Hilary Mantel, who has won the prestigious Man Booker Prize twice for her fictionalized retellings of life in the court of Henry VIII, is this week attracting attention for a different royal scandal: her scathing critique of the English media darling, Kate Middleton. Mantel, who last year was asked to “name a famous person and choose a book to give them,” expounded on the question in a speech republished in The London Review of Books, pairing the Duchess of Cambridge with “Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.” This, the reader quickly realizes, is not meant to be a compliment:
“It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution. 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. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.”
And the parallels she draws between Middleton and Antoinette make that abundantly clear:
“She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade. But in truth she was all body and no soul: no soul, no sense, no sensitivity. She was so wedded to her appearance that when the royal family, in disguise, made its desperate escape from Paris, dashing for the border, she not only had several trunk loads of new clothes sent on in advance, but took her hairdresser along on the trip.”
But Mantel uses Middleton as an entry point to delve into a larger critique that says the media has created a cage for the royals; that Middleton and Antoinette’s personas have been constructed for entertainment:
“Is monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation? I don’t know. I have described how my own sympathies were activated and my simple ideas altered. The debate is not high on our agenda. We are happy to allow monarchy to be an entertainment, in the same way that we license strip joints and lap-dancing clubs…cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough.”
Though her message is meant to inspire the media to stop behaving “like spectators at Bedlam” when it comes to affairs of the royal family, Mantel makes her point at the risk of sounding like one of the brutes she condemns. Mantel’s snark (“What does Kate read? It’s a question”) has caught the attention of the British media, including Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the remarks ”completely misguided.” Said Cameron, “What I’ve seen of Princess Kate at public events, at the Olympics and elsewhere is this is someone who’s bright, who’s engaging, who’s a fantastic ambassador for Britain.” Even British tabloid The Daily Mail called Mantel’s speech “an astonishing and venomous attack on the Duchess of Cambridge.”
The royal family has not yet commented.