Week 8: Hero – Hilary Mantel

by George_East on February 25, 2013

hero_icon2This Week’s Hero of the Week is twice Booker Prize winning novelist Hilary Mantel for daring to write something intelligent about the royals

A decade or so back I subscribed to the London Review of Books for a year.   It is said to be the magazine or newspaper you can buy in WH Smiths with the highest number of PhDs amongst its readership.   Its essays are long, erudite and often very entertaining.  Often the book or books that are being reviewed will have come out months if not years before and the essays will have little or no bearing on the book they are supposedly reviewing other than in a vague basis for a riff by an academic on the subject under consideration.

I only stopped subscribing after a year because I couldn’t keep up with it.  Every two weeks a new LRB landed on my door mat, but I still had issue after issue which I hadn’t yet even opened.    I still check out their website regularly and I will buy a copy of the print version every now and again, to read on a long train or plane journey.  I am never disappointed.

It was in this week’s LRB that Hilary Mantel wrote a piece based on a Hay on Wye literature festival lecture she had given last summer.  Its title was Royal Bodies, perhaps not all that surprising after the success of her Bring Up The Bodies concerning Anne Boleyn’s short reign as Queen and execution.

The essay considers the modern monarchy and media expectations of it through the prism of history.  It starts by considering the case of Marie Antoinette and ends with a long section on Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.    Mantel uses these historical examples as comparisons to the expectations and reality of the lives of Diana and the Duchess of Cambridge, as well as that of the Queen and the curious lives that the royals lead in the modern media age. Ever under scrutiny, but a sycophantic scrutiny.

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 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’.

Kate is not allowed to be human, she is required to be perfect by the media.  To play roles assigned to her, rather than be the young woman she is:

In [2006] 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 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’.

The publishing of the essay caused a tabloid shit storm of epic proportions with Mantel pilloried for days on end by The Sun, The Daily Express and The Daily Mail – who ran the extraordinary headline “Plastic or Perfect” over a picture of a pregnant Kate, thus making Mantel’s point for her.   To underline just how nasty the tabloid press gets, the Daily Mail managed to get in references to Mantel’s childlessness and weight.

Embarrassingly both David Cameron and Ed Miliband jumped in to criticise Mantel.   Yet a simple reading of the essay (ok it will take 15 minutes of your time) – indeed if you can’t be arsed to do that – a simple reading of the extracted passages, show this to be an attack, not on Kate, but on what the media (and perhaps society as a whole) has done to Kate (or Diana before her).  Piling expectations that are impossible to meet on the shoulders of young women.  Making them play pre-defined roles.

What the moronic shitstorm last week revealed is that when it comes to matters Royal we live in an infantilising media world, requiring our stories to have a fairy tale quality.  Who can bear the hideously fawning way in which the BBC covers anything to do with the Windsors?

Thoughtful and well argued writing about the Royals is rare.  Thoughtful and well argued writing with historical context even rarer.  Mantel achieved both.  She is this Week’s Hero.



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike Killingworth February 25, 2013 at 8:36 am

She’s a national treasure all right (like Alan Bennett, another LRB regular).

At one time I was subscribing to both it and the New York Review of Books. That created a real backlog…


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