Hilary Mantel's precise, unkind words have been twisted into a "venomous" attack on Kate

If it's Team Mantel or Team Middleton, Sarah Ditum knows which side she's on...

There's an irresistible circularity in the Daily Mail making a front page story out of Hilary Mantel's sinuous essay on the public scrutiny of the Royals' most intimate bodies. 5,500 words of sharp, considered prose in the London Review of Books becomes a one line bitchfest on the cover of the Mail: "'A plastic princess designed to breed': Bring Up the Bodies author Hilary Mantel's venomous attack on Kate Middleton".

Though she never singles out the Mail by name, the Mail is one of the primary producers of the kind of Royal scrutiny Mantel anatomises. The Mail has tugged at the threads of every outfit that Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge has worn, hungrily anticipated her pregnancy from the moment she got married, sniffed at the fertile perfume of princessly nausea, and snorted derisively at the Middleton family – especially Kate's sister, who has been cast as both a grasping middle-class arriviste capitalising on her sudden accession to quality, and as the princess-a-like you can wank over without landing yourself in the Tower.

Mantel's essay is about that doubleness in the outwardly reverent attitude to royalty. "We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way," she writes, "making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all." She ends – not that you could possibly know this from the papers' retelling today – with a plea for Kate to be spared from the public's appetite for princess's bodies: "I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes." And for writing that, Mantel herself has to be cast as the brute.

In the retelling, we're even informed that Mantel "suggested Kate could have few complaints about private pictures of her being taken on holiday – observing: 'The royal body exists to be looked at.'" You only need compare that malformed quotation to the "back off and don't be brutes" line to see that it's a sheer sly distortion of Mantel's intent. But Mantel will recognise the technique, and so will anyone who's read her incandescent recreations of the political world of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall ("A rich and subtle wonder" – the Daily Mail) and Bring Up the Bodies ("Mantel's remarkable prose and turn of phrase … makes this a must-read" – the Daily Mail).

The Mail is playing the role of court prosecutor, assembling its case for treason the same way Thomas Cromwell does in the novels – shearing off a little of the truth here, elevating a select portion of it there, so that without ever telling an outright lie, it can turn the truth into something very unlike its original self. That's not to say, of course, that Mantel is just a sadly misrepresented purchaser of commemorative plates: she's too good a writer for the precise unkindness of her descriptions to be a slip. But Mantel's guillotine-sharp descriptions (the juxtaposition of Kate to Marie Antoinette is, again, not mere clumsiness) aren't aimed at the Duchess herself, but at the entire strange edifice of royalty and the public's bizarre relationship to it.

Of course, Mantel includes herself among the public: she makes herself its principal exemplar, catching herself in the act of consuming the Royal body when she has an encounter with the Queen:

I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones … And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at.

The Mail can't identify that mix of sympathy and savagery with its own methods (maybe because it only really has the savagery), so it alchemises Mantel's subtle critique into a woman-beware-woman narrative. Kate on the right, doe-eyed and beaming softly; Mantel on the left, middle-aged and round-faced, menacing the poor princess. Choose your side: Team Mantel or Team Middleton. Well, if the Mail insists. I've never been all that fond of well-behaved princesses anyway. I'm with Mantel.

 

Hilary Mantel. Portrait by Leonie Hampton for the New Statesman

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle