The double-Booker winning author Hilary Mantel has caused controversy, after delivering an uncompromising critique of the Duchess of Cambridge. The lecture she gave to the London Review of Books is now online: audio and text.
The Daily Mail and the Metro seem to have misinterpreted Mantel, reporting the speech as a ‘scathing’ and ‘venomous’ attack on the Duchess. But that is not the author’s sentiment at all. Instead, Mantel is critiquing the way in which the illusion of Royalty turns women into objects, vessels, and wombs. I am sure that Kate herself would find the analysis uncomfortable, but the attack is on the Monarchy as a whole, and on media outlets like the Mail and the Metro that feed off the images of Royal consorts.
The backlash towards Mantel puts me in the mind of the Orwell (or was it Hearst) quote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” The speech is a form of social and cultural criticism rather than journalism, but I think the Orwell/Hearst sentiment applies equally. Mantel’s negative comments about Royalty are precsiely the sort of thing that other people – call them Monarchists, or ‘The Establishment’, or social conservatives – would prefer had been left unsaid. That fact is, in itself, a reason to applaud Hilary Mantel for saying it alound and in public. This speech should shock us into reconsidering the role of Royalty in our society. It should make us revise our stratospheric expectations of the Duchess of Cambridge, too.
It is worth noting that this kind of speech act is precisely the sort of thing that gets censored in other countries. Thailand has strict lèse-majesté laws and many, if not most, other countries, have criminal defamation or ‘scandalising’ laws that would have seen Mantel down at the police station for an interview, or on trial, or in prison. In the UK, we finally abolished our dead-letter analogues in 2009. It should be a source of pride that one of our most celebrated novelists is able to make such controversial statements, unfettered.
This is precisely the kind of social leadership that we need from our authors. I wonder what would have happened if a politician had said the same thing?
The Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant, and my Twitter timeline and Facebook wall have immediately been filled with curmudgeons complaining that the issue of #Leveson and other important stories will get buried. I think this may be an over-reaction – there will be other news reported in the papers tomorrow.
Most of the comments in my timeline were meta – discussions about the discussion, not a discussion about the news itself. This is unsurprising because of course, there is no actual analysis that can be done on this kind of story: Kate is pregnant. The kid will be born about 7 months from now. They will one day be monarch, regardless of gender.
I have little patience for those complaining about the level of coverage. Britain is an immensely influential country, and a new head of state – one that could potentially reign for decades – has just been designated. We went nuts for discussion of the US Presidential election, and the French Presidential election. The opaque appointment of a new Chinese leader was also well documented. Why should the emergence of a new British Head of State be any less talked about?
The madness is not the level of coverage given over to this story. The madness is that British heads of state are still chosen by the hereditary method. If you are annoyed, irritated or angered by the news overload, but you’re not a republican, then you’re just being inconsistent.
In my rant a couple of weeks ago about the woman formerly known as Kate Middleton, I expressed a good deal of angst about whether I should be passing comment on her religious choices and motivations. In the comments, Helen called me judgemental and hypocritical.
Writing in the New Stateman, Peter Wilby offers a defence of passing judgement on the Royals and invading their privacy:
What is the point of a Royal Editor if he doesn’t hack people’s phones? Laws for the protection of privacy should not apply to the Queen and her family. The monarchy cannot be private: it is a public institution with no significant function other than to satisfy public curiosity. …
… what to everybody else would be private – family, love, procreation – becomes in royalty’s case public, because it determines the line of succession and the identity of our future head of state.
There is a logic to this. The Royals have also been referred to as the ‘National Soap Opera’ which speaks to the same idea, that we have some kind of right to know everything about them. Certainly, part of the justification for their continued existence is as role models and figureheads, for which a degree of discussion about their personal lives seems to be part of the quid pro quo (even if the royal social contract was entered into by distant ancestors, rather than the current incumbents themselves). While I am sympathetic to Wilby’s point of view, I think the Royals do need some privacy, if only to stop them going insane. The last thing we need is a paranoid recluse for a King.
Its interesting that in the 1990s the monarchy was said to be in “crisis”, when every single problem cited was related to personalities and personal infidelities. While this posed questions about their suitability as leaders of the Church of England, this in no way affected their constitutional status. And it never has. I once read that pretty much every monarch before the 20th Century had extra-marital affairs, which never seemed to weaken their status as Head of State. One of the few faithful monarchs was King Charles I, who plunged the country and the monarchy into a real crisis, by snubbing parliament and asserting his Divine Right to Rule.