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Has anyone else heard about Booker prize winner, Hilary Mantel's, controversial speech on Royal Bodies, presented for the London Review of Books? I saw it yesterday in my twitter feed and clicked on it out of interest. As someone coming to it as a cultural historian, as a writer and as someone who comes from a country that has little love left for the British monarchy, it is one of the most interesting and complex speeches I have read in an age; criticising the symbiotic relationship between royals, a country's people and the media. Mantel calls attention to the myth that a royal title evokes, the role that must be performed in accordance with that myth and the ways that the media especially, simaltaenously depersonalise and exult the royal body as an object, not as a person. Coming at it from a feminist bent, she examines the ways that women, particularly queen's, have been valued in the royal myth, with a small section discussing Princess Diana and Princess Catherine (Kate Middleton). Mantel dares to question the UK's image of Royal woman, asking why it is in an era of so called feminist success, that we value Kate only for her body- her youth, her beauty and her child bearing ability? Not only does she question our ideals of womanhood, she also (rather subtly it must be said) questions the entire institution of British royalty.

The link is here:


This essay caused enormous controversy in the UK papers, who accused Hilary of slagging off Kate and of needlessly insulting her. Ironically, their insistance on taking her entire speech out of context and of resorting to the usual straw man faux feminist arguments, merely proved her initial point. The section which apparently caused the most offence:

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.

was taken massively out of context and used by the papers as a way of claiming jealousy on Mantel's part. Actually, Mantel followed her statements up by referencing media interest in snapping a pregnant Kate playing hockey in heels:

It is sad to think that intelligent people could devote themselves to this topic with earnest furrowings of the brow, but that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken. And in the same way one is compelled to look at them: to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours.

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.

Which of course, is rather hard to argue with. I don't know Kate Middleton. I don't know her true personality. But that is rather Mantel's point. For whatever reason, the Royal family feel the need to strive for particular female coded Royal ideals precisely because (wrongly or otherwise) they believe that this is what the British public and the British media demand of them. Is that not Mantel's point? We don't know the real Kate because the Royal's perceive that we do not want to know the real her. They don't want us to know her. If we did, the myth breaks down, the spell is broken. As it did once before with dangerous consequences in the case of Princess Diana.

And yes, Mantel idolises Princess Diana. Of course she does. Because Diana dared to show her humanity, her personality, in spite of the pressures placed upon her by an entire nation to conform. In doing so, she recreated the royal myth. Hence:

Diana was more royal than the family she joined. That had nothing to do with family trees. Something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity, fitted her to be the carrier of myth. She came near to claiming that she had a healing touch, the ancient attribute of royal persons. The healing touch can’t be felt through white gloves. Diana walked bare-handed among the multitude, and unarmed: unfortified by irony, uninformed by history. Her tragedy was located in the gap between her human capacities and the demands of the superhuman role she was required to fulfil.

The thing that made Princess Diana so dangerous was her ability to transcend and overshadow the entire British monarchy. The outpouring of grief at her death, as Mantel points out, merely reinforced that.

We are at war with our nature, and nature will win; all the bottled anguish, the grief dammed up, burst the barriers of politeness and formality and restraint, and broke down the divide between private and public, so that strangers wailed in the street, people who had never met Diana lamented her with maladjusted fervour, and we all remembered our secret pain and unleashed it in one huge carnival of mass mourning. But in the end, nothing changed. We were soon back to the prosaic: shirtsleeves, stacking chairs, little sticks. And yet none of us who lived through it will forget that dislocating time, when the skin came off the surface of the world, and our inner vision cleared, and we saw the archetypes clear and plain, and we saw the collective psyche at work, and the gods pulling our strings.

Princess Diana's myth unto herself undermined the entire myth of the Royal family. To quote Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice:

My mind is clearer now.
At last all too well
I can see where we all soon will be.
If you strip away The myth from the man,
You will see where we all soon will be. Jesus!
You've started to believe
The things they say of you.
You really do believe
This talk of God is true.
And all the good you've done
Will soon get swept away.
You've begun to matter more
Than the things you say.

Listen Jesus I don't like what I see.
All I ask is that you listen to me.
And remember, I've been your right hand man all along.
You have set them all on fire.
They think they've found the new Messiah.
And they'll hurt you when they find they're wrong.

Princess Diana ripped away the facade and showed us that the Royal family could get messy when you got to their hurting, bleeding hearts. That made them human. That made them possible to judge. They weren't a whole, a single unit anymore. They were fractured and fractious. We could take sides. Diana, the so called people's princess, nearlly brought an entire monarchy to its knees.

In the light of Diana, where does it all leave Kate? To those who say that Mantel's speech is unfair because it gives Kate no right of reply- bullshit. She has the platform and the voice to make a very public reply. The point is, she cannot do so without undermining the already precarious Royal myth. She was aware of that role and its contraints when she married William. To quote Danny Elfman's song in The Corpse Bride (2005):

We'll be there
We'll be seen
Having tea with the Queen
We'll forget everything
That we've ever, ever been.

Unless Kate breaks free of the role that has been consigned to her, she will never be more than what Mantel says she seems to be, regardless of who Kate is in private. She will stay stuck in this mould for two reasons;

a) Because traditionally women are expected to be that way. Especially Royal women.
b) Because that is the price that Kate must pay for the privelage of marrying William. Anyone who says otherwise knows little of how the Queen vets for royal marriage.

Mantel says:

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.

Why is it OK for us to acknowledge the superficial facade, the mask that places like Hollywood force upon a person, but not the self same, and similarly self perpetuating masks that the Royals and indeed, we, demand of the Royal body? Stuck in a Royal cage in a one size fits all role, Mantel is pointing out with sensitivity and perceptivity the dehumanising and unhealthy lifestyle that such expectations push a person to. Tell me honestly, is Mantel really that far off the mark?


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