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Hilary Mantel’s misinterpreted Royal Bodies lecture was still unpleasant

21 February 2013

People are quite often pilloried for saying the opposite of what they actually said. I have read Hilary Mantel’s London Review of Books lecture, and she is quite clearly not attacking the Duchess of Cambridge, but criticising what it is that people try to turn royal women into. When she speaks of the Duchess as ‘a jointed doll on which certain rags were hung’, or ‘the spindles of her limbs’ being ‘hand-turned and gloss-varnished’, she is talking about what the media and public opinion want of her. She discusses appearance, and offers no opinion about the young woman’s reality.

She is sympathising with a female predicament, and she does the same about Diana, Princess of Wales, the present Queen, Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette. Indeed she makes an appeal: ‘I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.’ So are the Prime Minister, Ed Miliband and the Daily Mail plumb-wrong in attacking our great novelist? Oddly enough, not quite.

The misinterpretation of Mantel reminds me of the case of David Jenkins, the left-wing Bishop of Durham in the 1980s. Doubting the physical fact of the Empty Tomb, he said that the Resurrection was ‘not just a conjuring trick with bones’. His critics yelled that he had described the Resurrection as ‘just a conjuring trick with bones’, though he had said the exact reverse. Yet they were on to something. They were on to a contempt for his subject which lurked in his striking phrase. I fear that Hilary Mantel may be guilty of something similar. Her lecture, for all its interest — everything she writes is interesting — does what she herself deplores. It hangs clever thoughts upon the body of a woman whom, one cannot help suspecting, she regards as her intellectual inferior. This is unpleasing.

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If you seek a lighter take on the cultural impact of the Duchess and her family, I warmly recommend a two and half minute clip now visible on YouTube. Called The Middle Middleton, it concerns the career of Doris, the unknown Middleton sister.

This has been conceived and produced, I should declare, by our son and his friends. Poor Doris, too, has to deal with the expectations of others…

This is an extract from Charles Moore’s Notes in this week’s Spectator. Click here to read the full column, and here to subscribe to the Spectator.

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Show comments
  • John Ager
  • fitz fitzgerald

    Well phrased: old Hilly Mantle is insufferably … elitist: surely something leftists hate ?

  • Victor Southern

    The speech or spoken essay may have some merit but the sentiment had none. It was gratuitously and deliberately insulting. Ms Mantel has not been quoted out of context since liitle that follows has relevance to her crude criticism of the Duchess.

    One can understand that Mantel may have become so immersed in the past that her immediate surrounds and real life are strangers to her. The Duchess of Cambridge is not, however, a dead person who cannot be offended.

    What is more the attack was cowardly since the Duchess is prevented by protocol from response. For that reason David Cameron and many of us are right to defend her as she is rendered defenceless.

    • Craig_Ranapia

      ” The Duchess of Cambridge is not, however, a dead person who cannot be offended.”

      She’s also a person who is perfectly competent to get offended on her own behalf, if in fact she is. And don’t give me any twaddle about “protocol” preventing her from responding, members of the Royal family were practising the fine art of off-the-record briefing to sympathetic hacks long before Bernard Ingram and Alistair Campbell were the proverbial gleams in the milkman’s eye.

  • Jebediah

    She clearly set out to insult, she chose the phrases not the media. Only a fool would think the terms she used were not insulting.
    However, the media might interpret her (Mantel) as an ugy worthless mean spirited gutless near hack out for a bit of free publicity by attacking someone who can’t hit back.The media might say that, not me, you understand.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Where do you get gutless hack? Publishing this is not gutless, whatever else it is. And a hack is a journalist. She is a novelist. You know, like Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy.

      • Jebediah

        “Near hack” is the phrase I used, was her commentary in a novel? Or was it a more general media focused lecture? As for gutless, well can the Duchess realistically hit back? If you verbally assault somewho who is prevented by convention from responding then is that brave… or is it gutless?

        • Fergus Pickering

          She can’t but lots of other people, including your good self, can and do.

        • Chris Morriss

          The Duchess appears to be barely articulate, so I guess you are right: she can’t hit back.

  • bwims

    She’s a contender for the Mary Beard attractiveness prize, isn’t she?
    Is that a large amount of plaque between her front teeth, or had she
    just eaten a canape?

    • HooksLaw

      Thanks for reminding us twice what an oik you are.

