LOTTIE MORTIMER: Two weeks ago, award-winning novelist Hilary Mantel gave her public lecture “Undressing Anne Boleyn” at the British Museum for the London Review of Books Lecture Series. A few days ago, the lecture was published online on the LRB website titled “Royal Bodies” to coincide with the 21st February LRB publication. Last week, the media was plagued with accounts that, in her speech, Mantel had verbally attacked Britain’s beloved national treasure, Kate Middleton. The BBC reported:
The lecture has sparked some backlash from the British press, with the Daily Mail calling it “an astonishing and venomous attack” on the duchess. The Telegraph’s Jake Wallis Simons described the comments as “creepy” from an author who “should know better”, while the Guardian called it a “damning” take on Catherine.
Then the politicians got involved in the matter, even though comments said in one lecture shouldn’t actually concern them. This included David Cameron taking the time to comment, whilst on his trade visit to India:
Prime Minister David Cameron has defended the Duchess of Cambridge, saying author Hilary Mantel was “completely wrong” to compare her to a “shop-window mannequin” … Mr Cameron added Mantel “writes great books” but “what she’s said about Kate Middleton is completely misguided” … Labour leader Ed Miliband also voiced his views on the speech, telling the BBC: “These are pretty offensive remarks, I don’t agree with them.”
So, what has Mantel said to cause such outrage? It may be surprising to some, but the lecture isn’t actually about Kate Middleton, she only appears in a handful of paragraphs. Mantel’s lecture is about royal women as a whole, and how they are treated by the public and the media. Other figures featured in her lecture include Marie Antoinette, Princess Diana and the Queen, but she has a concentrated focus on Tudor women, in particular Anne Boleyn.
I did read Mantel’s lecture and thought it entertaining, eloquent and insightful. She doesn’t say that Kate is a “shop-window mannequin,” but rather that is the way the duchess is objectified by the press:
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.
She does compare the monarchy to pandas, but she makes a good point:
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.
Also, her conclusion makes her message very clear, that it’s up to us as a society to how royal women are viewed and at the moment we have the wrong attitude:
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. 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. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control. 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.
During my history degree, the importance of reading the primary sources has been drilled into us from day one. It strikes me that the camp who have declared offence either haven’t read the speech, didn’t understand the speech or read the speech but decided to spin it to create a decent story, which is just bad journalism. The speech is nearly 6000 words long and the podcast just over an hour, but that is no excuse. If you’re going to run a story on a lecture, it seems like common sense to at least read it first. I would have thought that the Prime Minister, especially with his Oxford PPE degree, would have least have bothered to read the speech before passing comment and now looking a bit of a fool and a puppet of the media.
To be honest, I was surprised that a public lecture has received so much attention, but it’s a demonstration of the power of manipulation that today’s media has. I hope that the hype will make people want to go and read the lecture, so that they can decide for themselves. Unfortunately, I know this will not be the case. Academics such as Kate Williams defend Mantels comments, whilst the public blindly take the media bait; the very same media bait that Mantel denounces in her lecture.
Originally written for historyinpublic.com.
Hilary Mantel’s lecture can be read on the London Review of Books website.