All the king’s horses and all their critics can’t agree whether Humpty Dumpty is broken, though they agree he’s taken a fall. Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Man Booker prize and a great chevalier of the British literary court, has stirred herself up a controversy with cutting remarks on Princess Kate and her bride price, the tabloid media and their readers.
On Feb 4th, Mantel gave a sophisticated, literary speech for the London Review of Books‘ Winter Lecture series entitled “Undressing Anne Boleyn” on the use the royal family has made of its women for breeding heirs, paying special attention to Henry VIII’s wives, and Katherine, whom she described as “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.”
Yesterday the Daily Mail, a repository of patriotic second-hand junk news, having found the speech out (presumably none of its people had attended the speech in person) published a withering rebuke to the old lady. It was difficult to read the article when the text was constantly interrupted by hi-res photographs of Kate in various poses wearing the same baby-bump-revealing dress, but you gathered that the nation had leapt to the defense of its future queen against the insolent assault of a catty old woman.
The major broadsheets have stuck up for Mantel, the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph, though the Times was ambivalent. They point out that her speech is sympathetic to Kate’s plight–Mantel asks the nation “to back off and not be brutes.” It condemns the obsession with royalty that expects the royals to be picture-ready and charity-friendly, and is made uncomfortable with a display of real personality. Their defense distinguishes between Mantel’s criticism of the popular image of Kate, and her criticism of Kate herself. But you either have to be a verbal acrobat to avoid seeing that Mantel doesn’t care for Kate or the institution of the royal family, or you just have something to lose by out-and-out admitting that you don’t like them either.
For herself Mantel never quite says it outright. Her speech reads very much like a novel, leaping lightly from observation to observation, refraining from strong conclusions, with all the beautiful, attenuated wisdom of a mind devoted to nuance. The literary kingdom is in a permanent Cold War with the popular patriotic tradition.