  • bwims

    She’s a contender for the Mary Beard attractiveness prize, isn’t she? Is that a large amount of plaque between her front teeth, or had she just eaten a canape?

  • Sheumais

    Mantel’s speech took two weeks to be wilfully misrepresented, so
    perhaps it should have been allowed to remain in the obscurity that was
    expected and deserved. I do not accept she was attacking the Duchess of
    Cambridge and it should have been clear to anyone who is aware of the
    entire content of the speech she made it clear she does not believe she
    possesses the knowledge of the subject to offer criticism. That was the
    point of introducing speculative evidence to support the change in Henry
    XVIII and the portraits supposedly of Anne Boleyn. The public’s
    judgement is passed on celebrities on very little evidence and the same
    is true of the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke’s mother.

    • Smithersjones2013

      The way it was structured with all the sneers at the start its clear that Mantel was having a go. If she wanted to make it clear she was attacking the media then why is there no mention of the media in the first 4 paragraphs? Any fool knows that when preparing a piece you get your main argument in the reader / listeners mind at the beginning of the piece. Mantel, whether consciously or subconsciously, seems to have wanted to create an image of the Duchess in the readers mind not the media.

      It seems to me by structuring the piece in the way it was structured Mantel intended not only to berate the Duchess but also to be provocative so not only was she being nasty she was also doing exactly what the media do and as such would seem to be guilty of rank hypocrisy as well.

      Could an writer of Mantel experience have done this by accident? Highly unlikely.

      • Tim

        Also… the long clip played on Radio 4 came across and sneering and condescending in tone if not in words. She was playing to a lefties luvvie audience and you could almost visualise the bien pensant group think thing going on there.

        • Daniel Maris

          Quite – to all those clever clogs saying “read the article” (which I have done), I say listen to her speak…the sneering, superior tone she adopts in making her pedestrian observations.

          As for the article where does it say “I am going to tell you what view the media projects of the poor girl, but of course it is not a view I share.”?

          She is stating as objective fact that Kate was a clothes horse and is now a breeding animal. Nowhere does she concede that this graduate of Art History at a good university might,for all we know, have a sensitive and serious, more intellectual side. But, equally, nowhere does she explain why she has to be more than she appears: pretty, well groomed, polite and fecund. Is she saying it would be good for the monarchical system if she had strong opinions on politics, music, race and religion which she was wont to express in clear, sharp prose and confident orations? If she isn’t, if she concedes that wouldn’t be good for monarchy, WTF is she saying? That she is a republican? Fair enough, if that is her position, but nothing in her boring address suggests that she is. Rather, she just seems a frustrated royal groupie who would like to be admitted into the inner circle but knows she never will.

    • Craig_Ranapia

      It’s also delightful watching tabloid scum who would have happily printed topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge sun-bathing on private property if they thought they would have got away with it, are now so concerned about her dignity? The sight of Hillary Mantel getting a sanctimonious morals lecture from the crotch-sniffing hypocrites of The Daily Mail is revolting.

  • Simon Semere

    When I read Hillary Mantel’s piece I felt that was no direction in her writing, I kept reading on to find where it was going, but no, the treasure hunt went on. It was just a barrage of insults to all the women taken in by the royals, and eventually to the entire monarchy itself. I eventually stopped reading when I got tired of hearing her endless rabble and figured Ms Mantel must have some personal issue against the royals which I can’t say I share. It would of been a lot more dignified if she had kept her bitter connotations reserved.

    • telemachus

      The key thing is that it absolutely comes across that she regards Kate as her intellectual inferior
      That tinged with obvious female jealousy makes it reprehensible

      • Fergus Pickering

        Well, Kate obviously is her intellectual inferior. But that’s nothing to get all pissy about.

        • telemachus

          This fact makes the comments even more reprehensible
          Where is respect?

          • Fergus Pickering

            You’re hug up on respect, aren’t you, tele. I thought it was just black criminals who prosed on about it.

            • telemachus

              Kate is self evidently a royal outsider who puts not a foot wrong in contributing to the happiness of our future king whose mother was so grievously wronged by such as Mantel
              She deserves the respect of us all

              • Fergus Pickering

                Bollocks, old Tel. The future King’s mother was wronged by the future King’s father. She then went off and had it away with various men. Nothing to do with the media, any of that

                • telemachus

                  The media attacked and attacked and kept on attacking
                  Yeah even onto the underpass

          • Kate HA

            “Where is respect?”

