The British Museum, grand home of many national (and international) treasures, hosted the lecture for the London Review of Books on 4 February 2013. People waited expectantly for Hilary Mantel to begin her lecture, titled Royal Bodies, because the subject of royal consorts through the ages is something this author would know a lot about. Mantel, highly respected author of Wolf Hall, two time winner of the Man Booker Award for Literature, is one of the world’s most qualified people to speak about royal women, based on her years of research into the subject.
The lecture was given; people clapped, some leaned to one another and commented, nodded, agreed or disagreed, added their own thoughts, drank more wine and went home that evening, most probably not giving it another thought.Then a journalist found a copy of Mantel’s speech a couple of weeks later on the London Review of Books’ website and in a lull between wars an opportunity to stir up a frenzy was seized upon and the headlines started rolling out: Hilary Mantel attacks Kate, Hilary Mantel savages “the plastic princess”, and so on… And I sat confused.
Firstly, I looked at the original speech and did not read that Mantel was savaging the Duchess of Cambridge. If anything, she was criticising the media and public expectations (or at least the Palace PR machine’s idea of the public’s expectations) that the future Queen must be picture perfect in every way, at every moment, the ideal in the eyes of all. Mantel appeared if anything, to feel sorry for Kate.
Secondly, because we have freedom of speech in Britain, Mantel can say what she likes, and if she backs her opinion up with an intelligent argument based on years of research, then her opinion has more weight. The people who consider themselves public servants (and the common defence of the monarchy is that they serve the people) expect to have critiques said about them and the institutions they exist within.
We cherish freedom of speech in Britain, but we have to be careful—this event has shown us we aren’t free to voice our critiques on everything.
If the person in question is a national treasure, a nation’s sweetheart, an optimistic symbol of a new age, then no. Please do not use this public figure in any speech, anecdote, cartoon, or TV show reference that may suggest a critical slant. Your criticism will be considered uncouth, gauche, and nasty. Newspapers will twist your words, rip you apart and throw you to the dogs. In polite company one is not supposed to speak of sex, politics or religion. Or Kate. Unless it’s full of adulation
The newspapers abuse their freedom of speech, freedom of the press when they misrepresent the information they offer to the public—the daily rags knew exactly what they were doing when they pulled a few comments out of Mantel’s speech, scattered them amongst some hyperbole and set them loose on the public.
Mantel did not savage the Duchess, as can easily be seen if one reads her speech, rather than relying on out-of-context excerpts, but much of the public response went immediately to cite either a publicity stunt (seriously) or insults, citing her age (“dried–up old woman”), gender (sisters are supposed to unite, damn it) and appearance (“no oil painting”) as reasons why she wasn’t qualified to criticise the Duchess of Cambridge. As if only young, pretty men dare criticise her?
But remember, the criticism wasn’t of Kate. So blindly devoted to the Duchess were these commenters that they didn’t see Mantel was actually making a case for Kate to be allowed to be more normal, less managed.
Disclosure from me? (As if it matters what an American living in Britain thinks about the British royals.) I’m neutral about the royals, but for the purposes of this piece, if I had to declare one or the other I’d probably say I am pro-royal. As an observer I can see that the institution of the living monarchy as it is today is one of the aspects that defines Britain to outsiders. It is a big slice of the cultural pie here. However, I can also see why, in these years of deep recession, there is intense resentment from some that the UK government gives the Royal Family money for doing things some regular folk find pointless.
The consort of the future King of England (etc) will always be highly scrutinised. And in this era of PR machines, social media, and easy access Kate will have to work constantly to always be representing her new family in the very best way or face condemnation from many. How exhausting, how damaging that must be—and that’s just Mantel’s point. It’s a plastic, disingenuous, harmful existence. She wishes for Kate to have a more human experience.
The problem that Mantel underestimated was the extreme polarity the British public seem to feel on the subject of the royals. The daily rags know the public well and easily whipped up this storm in a teacup amongst their readers by misrepresenting Mantel’s lecture. Royals are seen as either good or bad. How can Britain ever have a sensible discussion about the royals, without all the knee jerk mudslinging polarity? The press happily perpetuate this division because it’s a convenient trigger they can fall back on for more sales.
For the record, some papers, like The Guardian, stepped in early to offer a more balanced take on the situation.
Love the royals, hate the royals, feel whatever about the royals. The number one goal of the British press (any press) is to sell more papers, apparently not to inform, and so any photos or articles that will do that are good enough. An intelligent, articulate, highly respected novelist is not the villain of this story, and neither is the little girl who grew up to marry a prince.
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident
Read more of Michelle's Expat Focus articles here.