I wrote a piece in the magazine a couple of weeks ago about Hilary Mantel’s apparently “venomous” attack on the Duchess of Cambridge – I attended the lecture that inspired all the outrage, and it was nothing of the sort. The whole affair, I felt, said far more about the media’s approach to women in general and royal women in particular than it did about Mantel’s supposed malice:
It’s hard to accept the outrage about Mantel’s “hurtful attack”, coming as it does from the same media outlets that daily train their cameras on the duchess’s stomach, revelling voyeuristically in any hint of rotundity. Royal women are and always have been a vehicle for our petty prejudices and problems, and in the case of the Duchess of Cambridge much of this emanates from the very publication that was so eager to traduce Mantel.
Now, Mantel has appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves and reflected on what it was like having her words extracted from their context and splashed all over the front of the tabloids. She told Anne McElvoy that she felt there was no simple misunderstanding – she was “deliberately misunderstood”, and I agree with her. She also made the point that as a writer and lecturer of many years experience, she’s pretty precise about saying what she means, so there was no inadvertance about it.
Most importantly, though, she remains unapologetic – quite rightly, since there is nothing for her to apologise for. It’s bad enough that we have to put up with the way the media treats the Duchess of Cambridge (constantly training their lenses on her stomach and analysing the way she folds her hands). It would be worse if one of our most celebrated authors felt she had to apologise for a subtle, nuanced, insightful critique of the situation.
You can listen to the interview here, and I’ve transcribed it as well below.
Anne McElvoy: You’ve been in the news recently for some of your comments about the Duchess of Cambridge, some of the language you used when you referred to her in an essay on royal bodies – a “shop window mannequin without risk of emerging character”. They were taken as very negative and there was a strong adverse reaction to that. What do you think about it now?
Hilary Mantel: My lecture and subsequent essay was actually supportive of the royal family and when I used those words about the Duchess of Cambridge, I was describing the perception of her that has been set up in the tabloid press. My speech ended with a plea to the press and the media in general - I said: “Back off and don’t be brutes. Don’t do to this young woman what you did to Diana.” My whole theme was the way we maltreat royal persons making them at once superhuman and yet less than human. It was a plea for the consideration of human feeling.
AE: It wasn’t understood that way, was it?
HM: It was deliberately misunderstood. I don’t believe for a moment that there was any lack of clarity. After all I have been practising my trade for a number of years now, and what I say, I mean to say, and if I introduce an ambiguity, it’s meant to be there. It was a matter of taking the words completely out of context, twisting the context, and setting me up as a hate figure.
AE: But when you got that reaction, did you think “Ooo, it may have come across as cruel to her and I didn’t intend that.” Did you have any regrets?
HM: I have absolutely no regrets at all. What I said was crystal clear. Anyone who takes the trouble to read the essay, which is easily available online, will see that it is a nuanced argument but always a clear argument. And of course most of my speech had nothing to do with teh Duchess of Cambridge at all. It was about the Tudors and it was just a question of taking a few lines and using them for a pretty evil purpose.
AE: You don’t feel you should apologise to her?
HM: I have absolutely nothing to apologise for. And I do think that the Duchess of Cambridge is an intelligent young women, and if she cares to read my essay she’ll see that I meant nothing but good to her.