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.
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…