            Or even humane good manners/consideration?

            I have read Mantel and listened to interviews; I don’t agree with the accolades The work is obsessive and repetitive – even pretentious. To read one of her novels is to read all. Mantel is an introspective intellectual snob. I have no interest in her opinions on anything.

            In my youth I was privileged to sit at table with such as EP Thompson and Iris Murdoch; true ‘intellectuals’, great writers, encouraging and inspirational to shy, modest, youngsters such as Kate.

      • Alastair_93

        She doesn’t say anywhere that Kate is intellectually inferior.

    • Daniel Maris

      Quite. She can’t (and as far as I know, she hasn’t attempted to) dissociate herself from the opinions about the Duchess.

      • fitz fitzgerald

        Her grandeur prevents her from responding in person … her lit agent has burbled to the press …

        • Daniel Maris

          Yep, it’s definitely the Queen Complex. Also seen in Polly Toynbee who seems to become ever more queenly grand as she ages.

      • Craig_Ranapia

        Or, like the Duchess of Cambridge, she’s following the old (and very wise) internet advice “don’t feed the trolls”. It’s not like the Pecksniffs of Fleet Street, or Cameron and Millibrand (the Tweedledum and Tweedledumber of Westminster) need any encouragement.

    • HooksLaw

      I have not read her books which seem to be about tudor royals. You wonder how objective she is.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Two of her books are about Thomas Cromwell. Her best book, in my opinion, is her autobiography, quite short and well worth a read. She is a gifted writer

      • Chris Morriss

        Seeing your crass responses here, I wonder if you have ever read any books.

    • Richard

      Her piece was criticising how the media portrayed Kate i.e. how she is presented to us.

    • Craig_Ranapia

      Well, thanks for the stunning insight that the text of a lecture doesn’t necessarily read like an essay intended for print.

  • Magnolia

    All the male comment on this piece misses the point that Mantel has identified the typical professional wife style.
    Both the PM and DPM have wives who are leggy, slim and with long brunette locks, just like the Duchess.
    Media comment is invariably about their appearance rather than their personality.
    During the last decade the style was similar except that the hair would be blonde and usually layered and shoulder length. i called them the blonde clones as I passed them at the school gates.
    Crude, yes but an easily identified type.
    We should talk a little more about the effects of assortative mating on society and the substitution of style over class which, together with government policy, contributes so much to the lack of opportunity and lack of true meritocracy in modern Britain.

    • Sheumais

      How likely is it only you can really appreciate the point purely because you are female? I’ll answer for you, not very.

      • Magnolia

        Sheumais I believe than men and women are different but they both show a normal distribution curve on any reasonable measure of intelligence.
        Have a look at the boring tripe served up in the women’s magazines section. The only escape is often in to gardening, art or perhaps antiques.
        Even the Speccie is so obviously a man thing.
        Our young royals are very lucky to have found each other at university and to have enjoyed a long ‘courtship’ together before marrying.
        That was the happiest time of my life.
        Kate smiles constantly. I remember it well except that my teeth were and are crooked and my smile was private, but we both have a degree and perhaps we both need some escape when we want to exercise our brains.

    • bwims

      And the motive for identifying this “type” is that never in her dreams could she be mistaken for one.

    • HooksLaw

      The media are dumb, we know that. But the media write for the public who seem reluctant to register their protest.
      Clones? – it no one followed fashion there would be no point to fashion.

      Your conclusion seems more than a little fanciful.

      • Magnolia

        The media are not ‘dumb’ for plainly they speak, even if via the written word. If you infer that they are generally stupid, then I would also think that wrong. I’m sure the media is full of very bright young things, but in the same way that a clique dominates politics, so also will a clique dominate the media. They will seek like out and then try and emulate it.
        The point about calling the professional wives clones was not their taste in fashion but their similar morphology which must have been the taste of their husbands and influenced by the milieu that they lived within.

    • Smithersjones2013

      All the male comment on this piece misses the point that Mantel has identified the typical professional wife style.

      Ah so you favour the pigeon holing of individuals with gross stereotypes just as Mantel does do you?

