Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Hilary Mantel / Kate Middleton Kerfuffle

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.

Mantel said:

… 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. 


Mark said...

"Do women find some special virtue in diminishing other women?"
Do ducks quack?

It's primal; women exist to produce and nurture children and men exist to fertilize them and protect women and children. Everyone knows this, but it's a disease of affluence to lie about it. There are a few hobbies we get up to like writing historical novels, but if a woman's evolutionary drive to motherhood is thwarted, resentment is natural. Hence Mantel v Middleton.

Re Diana: The famous interview with the execrable Martin Bashir surprised me; Diana was one intelligent woman with a unique vantage point. She might have written wonderful, acerbic comic novels.

Wise words from another lady novelist, Alice Thomas Ellis, mother of seven: “Men love women, women love children; children love hamsters - there is no reciprocity."

Sam L. said...

"Do women find some special virtue in diminishing other women?" If not virtue, joy. Or amusement, fun, superiority, etc., etc.

CatherineM said...

Diana was 19 and sheltered when she became engaged to Charles, Kate 29 and worldly - that is difference enough! 19 year olds cry in public, make faces (and at 35 years old do so to manipulate the press in her favor in divorce). 30 year old emotionally healthy people like Kate do not. Plus, Charles proposed after 4 months to a teenager, William and Kate were together for 8 or 9 years when they wed at 29 (and friends before that). I don't know how people make a comparison. There is none.

I don't know why airing your dirty linen in public and embarrasing your family and in laws is a good thing. Kate all the way.

Dennis said...

One wonders whether Mantel's book sales were doing well. She would not be the first writer who created a situation like this to up their book sales, which this does seem to have done.
To ask the question is to answer it.

n.n said...

I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. ... she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. ... They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.

It's telling when someone chooses to reduce someone's life to the period of several years or a decade. It's degenerate when the criticism is directed to a fundamental responsibility of men and women.

What is the significance of human life and under what circumstances does it acquire value?

Does Mantel prefer homosexual behavior, unproductive heterosexual behavior, or does she simply envy women who are capable of discovering balance in their lives?

I have noticed that many people are confused about reality and elect to drown their anguish in the exploitation of people who they envy or hate.

Neither intelligence nor, apparently, a "distinguished and decorated writer," provide insight into individual character.

n.n said...


Do you think her condescension is merely a marketing ploy? That there may be an individual of integrity lurking beneath the intellectual detritus she publicly evinces?

I am growing impatient with men and women who presume to possess superior dignity, but who demonstrate the most base and undesirable traits of inferior, opportunistic cretins.

I am underestimating Mantel? She seems to be of the class who long ago lost mental coherence in the rarefied atmosphere of ivory towers.

Anyway, I just read an article in Time, which proclaimed the consequences of normalizing fanatical behaviors which constitute evolutionary dysfunction. They seem to believe it is an epiphany to notice that women who choose abortion, women and men who choose promiscuity, and others who are simply confused, are incompatible with evolutionary fitness.

Anonymous said...

Misanthropic. As per usual. And I'm sure she majored in the "humanities" at university, which are now anything but...

Can you imagine the dialogue... "No need for further human beings, to be sure. I should be aghast at the thought... Though I will be at the baby shower of my second cousin, twice removed. Wouldn't miss it. Not never. Smashing food, delightful tea, though the company is a bit tiring."

Shall we be honest about how upper-echelon feminine social competition usually rolls out? If the tart gets ahead or falls behind, let's just get on with it: behead her and move onto other amusements, shall we, mmmmmm?


Dennis said...


Far from it. That she would use condescension as a marketing ploy demonstrates a lack of moral standing. That to improve her book sales she would attack someone is classic elitism and what has become of liberalism.
It is what happens when there exists this idea that education denotes intelligence or superior intelligent. There are some ideas that are so lacking in scholarship and intelligence that the only place they can find a home is in academe. That those who populate academe actually think they are superior reminds on of the days when poets thought they were the only ones fit to lead and they were our betters. It is instructive how many of the supposed elites were first poets. Their love for humanity was only exceeded by their hate for human beings.
Education is a tool and it is how one uses it to improve one's, and maybe help others, that counts. I can read every book I know of to learn to swim, but until I get in the water I do not really know how to swim. Far too much intellectual drivel masquerading as fact.
This woman is only the next demonstration of the degradation of humanity for her own selfish desires.

n.n said...
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n.n said...


That was my impression as well. However, there is nothing new under the sun. Men and women have dreamed of material, physical, and ego instant gratification since time immemorial. Even the "new normal" of sacrificing human lives to preserve or consolidate wealth and welfare is not innovative. There are, apparently, quite a few people who will degrade themselves in order to gain leverage over their competing interests. This is the natural order untempered by morality, which is what we commonly describe as "evil."

Dennis said...

I am in the process of reading one of Taleb's books and he alludes to Voltaire doing much the same thing. It was Voltaire that I was thinking about at the moment when I wrote the first comment. Another excellent book is "Intellectuals" by Paul Johnson.
There is an old adage that people do what they want to do and then find a justification for it. One cannot separate the ideas that a man or woman have from the man or woman and how they actually lived their lives. Their ideas were predicated on their experiences.
Most of the heroes of the modern left were terrible human beings who treated other human beings as if they were just so much "dirt" and easily dispensed with. What we do today and how we treat others is built on the ideas of these people. I have always found it humorous that those who consider themselves our betters readily tout the ideas of "intellectuals" and are aghast when someone speaks the words of Jesus who lived the philosophy he preached as opposed to the hypocrisy of almost every "intellectual."
Inside of each individual are two people fighting to be in control. The one that wins is the one we feed the most and it does seem that we are feeding evil at the expense of the good we can become.

n.n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n.n said...


Judge each faith by the principles it engenders... and the reconcilable positions that it takes. That's the reason why I do not and cannot capriciously reject religion, including atheism and cults, or any other institution based on articles of faith.

As for "good", it's the same issue as "moral", they are both subjective and malleable. There are two objective (i.e. causative) orders: natural and enlightened (i.e. conscious). Typically, identifying a mutually reconcilable position with each and within each leads to the "good" or "moral" outcome. For example, with the former, we have evolutionary fitness, and the constraint that "not everyone will enjoy a beachfront property in Hawaii." With the latter, we have individual dignity, the opportunity to respect our own and others, and improve the quality and quantity of our lives.

Well, this is a broad topic, which in this virtual, framed context is likely better expressed through an evolutionary process. Besides, I am getting hungry and acceding to the natural order can never be denied, only delayed.