In brief: “double Booker Award winner” (as one newspaper put it) Hilary Mantel, who wrote a couple of books about Henry VIII and his wives, was asked to give a speech for the London Review of Books on the subject of “Royal Bodies.”
Naturally, she spoke about Henry, but also threw in some comments about Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge and probably future queen of England.
The speech was very well-written, not surprisingly because a) this is England, where everyone, even the garbage men (called “dust men” over there because it sounds so much more posh) speak better than the President of the United States. I don’t know why; it just is. Even those whose accents turn words into gravel crashing inside tin trash cans rolling downhill sound better than we do. Even if they’re ordering a Big Mac at McDonalds.
So: Mantel. Speech. Kate. Right.
At the time, nobody noticed what she said, especially in the press, because journalists don’t read. But somebody must have read it to them, at least the first paragraph, because that’s where you’ll find the stuff that got all their knickers in a twist.
Those few words led to massive headlines, of which these are a representative sample:
* Hilary Mantel attacks ‘bland, plastic, machine-made’ Duchess of Cambridge (Independent)
* Hilary Mantel takes aim at Kate Middleton’s baby bump (LA Times)
* Hilary Mantel on the ‘painfully thin’ Duchess of Cambridge: creepy comments from a novelist who should know better (The Telegraph)
Which, in internet speed, was followed by the counterattack:
* Hilary Mantel’s precise, unkind words have been twisted into a “venomous” attack on Kate (New Statesman)
* Hilary Mantel v the Duchess of Cambridge: a story of lazy journalism and raging hypocrisy (Guardian)
* Kate speech, hate speech and Hilary Mantel’s dissection of Royal Bodies / Award-winning novelist’s comments about ‘plastic’ Duchess of Cambridge spark spasm of press fury (Guardian)
* ‘Jointed Doll’ Kate Middleton a Plastic Princess says Mantel / Mantel’s comments part of a lecture on monarchy, the lecture must be read in context. Tom Sykes reports. (Daily Beast, having it both ways)
* Hilary Mantel wasn’t attacking the Duchess of Cambridge (The Telegraph, again playing both sides)
And Mantel’s response: Hilary Mantel: why novelists are deliberately misunderstood (Guardian)
All of which is great fun, keeps everyone employed and saves us from having to look that the really upsetting things in life, such as high gas prices, high unemployment, high government debt and the freakin’ cold weather.
So if you don’t want to read the whole speech, here are some of the good bits about Kate, given more in full than you’ll see elsewhere, so you can judge for yourself.
First, Mantel opens by telling the story of having to come up with an answer to a silly question: name a famous person and the book you would give him or her. She chose Kate and a book about Marie Antoniette, as a sort of warning about women who become princesses who “focused the rays of misogyny” and get torn apart over every choice they make. (Sample: “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 what about Kate? Between the moment she announces her gift and explains why, Mantel says this:
It’s called Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution. It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, 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.
Then, after describing Marie Antoinette, she flexes her rhetorical fingers and lets fly with this:
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.
Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.
There follows her observations about the media paying attention to every little thing she does, chewing over them endlessly, and spewing empty calories. Then she compares the monarchy to breeding pandas, “expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment.” Drifts into anecdotes about seeing Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth in person, discusses Diana at length before finally digging in on Henry VIII.
Although some have pointed out that Mantel devoted only a few paragraphs to Kate the Duchess, she actually spent a bit more than half her speech – 3,000 words to 2,700 – talking about the current royals and her irritation and pity for them.
At this point, all the commentators are off racing around the side issues of Should Uppity Women Mouth Off, Should Uppity Women Be Criticized For Mouthing Off, Is Kate Stick-Thin (I’m agnostic on that point, but biased in her favor), and How Dare The Other Side Say What They Said.
I’d rather look at what Hilary Mantel actually said, because she wraps those pretty educated words around some rather obvious ideas, plus some idiotic notions.
Mantel’s defenders says that she really didn’t mean those nasty things she said about Kate. She was only quoting what other people said. Of course, that’s a great way to get your point across blame-free. Reporters do it all the time: find an expert that says what you want to say and quote them.