      Personally I just thought Mantel was taking the part of the mean hearted envious b****.(plain [left-wing?] older woman sneers at young attractive woman [from nouveau rich capitalist background] who has made the ‘old money’ catch of the decade)

      The media are only reflecting the culture of our society (a society which women have been so integral in creating). After all it is almost instinctive when a women dresses for an occasion for all her male familiars (and particularly older ones) to compliment her on her attire and look, even if she looks like a sack of spuds (and never mention her hair is out of place or she’s putting on weight or you’ll never hear the end of it). I cannot recall a woman ever rebuffing such compliments as being superficial posturing or in fact being anything but welcomed. Not to mention how disastrous it would be for a two women to wear the same outfit to the same event. Oh god what a catastrophe that is!

      Its not men’s misunderstanding that is at question here but the nature of the female gender, female competitiveness with each other and their individual and collective neuroses about their appearance and advancement as a result. But hey we can still pretend that everything’s still a man’s fault even if women are supposed to be equal; today..

      PS Magnolia is such a dull insipid colour. Couldn’t you have picked a colour more interesting?

      • Magnolia

        You’ve put an interesting slant on it all from your own perspective, just as you have with my nom de plume. A Magnolia is a flowering tree or shrub and nothing so plain and dull as just a colour (of paint or skin).

        • Smithersjones2013

          A Magnolia is a flowering tree or shrub and nothing so plain and dull as just a colour (of paint or skin).

          Indeed, I know, I was just demonstrating how easy it is for lazy writers to turn a serious multi-faceted concept such as the word Magnolia into something shallow, provocative and insulting.

          People who have climbed to literary ladder such as Mantel should be most aware of the depths and mutliple facets of life and they have a responsiblity to reflect that in their written and spoken thoughts if they want to be taken seriously.

          Mantel failed to present the Duchess in such a manner. She was being provocative and insulting I believe and as such is no better than the media she claims she was criticising.

      • Magnolia

        also, I don’t favour the stereotyping, I just notice it and wonder what it means. I think chivalrous commenters are mistaking acute observation for jealousy.
        I am on record as a strong supporter of the monarchy because I’m a Tory, you know, your god, the queen and our country. I would support the institution of the monarchy even if it were headed by a drooling imbecile.
        The feminism of the left is repulsive but just because there is a vacuum of
        conservative female comment doesn’t mean that it’s men’s fault in some way. It’s just how it is. Back to the group think again.
        I’m sorry the women in your life sem to have such shallow preoccupations.
        Have you tried asking them if they like photography?

        • Smithersjones2013

          I have not mentioned the women in my life. I would never be so indiscrete and certainly would never infer they were so superficial, I was reflecting purely on my obeservations of the social niceties of our society. One might think by making it personal you were trying to be provocative?

          I’m glad you think we are being chivalrous but I think the structure of Mantel’s piece is pretty clear in its attempt to smear the Duchess.

          As for the female role in politics I don’t think that is much different from the general state of politics which increasingly seems driven by entitlement, divisiveness. dishonesty, misdirection, prejudice and bigotry. The women in politics are no less or more vacuous than the vast majority of their male counteparts. The sad reality is our poltical classes are almost wholly made up of bimbos of both the male and female kind these days. It is in desperate need of being refreshed and replaced.

          As for the Tories? Do they actually stand for anything other than ‘pragmatism’ (i.e. code for anything they feel like standing for at any particularl moment?)

          Anyway enough of this. Mantel will soon have had her 15 minutes of fame and will return to the anonimity of 16th Century historical academia where she clearly belongs……….

  • HooksLaw

    When somebody says ‘not just a conjuring trick with bones’ then the ‘just’ suggest to me that it was something else as well as a conjuring trick.
    Is it expecting too much for people to speak plainly?

    Mantel’s lecture was clearly insulting, badly phrased and badly written.

    • Daniel Maris

      Quite. Clearly there is a huge mismatch between her own opinion of her intellect and the reality, as expressed in her prose.

      What new insight is Mantel supposed to have given us? That spouses of the heir are expected to look pretty and deliver a new heir? Er – no. I think we knew that.
      Or that modern young women seek to achieve a glossy, straight-haired, straight-toothed perfection? Big deal.

      What would have been interesting is if Mantel had analysed her self-confessed voracious appetite for the royals and the mechanics of procreative alliance – which she seems to have in out-sized abundance. What undercurrents motivate her obsession? She gives no clues.

  • GarethSoye

    Your son and his friends are nowhere near as funny or talented as they think they are.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Oh come, that’s rather lefty. Mean-minded.

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