The text of Hilary Mantel’s speech “Undressing Anne Boleyn,” published in the Feb. 21 edition of the London Review of Books as “Royal Bodies,” has already drawn backlash from the British Press for the two-time Booker Prize-winning author’s comments on Kate Middleton, duchess of Cambridge.
In the piece, Mantel refers to the duchess as “a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung” and “a shop-window mannequin” with a “plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished.”
The job of the duchess, Mantel writes, is to be admired and bear children. She goes on to characterize Middleton and other female royals as “basically breeding stock,” using two words bound to cause discomfort: “We have arrived at the crux of the matter: a royal lady is a royal vagina.”
No one would expect such remarks to pass by unnoticed, reasonable as Mantel’s suggestion might be that what the public wants from Middleton is a nice-looking body and a royal child, just as it wanted these things from Anne Boleyn. But the author’s comments have been troubling enough that British Prime Minister David Cameron was moved Tuesday morning to interrupt a trip to India to rise to the duchess’ defense, stating that Mantel was “completely wrong” and that while she "writes great books,” “what she’s said about Kate Middleton is completely misguided.”
The Daily Mail called Mantel’s article a “scathing attack,” while Jake Wallis in the Telegraph described her remarks as “creepy” and in “poor taste.” Twitter was ablaze with indignant commentary as well, disparaging Mantel’s “vicious,” “venomous,” and “withering” “rant.”
The problem with this reaction is that it almost universally misreads the speech itself. Mantel is, in fact, describing the way female royalty is seen by the media and the public at large as “a body to be looked at”: witness the recent to-do over Middleton’s pregnant bikini pics being published by Chi magazine and that dead-eyed official portrait in which she does, indeed, look plastic.
It’s not Mantel who makes the duchess into a doll but the thousands of “baby bump” photos in the British (and American) press, targeted at starers and gawkers who, Mantel suggests, view the royal womb not as a human attribute but as an item of personal interest.
Her speech cautions that this attitude, in the end, gives birth to a sacrificial body that’s construed as somewhat less than human, even by a public that pretends to believe it’s “above” them. The well-written speech offers Boleyn and Henry VIII’s reproductive issues and Richard III’s twisted corpse as tokens but dwells above all on Diana, she who “went into the underpass to be reborn, but reborn this time without a physical body: the airy subject of a hundred thousand photographs.”
Although she appears to be driving poor thin Kate further away from humanity by criticizing how neatly she has fit into the body-shaped hole that’s been prepared for her, Mantel uses this image to warn the public of the fine line between curiosity and cruelty, asking, finally, that “we back off and not be brutes.”