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Hilary Mantel and the duchess’s new clothes

I was present for the author's so-called "attack" on the Duchess of Cambridge. It was nothing of the sort.

"Venomous" was how the Daily Mail chose to describe Hilary Mantel’s so-called attack on the Duchess of Cambridge, in which the celebrated, Booker-winning author supposedly dismissed Kate Middleton as a “plastic princess”. Other papers joined in, and even the Prime Minister clucked disapprovingly. Mantel’s words were, he said, “hurtful” and “completely wrong”. The crime that inspired all this outrage? Mantel delivered an hour-long lecture on 4 February, since republished in the London Review of Books, on the subject of “royal bodies” and dared to wonder whether Britain should still have a monarchy.

Not only was the lecture, running to some 5,500 words, a subtle and precise exploration of the subject (I was present for it) but it was in no way venomous. I sat in the audience that evening marvelling at Mantel’s knowledge of her subject and the honesty of her argument. As in her fiction, she was incisive to the point of cruelty and expected her listeners to keep up with her; as she told the New Statesman’s Sophie Elmhirst last year, “You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page.” But she was never malicious.

Sadly, it’s not unusual for someone with a complex and nuanced set of ideas to have their words slyly twisted after the fact. Yet what is interesting about Mantel’s case is that it was done in a way that demonstrated exactly the point she was making.

Her central thesis was concerned with how we scrutinise and sacrifice our royal women. Discussing Marie Antoinette, Anne Boleyn, the Queen, Diana and the Duchess of Cambridge, she advanced a hypothesis for how royal women’s public personas are constructed and sustained entirely from the outside. It was in this context that she described Kate as “a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung” and spoke of the duchess’s “only point and purpose being to give birth”.

Like it or not, royal women have always been wombs on legs. We just now happen to live in an age in which it is finally becoming unacceptable to consider any woman, royal or otherwise, as an ambulatory incubator for future children. In spite of this, the essential purpose of royal womanhood remains unchanged – it is the tension between the two that Mantel was exploring.

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. However, as befits her calm and lucid lecturing style, she didn’t point fingers or name names. She has more class than that.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion