Author Hilary Mantel, the current icon of the middle class literati, winning the Booker Prize for the second time and winning the Costa Book of the Year – with her book sales rocketing in result, seems not to be content with hard earned fame and fortune.
She has taken it upon herself to seize widespread popular publicity as well, by launching a cheap, smart-alec attack on the Duchess of Cambridge, who is a young woman in the foothills both of her new role as a key member of the royal family and of her first pregnancy.
The occasion was Mantel’s delivering a London Review of Books lecture on ‘Royal Bodies’ at the British Museum.
The author chose to single out the former Kate Middleton for a barrage of highly personal, deeply unpleasant and, indeed, shallow judgments – which run the risk of doing the damage to this young woman’s sense of self that the mindless media commentators did to her husband’s mother, the late Princess Diana.
It is impossible to imagine already what it is like to be pregnant for the first time, with an unprecedented set of relationships to be negotiated with your own body – and to have to do so under public gaze and lens focus constantlyon your middle.
Now, added to an Italian rag’s recent publication of beach photographs of the young Duchess on a private holiday with her husband – under a prurient headline focusing on her ‘bump’, Kate has a celebrated author come after her, for no decent reason, with the cruellest of gratuitous comments to which she can make no response.
As a public act of bullying, this takes some beating.
Mantel gave birth to poison with such viciously wounding descriptions of the Duchess as these:
- ‘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’
- ‘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’
- ‘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’
- ‘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’
- ‘In the end she (Anne [Ed - this was comparison with Anne Boleyn]) was valued for her body parts, not her intellect or her soul; it was her womb that was central to her story… a royal lady is a royal vagina’
- [Ed: of female royals] ‘they are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a blood line: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs’
This is now being desperately spun as no attack at all but rather an intellectual argument. Pull the other one.
The intellectual paucity and incoherent headline grabbing of this tirade could not be more evident than in Mantel’s account of the monarchy.
She says: ‘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.’
This admits the obvious – that what appears to be privilege is in fact a permanent and inescapable imprisonment. In saying this, it has not occurred to the author of historical novels that, rather than launching a slash and burn attack on a young woman who cannot defend herself, she might have taken more trouble and looked at the institution and the media who between them lock that cage, demand specific performances from the inmate and then turn the headlights on the person behind the bars.
But then the institution of the monarchy, with the still influential royal establishment – and the media – would have been targets a tad too powerful for the savvy Mantel to tilt at.
There might even have been no more prizes had she taken the tougher and the necessary route. Heaven forbid.
So she went for the soft option and the one bound to hit as many headlines as possible.
In doing so, she told us who she is – a self-regarding publicity hound with a moderate talent to write the sort of historically located novels so beloved of the English middle class as the best way to avoid engaging with change.
Now she has thrown her considerable weight on the back of a young woman whose physical fragility she has criticised but which she apparently sees no need to protect in lumping even more upon it.
And that ‘perfect plastic smile’ – that extends to the eyes and whose warmth so many people whose eyes she directly meets respond to – is on duty this morning, toughing out the fusillade.
Where is Mantel? Nowhere to be seen or heard.
The relative courage of bully and victim could not be more evident.
Just don’t buy the books.