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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Is there a Guardian bias on Radio 4's Broadcasting House program?

Call me paranoid, but I've long had my suspicions – and this line-up cast all doubts aside.

I’ve long wondered, on and off, whether I was just being paranoid about the flurries of bias on the Sunday-morning magazine programme Broadcasting House in favour of the Guardian Media Group, but in recent weeks I have not been sure I am. Take the edition of 17 April, when the newspaper reviewers were the ­actor Tom Conti, Gareth McLean (the Guardian journalist) and Katharine Whitehorn (the veteran Guardian journalist and Observer columnist).

Conti, talking amusedly about Brexit (“It’s like walking through a forest with a wilderness of tigers”), kicked off the discussion with a tremendous rustling, as though spreading the article across the whole studio. “Well, in the Observer on page five . . .” He was immediately followed by Whitehorn: “That isn’t the only thing in the Observer about this, because my own column in the magazine makes the point that . . .” Changing the subject to the return of Game of Thrones, McLean then said, “There’s a nice piece in the Observer . . . loads of facts and figures, and some nice reporting done.”

I’m sure there was, but if the BBC’s radar remains broadly Guardian-esque in its political direction (and was ever thus), it doesn’t half sound snug.

The following week, the press reviewers were the conservatoire principal Julian Lloyd Webber, the former rear admiral Chris Parry and the journalist Sali Hughes – of the Guardian. Lloyd Webber began the newspaper review, talking down the line from Birmingham about the frustrations of everything being centred around London. “Well, the Observer has three pages on how people living outside London view our capital city . . .” He was followed directly by Hughes, commenting on a story about immunisation: “In the Observer there’s a story about how pro-vaccination campaigns in America . . .” After which Parry recommended: “There’s a very good article by Will Hutton in the Observer.” None of what was discussed was objectionable – but the comfiness was. A creeping insularity being presented as a nice, interesting chat, as even-handedness, when actually it’s what can start to feel like a rock-hard centre-left world-view. An eye must be kept on it, is all I’m saying.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred