. She must be just so. Her pregnancy is the subject of endless, monotonous attention. She is now displaying her “little bump” for the eager cameras, but she has to do so discretely, so that it is not too obvious. Mantel’s comment about her pregnancy was an observation primarily about the press rather than about the Duchess. “Once she gets over being sick” she said, “the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.” The tabloids that have castigated Mantel for being “vicious” and “venomous” to Kate, are already treating her just as she said they would. In fact, the Mail OnLine (21st February) in a coverage that was intended primarily to rubbish Hilary Mantel, carried 23 pictures of the Duchess, many intended to emphasize her “little bump”, as she engaged in the obligatory charity visits. She is now “looking radiant”. Juxtaposed against a few of the most flattering shots of the sylphlike 31 year old Kate are pictures of the full-bodied 60 year old Mantel. A cartoon depicting the writer as an over-weight witch glaring enviously into the mirror at a photographic image of “Snow White” Kate, rams the Mail’s message home. The writer, whose lecture the hacks have almost certainly not bothered to read, must be consumed with envy for the beautiful young princess.
Needless to say, those who emit such bile have no interest in seriously considering what Mantel had to say about the institution of monarchy, which was, seen in historical perspective, the subject of her lecture. To be sure, her approach was somewhat idiosyncratic, but it was no less engaging and thought-provoking for that. Had the hacks from the Mail and the Sun bothered to look at the full text of her lecture, (to expect them to treat it seriously would be asking too much), they would have found more damning evidence to support their view that she is an embittered harridan consumed by hatred of the royal family and envy of a beautiful young princess. Her hilarious description of Diana’s wedding dress would surely have induced apoplexy: “She didn’t get out of the coach in any ordinary way: she hatched. The extraordinary dress came first, like a flow of liquid, like ectoplasm emerging from the orifices of a medium.” Likewise, her comparison of royalty to pandas would no doubt fail to raise a laugh from the hacks and their readers: “Pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment.” Or, how about this: “We are happy to allow monarchy to be an entertainment, in the same way that we license strip joints and lap-dancing clubs.”
Although it has been fairly easy for Hilary Mantel’s detractors to extract decontextualized snippets from the transcript, deliberately designed to malign her and destroy her reputation as a serious novelist of the Tudor period, anyone reading the full text can be in no doubt about the real point of her lecture. It is not a personal attack on the Duchess of Cambridge or any other member of the royal family. She is concerned to expose the role of the media in the perpetuation of the myth and mystique of monarchy. She is particularly scathing about the part that women have to play in the institution. She is thinking of royal women when she says that “the royal body exists to be looked at.” In one of her most telling passages she describes the only occasion when she was, with many others, in the presence of the queen. Unlike most of the others Mantel chose to look directly at her as she passed. The queen turned to look at her: “She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed to be looked at.” This is no more a criticism of the person behind the inscrutable façade of Queen Elizabeth II than are her remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge criticisms of the person of Kate Middleton.
In one of the most incisive passages in her lecture, she exposes the role of the media in promoting the ridiculous monarchical charade. An incident of crushing triviality is inflated into a subject of supposedly serious debate: “Kate had picked up a hockey stick and run a few paces for the camera. BBC News devoted a discussion to whether a pregnant woman could safely put on a turn of speed while wearing high heels. It is sad to think that intelligent people could devote themselves to this topic with earnest furrowings of the brow, but that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken.”
Whether Hilary Mantel’s study of the history of the English monarchy has converted her to republicanism is unclear, and unimportant. It is however clear from her LRB lecture that she regards the monarchy as an ossified, de-humanized institution “ill-adapted to any modern environment.” For saying that, and in particular for exposing how the House of Windsor, aided and abetted by a genuflecting media, has de-humanized the women born or drawn into its orbit, she has been vilified. She will no doubt survive the tirade of abuse to which she is currently being subjected. Long may she continue to speak truth to power.