Hilary Mantel vs. Kate Middleton: A Royal Freakout, Explained

Esther Zuckerman

The Brits are in a tizzy over comments made by Hilary Mantel, the Man Booker Prize-winning author Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, about "doll" princess Kate Middleton. While the comments are biting—Mantel has a way with words—shouldn't everyone just calm down a little and look at what's actually being said here? Let's examine. 

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The Origin

Mantel gave a lecture for the London Review of Books, which can be read in full here, about the concept of "the royal body." This happened two weeks ago, according to Hadley Freeman at The Guardian. In the lecture Mantel explained how if she had to give a book to a famous person she would give Middleton Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution. It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth. 

As she continues to compare Middleton to both Antoinette and Diana she says: 

But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished.

She added of Middleton's—admittedly weird—portrait: 

She looks like a nicely brought up young lady, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ part of her vocabulary. But in her first official portrait by Paul Emsley, unveiled in January, her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off.

Those are the choice parts that are causing the freakout (also: Mantel calls Middleton "as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character"), but it's worth looking at the whole lecture. Mantel put Middleton in the context of royals, specifically the Tudors and Anne Boleyn, and looked at how royals are perceived as blood lines and babymakers: "We have arrived at the crux of the matter: a royal lady is a royal vagina." In her last comment Mantel actually pleaded for civility in our obsession: "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."

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The Opposition

Today's Daily Mail cover (via) kind of says it all: 

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In the Telegraph Emma Barnett writes that Mantel's comments are "are not only unfounded, but incredibly cheap." The head of the charity Action on Addition, for which Middleton is a patron, countered: "I can only speak of what I know, and having met the Duchess several times I find her to be engaging, natural and genuinely interested in the subject." (Middleton visited a residential treatment center run by that charity today, prompting coos over her baby bump.)

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Even David Cameron has lept to Middleton's defense, saying that while Mantel "writes great books" her comments were "completely misguided." Others on Twitter attacked Mantel right back: 

Hilary Mantel portrays Duchess as a 'shop window mannequin’ bit.ly/12FfQTL <Trying to sell more books by any chance #NastyWoman

— Kulgan of Crydee (@KulganofCrydee) February 19, 2013

Hilary Mantel: Kate Is A 'Plastic Princess' Hilary mantel needs a slap.news.sky.com/story/1053879/…

— Alex (@lexjah) February 19, 2013

The Defense

Mantel has not only been the subject of criticism. Members of the literary community have rushed to her defense. The New Yorker's Lauren Collins said on Twitter: 


— Lauren Collins (@laurenzcollins) February 19, 2013

She added:

If Windsors, self-mythologizers nonpareil, can profit as historical "characters," surely a novelist can consider them novelistically, too

— Lauren Collins (@laurenzcollins) February 19, 2013

ANYHOW, Mantel's lecture, as anyone who reads it will learn, was ultimately a plea for restraint

— Lauren Collins (@laurenzcollins) February 19, 2013

Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman, also had words of praise:

Anyone who's not read the Mantel piece - I suspect this includes the Prime Minister - it's here, sane, and beautiful: bit.ly/15b2ONp

— Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) February 19, 2013

More chimed in:

Here's Hilary Mantel's piece on Kate Middleton: lrb.co.uk/v35/n04/hilary… Not only has media misrepresented it, PM clearly didn't read either

— Sunny Hundal (@sunny_hundal) February 19, 2013

The Hilary Mantel essay goo.gl/GEZzi while it doesn't flatter Kate, is a very thoughtful look at how we see and judge the monarchy

— Paul Lewis (@paullewismoney) February 19, 2013

Freeman at The Guardian sums it up: 

It is worth looking at what is going on here. Lazy journalism, clearly, and raging hypocrisy, obviously: what has any paper done with Kate for the past decade but use her as decorative page filler?