If you live on this side of the Atlantic you might have missed the kerfuffle over Hilary Mantel’s description of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, future Queen of England.
Mantel, a distinguished and decorated writer sprinkled a lecture on royal bodies with some decidedly unflattering words about the pregnant duchess. The reaction was swift and largely negative. It was as though someone had flashed a red cape in front of the bull of the British establishment. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron rushed to defend the duchess.
Many of those who attacked Mantel did so in language that was inelegant to the point of being obnoxious.
Apparently, there's some truth to the fact that there is no such thing as bad publicity because the kerfuffle has caused Mantel's book sales to increase.
Mantel’s defenders have now responded. They insist that her words have been taken out of context and therefore were distorted. She was not attacking the Duchess; she was pointing to what the monarchy had done to poor Kate Middleton.
… I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she 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. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.
John Burns defended Mantel in The New York Times:
Read in their full context, a 5,800-word essay that Ms. Mantel delivered as a lecture at the British Museum two weeks ago, the remarks took on a quality of sympathy, albeit somewhat condescending, rather than the contempt that Ms. Mantel’s critics saw for the duchess, who is expecting her first child in July. She married Prince William in 2011.
Ms. Mantel wrapped her views in an elegant but haughty style, at one point comparing the British royal family to pandas in a zoo, “expensive to conserve and ill adapted to any modern environment” but “nice to look at” and an object of pity for their “precarious situation,” constantly stared at and living out their lives in a cage.
With all due to respect to John Burns, who is as a fine reporter as there is, it is not too difficult to find a muted contempt in Mantel’s line: “when she gets over being sick….”
As for the almighty context that supposedly excuses all of Mantel’s failings, allow me to mention that Middleton’s difficult pregnancy is part of the larger context in which Mantel’s speech will resonate.
Since Middleton's has not, by all appearances, been an especially easy pregnancy, Mantel’s words are, at best, churlish, and at worst, contemptuous.
I hate to put it in these terms, but good manners require us to show respect to pregnant women. Good manners also require us to show some respect to a woman who had to be hospitalized twice for difficulties with her pregnancy. Most human beings sensibly refrain from trashing pregnant women.
It is not acceptable to say that Kate Middleton’s problems were merely something she needs to get over.
Nevertheless, Burns does have a point. Mantel was writing about what the monarchy and the tabloids had done to Kate Middleton. Unfortunately, Mantel also added that Middleton possessed those negative qualities on her own. They were the reason that the monarchy had chosen her.
Dare I say, you cannot have it both ways. Either Kate Middleton was transformed into a “shop-window mannequin" or she had always been one:
But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished.
Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture. Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon.
By implication Mantel is disparaging and dismissing the possibility that Prince William and Kate Middleton actually love each other. Why does Mantel insist on making Kate Middleton someone who had been purchased off the rack?
Do women find some special virtue in diminishing other women?
Of course, Mantel means to compare Middleton against to Prince William's late, lamented mother.
She is quite correct to underscore Princess Diana’s “emotional incontinence,” but she is descends into absurdity when she suggests that Kate Middleton’s lack of “emotional incontinence” means that there is no possibility, in her case, of an “emergence of character.”
Mantel is an exceptionally fine writer, but where did she get the idea that the absence of “emotional incontinence” is a character flaw. Aristotle would not have approved. And where did she get the idea that a woman who manifests dignity and decorum while working very hard at her job lacks good character.
One can only wonder in amazement at seeing “emotional incontinence” made into an admirable character trait and hearing Hilary Mantel dismiss a woman who practices emotional continence as a plastic coat-hanger.