Mantel versus Middleton: too cutting?

Mantel versus Middleton: too cutting?

John Humphrys asks: were Hilary Mantel’s descriptions of Kate Middleton fair or unfair and how does Britain really view the Royal Family?

Hilary Mantel, who has won the Booker Prize twice, spends her life these days writing historical novels that tend to end up with heads being chopped off. But now she has put her own head on the block. In a lecture about how we have viewed the royals over the ages - and especially their bodies - she has made what some have interpreted as disparaging remarks about our newest royal, Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. A media balloon has gone up. Is she right and what does the furore tell us about how we view the royals?

The Daily Mail led the charge against Mantel by plastering the story over its front page. It said she had made “an astonishing and venomous attack” on the Duchess. One example cited: “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”. Anyone who was anyone joined in the row - even David Cameron. He told reporters in Delhi that Mantel was “misguided”. Ed Miliband, in Scandinavia, said: “These are pretty offensive remarks and I don’t agree with them. Kate Middleton is doing a brilliant job in a difficult role.”

Hilary Mantel herself has not (so far) replied to the attacks on her. But the London Review of Books, which sponsored the lecture, said that her remarks had been taken wholly out of context. It tweeted: “What Mantel really wrote is about how the media make the royals suffer.”

In fact Mantel’s lecture was broadly sympathetic to the figure the Prime Minister referred to (with little regard for royal protocol) as “Princess Kate”. “She looks like a nicely brought up young lady”, Mantel wrote. Her point is that figures in Kate’s position become victims of our fascination with them, a fascination exploited by the media for their own ends. She compared Kate’s fate with that of Marie Antoinette, “a woman eaten alive by her frocks”.

Mantel confessed to her own complicity in such fascination by recounting her own behaviour at a Buckingham Palace reception. “And then the queen passed close to me and I stared at her. I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones … and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment. … And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at.” 

Reflecting on this, Mantel went on to compare the Royal Family with pandas, “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.”

She implied that Kate was perhaps already getting fed up with this. Of the recent official portrait she wrote: “her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off. One critic said perceptively that she appeared ‘weary of being looked at’.” Mantel’s conclusion was not that the media should be subject to censorship in its intrusive fascination with the royals, nor that we should revert to “pious humbug and smarmy reverence”. Instead, she said, “I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.”

So, some might say that far from launching an “astonishing and venomous attack” on Kate Middleton, Hilary Mantel was asking for forbearance on her behalf. But if that was indeed her fundamental message, is it really justified? Some people might argue that any adult who marries into the Royal Family does so freely and should do so with their eyes open. What, they might ask, did Kate expect? She voluntarily put herself in a position where eyes would be gazing at her “as a cannibal views its dinner” for the rest of her life. It’s the price that has to be paid for the status, the wealth and the privilege.

But it is not just that she will be stared at forever. It is that by switching from commoner to duchess she becomes a figure which the media can endlessly reinvent every time a new story is called for – which is just what happened to William’s mother. Princess Diana became the central character of a fifteen-year soap opera. And whenever she started to get fed up with the script she began fiddling with it herself. Kate’s step-mother-in-law, Camilla, has found herself in various roles over the years too, sometime scarlet woman, sometime frump, and now approaching a national treasure. The change in roles is in part the result of what the media think the public needs to keep its fascination fresh and in part the result of careful image manipulation by the royals themselves. But if you join the royals, you lose control of who you are.

Prince Harry, who was born into the somewhat privileged predicament and so is lumbered with its advantages and its vicissitudes whether he wants them or not, indirectly explained how to handle it when he was interviewed last month after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He said, in effect, that there were three Harrys: the soldier, the prince and the young man who exists “when the doors are closed”. He implied that the first and the last were the Harrys who were ‘him’ but that the ‘prince’ Harry was a role he filled and over which he could not have the same control. He seemed to accept this as the way things were.

Mantel said that royals are like pandas, creatures so interesting that we can’t stop looking at them. That is demonstrably the case for most of us, but was she also right to say that we (and especially the media) should all try to be kinder in the way we look at them? When she described Kate as a “plastic” princess “designed by committee”, was she herself simply participating in the very activity she deplores, keeping our fascination going by painting a new and cruel picture of a human being who happens to be a royal?

What’s your view?

  • Do you think her descriptions of Kate Middleton as plastic, gloss-varnished and so on are fair or unfair?
  • Do you agree with the Daily Mail’s condemnation of Mantel as engaging in an “astonishing and venomous attack”?
  • Do you share Mantel’s view that the media in particular and the public in general are “brutes” in the way they treat the royals?
  • What do you make of the argument that anyone who marries into the Royal Family must expect what comes?
  • Do you think that the constant media attention is a fair price for royals to pay in return for their status, wealth and privilege? Who do you think are the greater image-manipulators:  the media or the royals themselves? And if you had the chance to become a royal, would you jump at the chance or run a mile?

Let us know your views.


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Authors

John Humphrys

John Humphrys is presenter of the Today programme on Radio 4 and Mastermind on BBC1. He has won many national journalism awards and written seven books.