But then Mantel comes up with this, speaking of Kate’s first official portrait: “Her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off.”
Maybe. I don’t know. It seems the portrait could say a lot of things:
“Duuuude, I’m sooooo baked! Let’s eat Cheetoz from a bag and watch MST3K.”
“Did you really say, ‘I’m second in line for the throne?’ Heard that one before.”
Mantel seems very focus on the image the royals portray. She talks about seeing the queen at the palace for some book event, and how people don’t approach her. They shy away, preferring to study the paintings than treat the Queen like a zoo exhibit.
Seems natural, and more the fault of protocol – which demands that the queen speaks first – and the way the party was organized.
Then, she says this about seeing Prince Charles:
I had never seen him before, and at once I thought: what a beautiful suit! What sublime tailoring! It’s for Shakespeare to penetrate the heart of a prince, and for me to study his cuff buttons. I found it hard to see the man inside the clothes; and like Thomas Cromwell in my novels, I couldn’t help winding the fabric back onto the bolt and pricing him by the yard.
Apparently, Mantel focuses solely on the image and thinks that that is all there is. While it’s easy to say about Kate, only in her first year as princess, that she’s all crown and no cattle. But Prince Charles has a public record of speaking about architecture, about Islam, about gardening, and about his former wife. If Mantel can’t see the man inside the clothes, it’s because she chooses not to.
Then Mantel goes on about the ability of the royals to inspire awe: “As I prepared to go to the palace, people would say: ‘Will it be the actual queen, the queen herself?’ Did they think contact with the anointed hand would change you? Was that what the guests at the palace feared: to be changed by powerful royal magic, without knowing how? The faculty of awe remains intact . . .”
This seems to be a case of someone looking too close without thinking, because this isn’t the magic of royalty, it’s the magic of celebrity. Change Queen Elizabeth into Mel Gibson, and you’d have exactly the same result.
A POINTLESS ANECDOTE ABOUT MEL GIBSON
That’s what I learned, years ago, when Gibson was filming “The Patriot,” in my part of South Carolina. When I heard the news before going into the newspaper, I was interested, but not excited.
The scene in the newsroom was like Beatlemania, only without the music and too much screaming. Everyone — man, woman, clerk to editor — were speculating about where Mel would live, whether he’d attend the local Catholic church, who’d be assigned to write the story, where they could see him.
As it happened, I managed to sneak onto the set, playing a Continental Army soldier. Before sunrise, we were lined up to film a battle scene. It was South Carolina in September, but it was freezing. The frost was still on the grass. We were waiting for the sun to come up and for filming to start, and the extras were stamping their boots and calling out “action!”
Then Mel appeared. He could have walked a straight line behind us to his position, but he wanted to make an appearance. He stepped onto the field, between the two lines of soldiers, and walked down the middle, alone, head neither turning to the right or the left.
As the extras knew it was really Him, the chatter slowed, then halted completely, and Mel marched before us, his boots crunching the frost-hardened grass. What I was experiencing was the spell of charisma that only some actors intuitively master and project.
That’s what the royals do for us; not because we feel they can change us (in an era where the tastemakers cheerfully deride religious belief, do they really think anyone can be allowed to feel that anymore)?
SNARK CAN’T BE SNARK WITHOUT A POP CULTURE CALLBACK
Mantel: “It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam.”
You mean like this?
“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.”
Mantel’s conclusion: “I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes. Get your pink frilly frocks out, zhuzh up your platinum locks. We are all Barbara Cartland now. The pen is in our hands. A happy ending is ours to write.”
Your guess is as good as mine. Sounds to me like the end of “Blazing Saddles”
Bart: Work here is done. I’m needed elsewhere now. I’m needed wherever outlaws rule the West, wherever innocent women and children are afraid to walk the streets, wherever a man cannot live in simple dignity, wherever a people cry out for justice.
Crowd: [in unison] BULLSHIT!
Bart: All right, you caught me. To speak the plain truth, it’s getting pretty damn dull around here.