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Bring up the royal bodies

Hilary Mantel's vitriolic essay on the Duchess of Cambridge underlined her talents as a writer but otherwise served no purpose

Vikram Johri 

Now we are informed that Hilary Mantel's book sales have skyrocketed post-Kategate. One wonders if that is an entirely unintended consequence. But let's focus on the essay for the moment. For the uninitiated, Ms Mantel wrote a piece on British royalty in the February 21 edition of the London Review of Books that created a stir for its hostile portrayal of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.

The piece, available online, starts with the revelation that Ms Mantel "hate[s] the leaden repetitiveness of these little quizzes: who would be the guests at your ideal dinner party, what book has changed your life, which fictional character do you most resemble?" It is her answer to the first of these questions, Kate Middleton, that launches Ms Mantel's tirade.

And a tirade it is. Right from the word go, the biliousness is on display. Ms Middleton is attacked for being "a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own" and for leading a life that "was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth". Ms Mantel compares her to Marie "Let them eat cake" Antoinette, terming the latter's passion to dress up to the nines as a compulsion that "focused the rays of misogyny". In an essay that flits breathlessly from one personality to the next, Ms Mantel refers to Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth II and other occupants of Buckingham Palace. It is like reading a royal version of The Hunger Games where life is predicated on a competitive eradication of the self.

One cannot know how true this schizophrenic representation of the royalty is. Even for a writer who has written magnificently about earlier royal eras, it is hard to shake off the feeling that Ms Mantel has exceeded her brief. The choice of her phrases, at once poetic and deeply critical, makes the reader wince: "precision-made, machine-made" Kate of the "perfect plastic smile"; "the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished". Why is a twice Booker awardee attacking a young, perfectly likeable woman? And why is she larding her attack with all manner of intellectual mumbo jumbo? It is impossible not to espy a hint of that old misogynist feeling: the wildly successful career woman unable to get past her poor looks.

As one reads on, however, one detects the sly onset of benevolence. In discussing Diana's violent death, Ms Mantel, for the first time, shows a flicker of tenderness for her subject. She seems to correlate the naked hunger of the paparazzi to the transcendental desire in us to seek a higher purpose, a leader if you will, to hold fast. With doubt and a lack of clarity coursing through our postmodern times, the (decidedly elite) human being as the repository of our charmed instincts is the only route to salvation.

But soon, Ms Mantel is back to the pointy barrenness of her words. In one scene, she runs us through an evening during which she comes in close contact with the Queen. The setting is a painting exhibition that occurs before an event that will recognise Ms Mantel for her contribution to literature. When the Queen enters, instead of the giant hordes by which Ms Mantel expects her to be accosted, she is seen wistfully moving through the exhibition, utterly alone. At one point, Ms Mantel and the Queen exchange glances and Ms Mantel, later chewing on a succulent kebab, recalls the directness, the violence of her gaze, and compares it to the very physical process of tearing the kebab off the stick. This distance-inducing gaze, Ms Mantel seems to say, is as viciously pleasurable as biting into solid meat.

The Queen's apparent otherness reminded me of a scene in Stephen Frears' 2006 drama, The Queen. Meeting the public for the first time since Diana's death, Helen Mirren, playing Elizabeth II, comes across a little girl holding a bouquet that, the Queen assumes, must be for Diana. When she asks the little girl if she would like her to place the flowers with the others, the girl replies: "These are for you." The heart-breaking smile on Ms Mirren's face is a moment of sheer cinematic beauty and transforms the viewer's appraisal of her. So far shown as a woman with steely determination to protect her brood at all costs in the wake of the scandal surrounding Diana's death, she is suddenly all too human. It is a most affecting scene.

In spite of trying, I felt no such sympathy for any character in Ms Mantel's essay. While Mr Frears humanises the Queen, Ms Mantel merely builds on her merciless theme �" the at times weary, at times acquisitive, gaze of the commoner. In so doing, she becomes a victim of that gaze, unable to reconcile its harshness with its meaninglessness. If the point of her essay was to castigate the hermetic lives of royalty, Ms Mantel has ended up feeding into what she set out to disparage. Her dissing of the royalty serves no end except to showcase the brilliant writer that she is. Beware the silky writer, then, for the only silk is in her words.

Hilary Mantel
London Review of Books: Vol 35 No 4
February 21, 2013
5,794 words

First Published: Tue, February 26 2013. 21:10 IST