Be honest, Hilary: you dislike Kate
Hilary Mantel was sniping at the duchess in her recent talk, even if she now denies it, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
So far the row over prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel's remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge has followed a familiar pattern. First the shrill denunciations of the author for allegedly calling the beloved and pregnant Kate a "plastic princess" whose only purpose was to breed royal heirs. Then the equally strident insistence from her defenders that Mantel had been unfairly pilloried and that her original words were much more sympathetic to the princess than was being reported by a toadying media.
Put them in a sack, shake it all up, and what falls out when it's upended may approximate to the truth; but it doesn't mean that either way of seeing this is wrong. They're just different ways of telling the same story. If I had to choose, though, I'd still plump for the original version. So would Mantel, too, if she was being honest. It's a better story. There's more conflict. Larger characters. Despite appearances, it's also a more subtle interpretation of what actually happened than the superficially sophisticated account that her supporters peddled in the Wolf Hall author's defence afterwards.
I read the talk that she gave at the British Museum. Even the boring bits. Yes, it contained a lot of words, and most of them were not about Kate Middleton at all. There was plenty there about Anne Boleyn and the nature of monarchy. Also plastic chairs and cocktail sticks. But I still don't think the original categorisation of what Mantel said as being hostile to the duchess was a wrong interpretation.
She's a novelist. She knows how words work, and these, like all her other words, were presumably crafted to create a certain impression. Writers don't have the defence of saying "I didn't mean that" when the fact it's down in black and white proves that they did; all the more so when the specific interpretation to which you're objecting has been bolstered from the way you put those words together. Mantel, after all, devoted her first paragraph to Kate Middleton, and beginnings always matter to a writer.
"In those days," she tells us, "[Kate] 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."
Now I could do what Mantel's defenders did and interpret those words in the most generous way possible to their author; but note the neutral, disembodied tone, as if she's merely reporting verifiable facts. That's rather revealing, because I've never seen Kate Middleton that way at all.
To me, she always seemed a refreshingly ordinary kind of woman. Not hugely interesting, but then she who is without sin and all that. If that's how Hilary Mantel thinks Kate is seen, then is that not more likely to be a reflection of how she herself sees Kate? And if she does see Kate that way, then why object when those who don't see Kate that way take exception to the portrayal? We don't just have to take her word for what she means. We are active not passive readers.
And yes, when Mantel leaps in the very next paragraph to discussing Marie Antoinette – a woman who was, she declares, "all body and no soul", again rather a presumptuous leap for one human being to make about another, even if the other one has been dead for centuries – then it's surely legitimate to draw assumptions about the author's attitudes from that juxtaposition, too?
Likewise when, in the third paragraph, we head straight back to Kate (see what she did there?), a woman who has, a few sentences later, become one who is "without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character". All body and no soul, perhaps? Not knowing the mother-to-be, I really couldn't say if that's true, but again it wouldn't be my impression.
All I can say is that if I'd written that, then I wouldn't complain if readers drew certain conclusions about my own personal attitude towards Kate Middleton, even if I did follow it up with 20 paragraphs about Tudor England, before wrapping it all up in a sniffy disdain for the media's "compulsion to comment" on the royals, as if the compulsion to comment on the compulsion to comment was altogether a nobler instinct than the one being decried, purely by virtue of being once removed.
Context matters, and right now there's been a bit of a slew of comments from more outwardly liberated women against those deemed less enlightened. Last month, it was Mary Berry who got it in the neck for refusing to call herself a feminist – a crime that was deemed much more worthy of comment than the six decades during which the baking queen was setting a practical example to young women by working extremely hard. Now it's Mantel on Kate. The fact that it was wrapped up in faux sympathy for the Duchess of Cambridge as an innocent pawn in a cruel system is beside the point.
In fact, it almost makes it worse. Patronising her in this way peels away from Kate any identity as a thinking, rational being, and turns her instead into a hapless victim, prey to forces beyond her control. Better just to snipe at her for the choices she's made. At least that would be treating her like the 31-year-old woman she is rather than a child.
But then retreating behind a convenient version of their gender is many women's preferred manouevre now when challenged to stand over what they've said or done. A man wouldn't have been lambasted for making negative comments about Kate, one Guardian columnist even declared indignantly.
Really? Tell that to Morrissey, who was practically thrown into the Tower of London after accusing the future queen of faking her morning sickness. Though maybe not being a woman is why Morrissey had the cojones to just come out and say what he thought.