Did novelist Hilary Mantel really attack Duchess Kate?
Posted February 20, 2013
So what is Hilary Mantel's problem with Kate Middleton?
The famed British writer, winner of two Booker prizes for her historical novels set in the court of King Henry VIII, said some "venomous" things about Duchess Kate in a recent book lecture, and the always-apoplectic London tabloids are sputtering about it now.
Mantel could not have been more astringent compared to the usual gooey sentiments in which most British media cloak their Duchess Kate coverage: In the space of a few paragraphs, Mantel threw out words and phrases such as bland and plastic, describing Kate as "painfully thin," a "shop-window mannequin with no personality of her own," whose official portrait has "dead eyes," and whose sole purpose is to "breed."
Mantel said all this during a London Review of Books-sponsored lecture on Feb. 4 at the British Museum on "Royal Bodies," in which she dissected how royal women have been viewed under the public gaze through history. But her scalpel seemed especially sharp on the former Kate Middleton, and now it's Mantel who's being dissected.
The backlash against the acclaimed author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies was swift and led by no less than Prime Minister David Cameron, who described her comments as "hurtful," and "completely wrong."
The comments were the first direct personal criticism against the Duchess of Cambridge, at least by someone who matters in the U.K., since she married Prince William in April 2011. Now, as Kate prepares to give birth to a future king or queen in July, are Mantel's harsh words a sign of the future or just an anomaly?
So far, the most excoriating things said about the duchess was about her portrait, unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery last month and instantly consigned to an art-world dustbin as an ugly failure. The photo-realistic style of artist Paul Emsley was a hit with the duchess and her husband but few others in the media and among art critics and the public liked it. But the criticism wasn't directed at her.
True, quirky British designer Vivienne Westwood has voiced mild criticism: Just this week she was quoted saying that Middleton buys too many clothes and should make an effort to cut back and go more green. Earlier, Westwood complained that Kate, who applies her own makeup, doesn't do a very good job of it.
Kelly Osbourne, Ozzie's daughter who now makes her living as a lieutenant on Fashion Police criticizing celebrities' red-carpet attire, also sniffed some semi-critical things about how the duchess too often recycles many of her outfits.
But Mantel is no Kelly Osbourne; she's a fixture in Britain's intellectual firmament, and what she says gets respectful attention. So has she been misinterpreted?
Her lecture was long, rambling and dense with historical allusions. Her negative assessments of Kate were at the beginning and she compared her, unfavorably, to the late Princess Diana, William's beloved mother.
"(Kate) appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture," Mantel said. "Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. Kate seems capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation."
Mantel's main point seemed to boil down to this not-entirely-original thought: Uneasy is the life of a female royal. "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 said.
By the end, she was urging the media to leave the royals alone. "I'm not asking for censorship. I'm not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I'm asking us to back off and not be brutes."
Mantel did not respond to USA TODAY's request for comment, nor has she said anything yet in the British press. Instead, she continues to collect awards; the latest, announced today, is the Bodley Medal for outstanding achievement in literature, which she will receive March 24 at a literary festival, according to the BBC.
But she has her defenders, in the left-leaning Guardian, for instance. Books blogger Sam Leith wrote that Mantel's lecture was full of irony and that the tabloid press had, as usual, missed it.
"Mantel was attacking the paper doll in which newspapers have imprisoned the real Kate Middleton," Leith wrote. "That can't be acknowledged without admitting the idea that there's a gap between this paper doll and the real person - that the Kate of your own front page is a brutal and sentimental fiction maintained for ease and profit."
Also in the Guardian, Hadley Freeman raged against the laziness and hypocrisy of journalists, especially those at the Daily Mail, for claiming to be horrified at Mantel's point that royal women have existed down the ages mostly to be admired.
"If Mantel was attacking anyone in her talk, then her aim was clearly at the Mail with its obsessive, prurient fascination with Kate," Freeman wrote. "This nonsense highlights how it is still, apparently, impossible to be a woman and put forth a measured opinion about one of your own without it being twisted into some kind of screed-ish, unsisterly attack. As Mantel has learnt to her cost today, it's not only royal women who are expected to stay quiet."
Still, when someone of Mantel's stature publicly describes a hyper-popular future queen as a "jointed doll on which certain rags are hung," can any media organization, even The Guardian, look away for long? After this episode, any future criticism of Kate is likely to be sotto voce.
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