Award-winning English writer Hilary Mantel is feeling the burn of backlash, specifically from British media outlets, over her controversial essay, “Royal Bodies,” which dissects the physical nature of the royal families in the public eye over the centuries. Even Prime Minister David Cameron criticized Mantel’s essay as “misguided and completely wrong.” A brief search on Google News pulls up similar headlines:
I think Mantel is spot-on. In the media’s rush to take snippets out of context and highlight the piece as royal-bashing the Duchess of Cambridge, they are completely missing the speculative insight of a royal’s physicality — forced to develop and comply with being on constant display.
In her opening, Mantel recalls at a festival where she was asked the question, if she could give a book to any famous person — who would the person be and which book would she give. In response, she picked Kate Middleton and the book Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber.
Ironically enough, I read Weber’s book two semesters back for a fashion anthropology course. In reading that sentence, I immediately made the connection before Mantel herself could spell it out. Weber’s book chronicles the life of the doomed French queen and how her renowned fashion tastes both saved her and contributed to her demise. During the highest peak of “Kate Fever,” her style choices were lead discussions, right down to the big reveal of her wedding dress during her broadcast wedding to Prince William. Mantel rightly likens the public perception of Middleton to that of Marie Antoinette. That’s public perception — not any of the Duchess’ personal qualities, which more often than not come secondary to the color of her hat or the cuteness of her button nose.
“It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution,” Mantel writes. “It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming 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. 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 that she is radiant.”
She also notes that Middleton’s life was “nothing” and now finds purpose in giving birth. To defend this statement, Middleton was fairly irrelevant to the mainstream up until she and Prince William had made their romantic engagement official under the monarchy’s standards. Shortly after the wedding, I saw more than one press headline already debating when Kate would become pregnant. After the consuming spectacle of her wedding she was barely given time to breathe before expectations were barred up once again.
Fast forward to the present day: her first official outing after grappling with hospital-level morning sickness earns a baby bump mania stamp.
Mantel goes on to summarize that unlike Marie Antoinette and even the late Princess Diana who were, to phrase it one way — PR disasters, Middleton has been more or less controlled and perfectly gracious to the press. Gracious to the point where she appears unreal, untouchable, and going off those adjectives, perhaps even hard to relate to.
“Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: 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. 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 writes.
She then again compares the royal family as a whole to pandas — free without difficulty from reproducing, “expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment,” and trapped in a cage of visual consumption because they are so nice to look at. Mantel describes her viewing of the queen as “devouring curiosity” similar to that of a cannibal laying eyes on a human feast.
“Royal persons are both gods and beasts,” Mantel writes. “They are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a blood line: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs.”
It’s a rather vivid and somewhat grotesque way of viewing the royal family — but their lineage heightens them on a pedestal and in order to continue their legacy, heirs must be born. But with such obligations comes an edge of darkness. As once described by Tumblr user inothernews:
Case in point, Mantel switches gears later in her essay to address the royal bodies of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. King Henry, infamously known for his six marriages and separating from the Catholic Church for the sake of a divorce, had Anne beheaded after continuous miscarriages and her failure to produce a male heir. Her body placed into a position of power made her victim to an execution — much like Marie Antoinette. And although executions are beyond the modern day monarchy, think of the discussion that would have spread if the perfect-appearing Duchess were to flaunt any abnormal traits.
Mantel concludes that Princess Diana was at least spared having to grow old under flashing lights — comparable to a sentencing in some respects.
“It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty,” she writes.
I agree — in the face of both royalty and celebrity, we are all too quick to forego one’s humanity. And yet, old habits do die hard.