Ah, the joy of a cunning hashtag. Yesterday's featured news item, which will probably roll on till the weekend papers bring a cascade of 'thoughtful reflections' on the subject, was #Mantelpiece (thank you, @HadleyFreeman).
In this particular furore, the novelist Hilary Mantel gave a lecture on 'royal bodies' at the British Museum, which was subsequently published in the London Review of Books. The Daily Mail then took issue with this creating a moment of outrage, which the Prime Minister (taking time out of his trip to India to read the Mail but not the LRB) felt obliged to wade into. And so it continues…
The main point of focus of Mantel's piece was around child bearing, and particularly the various issue (and issues) of Henry VIII and his wives – but it also contained reference to the Duchess of Cambridge. Historians and historical novelist tend (understandably and generally fairly accurately) to point out that, actually, humanity hasn't progressed a huge amount in all areas since the bit of history under consideration. Mantel's point, to boil it down, is that royal consorts are now, as they were for Henry VIII, perceived as potential mothers and mothers, as much as they were as people – and that the C20th century has complicated this as the gaze of the media amplifies our obsession with beauty and sex. I recommend reading the piece in full, by the way – it is extremely interesting, insightful, and beautifully written.
However, the Daily Mail, decided that the comments about the Duchess were mean spirited and cruel, and that Mantel was clearly just jealous of Kate's beauty and youth and health. The Daily Mail either did not read the piece, or failed to understand that they (and other tabloids) were the prime targets of Mantel's comments about the way we view Kate (and viewed Diana). So far, so unsurprising. Also unsurpring is my tendency to roll my eyes at the Daily Mail (or Fail) and back the good ship Mantel and delight in the very good commentary by both Hadley Freeman and Nick Harkaway on this front.
But then I was challenged to have another look at the Mantel piece (oh gosh, can't even write that any more…) as a friend of mine who is very smart on how we talk about women and is also not hotly in favour of the Mail (to say the least) commented that she didn't care for Mantel's comment. And I re-read one of the early paragraphs:
Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks. She was transfixed by appearances, stigmatised by her fashion choices. Politics were made personal in her. Her greed for self-gratification, her half-educated dabbling in public affairs, were adduced as a reason the French were bankrupt and miserable. It was ridiculous, of course. She was one individual with limited power and influence, who focused the rays of misogyny. She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade. But in truth she was all body and no soul: no soul, no sense, no sensitivity…
Antoinette as a royal consort was a gliding, smiling disaster, much like Diana in another time and another country. But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished. When it was announced that Diana was to join the royal family, the Duke of Edinburgh is said to have given her his approval because she would ‘breed in some height’. Presumably Kate was designed to breed in some manners. She looks like a nicely brought up young lady, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ part of her vocabulary. But in her first official portrait by Paul Emsley, unveiled in January, her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off.
It's beautifully written. It's a great analysis of the way we look at royal women as, superposable dolls onto who society projects it's various neuroses about fashion, wealth, power, the role of women in families and society, etc… But it's also, a little cold – don't you think? In reading this history Mantel treats Kate in exactly the same way that she treats Marie Antoinette and Princess Diana (and later Anne Boleyn et al), calmly analysing them and the way our perceptions swirl around them – from a personal position that is interested in but baffled by monarchy. But there is a difference: Marie, Diana and Anne are all dead – Kate is very much alive.
Can you write about the living and the dead in the same way? About their bodies, and the lives they have chosen to live (for Kate did chose to marry William, knowing that the media scrum would be mostly vile) and the way they live them to make the less pleasant parts of it bearable? Clearly, technically you can write it – Mantel has done that – but it also seems pretty clear that you can't do that without critique (and yowling criticism) or fallout.
The thing that feels slightly unpleasantly cool about Hilary Mantel's comments on the Duchess of Cambridge is that she is also 'viewing' her – just as the tabloids do, though not as salaciously. I mean, read this:
I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.
Mantel is staring at the creature in the cage, but overlooks that the creature has a being beyond the surface – that Kate is actually *not* a Panda, and this kind of analysis of her might sting just as the tabloid 'phwoar' does. Mantel writes, on seeing the Queen:
I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at
The monarchy is a 'thing' to be observed and considered, it's true. But the monarchy is also people.