A bright Thursday morning, trees swaying in the breeze, jasmine and plum blossoms in view from my living room window. Ordinarily, I’d be noticing lovely scents floating through, but I have been congested and coughing since Sunday and can’t smell a thing. With tea and rest and Vitamin C, I’m better than I was a few days ago, but still lethargic and headachy.
Once my eyes stopped stinging and watering, the stretch of inactivity allowed me to catch up on some reading. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Hilary Mantel’s article, “Royal Bodies,” in the London Review of Books, and the ensuing flap in the British tabloid press, now spilling over into the American press, including the New York Times and The New Yorker.
Mantel, who has won two Booker Prizes for historical novels on Henry VIII’s reign–wonderful novels which I have read–has been held in great esteem in literary circles, and you have to wonder whether she anticipated the wrath this would bring down on her. Her article was based on a lecture she gave at the British Museum that, in the words of New Yorker reviewer Ian Crouch, “examined the commodification and dehumanization of monarch types, going back to Marie Antoinette and extending to Diana and then to Kate Middleton.” Her language is acerbic and funny, and if she’d been writing only about royal women of other centuries, probably wouldn’t have ruffled any feathers; but bringing Kate Middleton into the discussion has created a titanic wave of outrage in some circles–the Daily Mail, for example, in an article with these engaging headlines:
‘A plastic princess designed to breed’: Bring Up the Bodies author Hilary Mantel’s venomous attack on Kate Middleton
- Hilary Mantel calls Duchess of Cambridge ‘bland’ and ‘machine made’
- Said impression of future queen was ‘jointed doll on which rags are hung
- Author said Duchess was ‘born to breed’ and a ‘plastic princess’
Underneath the sub-heads are side-by-side photos of Mantel and the Duchess of Cambridge, the latter looking model-beautiful, the former like she’d been dipped in varathane.
And then, the Daily Mail story became the story:
LONDON (AP) — A novelist, a duchess and a tabloid newspaper have ignited an explosive debate in Britain: Is it all right to criticize a pregnant Kate?
The Daily Mail on Tuesday ran a front-page broadside against two-time Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel for what it called her “venomous attack” on the former Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge.
Within hours, the Internet was ablaze. Prime Minister David Cameron joined in the criticism of Mantel while others rushed to her defense. (From “Tabloid slams novelist Mantel over Kate comments,” AP)
Mantel has had the good sense to keep her mouth shut, at least so far, as has the Duchess of Cambridge, and with nothing new to fan the flames, the controversy should die out. What’s been lost in all the fanfare is Mantel’s quite wonderful critique of the manipulation and exploitation through the centuries of women in both private and public ceremonial roles, looking beautiful, bearing children, smiling and nodding. Here in the US, it’s not hard to think of women required to fill the same sorts of roles today, and as I see my granddaughter’s generation of girls, so sparkly and pink and infatuated with princesses, there’s no reason to think those roles are disappearing.
One of my favorite parts of Mantel’s article is not on the plastic princesses, but on the whole royal family as endangered species:
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 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.
To such irreverence, I can only bow in awe.
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors,
and laugh at them in our turn?”
–Mr. Bennett, Pride and Prejudice