By Mark Brown, The Guardian
Award-winning novelist’s comments about ‘plastic’ Duchess of Cambridge spark spasm of press fury
Hilary Mantel has woken up to something of a firestorm after a long speech she recently made about the royal family and society’s relationship with them was interpreted as an “astonishing and venomous attack” on the Duchess of Cambridge.
The headlines did not pull punches: “a plastic princess designed to breed”, read the Daily Mail, which lambasted the “Booker prizewinner’s venomous attack on Kate”; “plastic princess slur”, said the Sun headline, which described Mantel’s speech as a “bizarre rant”.
Mantel, twice winner of the Man Booker prize for the first two instalments of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, made the speech, entitled Royal Bodies, at a London Review of Books event at the British Museum on 4 February.
The writer would not be commenting on the backlash, a spokesman said. He declined to comment on the claim that it was a “venomous attack” but urged people to read or listen to the speech ”because it puts everything in its full context”.
There was a good deal of support for Mantel on Twitter. The writer Beatrix Campbell was one of many who tweeted sympathetically , saying: “Hilary Mantel did NOT attack K. Middleton. She offered feminist critique of monarchism.”
It all comes down to interpretation and context. In her speech Mantel talked about the media moulding of the duchess that would not seem to be an attack on the woman herself. She saw her “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.”
Mantel used the life of Marie Antoinette as her starting point, drawing comparisons between 18th-century France and modern Britain. “Antoinette as a royal consort was a gliding, smiling disaster, much like Diana in another time and another country,” she said. “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.”
A good chunk of the speech focused on how the media reported on themonarchy and their every movement. She reflected that when the duchess’s pregnancy became known she had been filmed running a few paces with a hockey stick.
“BBC News devoted a discussion to whether a pregnant woman could safely put on a turn of speed while wearing high heels,” Mantel said. “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.”
It is true that Mantel was caustically funny in the speech. She recalled the awful canapes at a Buckingham Palace event: “gristly meat on skewers” or “kebabs”, even. She was a bit rude about the recent portrait of the duchess, by Paul Emsley: “Her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off.”
She compared the monarchy to pandas: “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?”
That was one central point of the speech: that the royal family are like trapped, caged animals whom the public never really know, and that that is something perhaps to be regretted.
On Tuesday the duchess made her first public appearance since she presented the BBC sports personality of the year award in December. She visited the Hope House addiction treatment centre, in south London.
Nick Barton, chief executive of Action on Addiction, said: “I don’t think it’s for me to comment on that kind of stuff. I speak of what I know – somebody who wants to help, is helpful and genuinely interested, and is intelligent. I’ve met her several times, and I found her to be engaging. I found her very natural. I found her actually genuinely interested in the subject.”