Most of what I know of Hilary Mantel is via Wolf Hall, her novel on the rise of Thomas Cromwell. This should be regarded as knowing very little - Mantel’s text is a self effacing attempt to get inside Cromwell’s head. If you can tell anything though, it’s that Mantel is keen on the intellectual legwork of research, intelligent enough to employ that research judiciously, exacting in her use of language and something of an expert on the royalty of this era. She’s also never particularly been one to deliberately court controversy.
Which is why reports of her ‘attacking’ the Duchess of Cambridge were, to say the least, eyebrow raising. Kate Middleton (or is that Windsor now?) had hardly done anything particularly offensive. And yet the Daily Mail informed us via its front page that Mantel had described her as a ‘mannequin’ with a ‘painfully plastic smile’, ‘’a jointed doll on which certain rags were hung'. Which struck me as rather fiercer criticism than Mantell’s noted for. So, faced with a Daily Mail front page and words which seemed out of character I did exactly what any sensible reader would’ve done – I went back to the original text to see what had been said. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the art of selective quotation with intention to misrepresent was still being practised in Fleet Street. What Mantel had actually presented was a considered attempt to put Middleton in context of royal wives which asked pertinent questions of how she was treated by the modern media. It asks questions of those institutions, their aims and the methods they use to achieve them, but it’s careful to avoid personal insult. After all, as Mantel points out, the image being constructed is a bland one designed to smooth out any interesting character defects so it’s hardly as if there’s much material for a critic of Mantel’s substance to get her teeth into there. Her conclusions could certainly be engaged with and questioned depending on viewpoint, but anyone with the thought and intelligence to read what had actually been written and then engage with the piece could quite clearly see how the Mail had cherry picked a few phrases to misrepresent the piece.
It’s fairly obvious why the Mail went after Mantel – in a charitable interpretation the paper is shallow and violently pro-monarchist and royals sell papers so any implicit criticism of the House of Windsor can be jumped on like a rabid pitbull on steroids. Less charitably it draws attention to the obvious chasms of consistency in the Mail’s morality, the gap between the near Victorian prudishness of Paul Dacre’s editorial line* and the website which encourages drooling over adolescent girls. I’m aware that the website and paper are essentially run as two different business operations but given both use the same brand it’s hardly a distinction the Mail itself would make if on the attack. In royal terms it’s not the worst offender in terms of what it’s willing to print, but then acting piously out of a desire to curry favour with royalty is hardly a commendable virtue. So distracting from Mantel’s words and drawing their venom to use against her is hardly any sort of surprise.
Even if, as Mantel has pointed out, the text has been up on the LRB site for six days and much of the content was aired at last year's Hay Festival.
What’s fascinated me about the whole affair has been the echo chamber effect caused by the Mail story. The story quickly gained an echo chamber in the right wing press, particularly in a certain Murdoch tabloid and the Telegraph, and before the Mail’s trumped up charges could be answered they’d been amplified to a point where Mantel was close to treason. This should be regarded as a valuable public service as it exposing a whole host of writers, pundits and politicians not worth taking notice of as they couldn’t be bothered with basic research. Most egregiously David Cameron opined that Mantel was ‘completely wrong’. Take a moment to think about that. A man educated at two of the most highly regarded educational institutions in the country has denounced an informed opinion as wrong. In fairness, despite the criticism of the eternally loud malcontents on the Tory backbenches, the post of Prime Minister is an exceptionally busy one and he was a continent away in India, so it’s be a bit much to expect him to familiar with the nuance of this case, yet it’s notable how he didn’t engage with the comments but resorted to the ‘isn’t she wonderful’ defence. I wouldn’t expect a sitting Prime Minister to do anything but defend the monarchy (to do otherwise would make those regular Royal appointments interesting to say the least) yet there was no substance. Most basically, unless it’s derived from factual error or omission and uncorrected, it’s difficult for an opinion to be wrong (though of course it’s quite within reason to disagree, though it pays to be informed in this). A copy of Mantel’s speech should disabuse Cameron of any notice of her being uninformed. More damningly Cameron was willing to condemn without investigating the specifics of the situation – a man who’s worked in PR should surely be aware of the danger of such mistakes? And lastly was there actually any substance to his attempted refutation of Mantel’s criticisms? Of course not as he wasn’t actually engaging with them. The Duchess didn’t need defending as she hadn’t actually been attacked, except in passing. I’m admittedly picking on a politician who’s rarely impressed me here, but as with Mantel the criticism is more of the willingness of politicians to provide instant soundbites even if not fully aware of the details of what they’re commenting on. There’s a good reason blandness is a fairly wise default position for more experienced political operators – sometimes what seems the safest ground can turn to quicksand underneath you.
Quite aside from nimbly dodging Mantel’s attack the Mail’s piece has also skilfully turned criticism of the notion of royalty into something that’s strengthened the institution, and it’s done this by taking what Mantell sees as a major flaw and pointing it out as something we should all be admiring. Is the Duchess a good, hardworking and pleasant looking ambassador for our country? Matter of opinion really. And, whatever the Mail’s sensationalist treatment of it, Mantell is entitled to hers – it’s not mandatory to believe the Royal Family are a wondrous, unquestionable institution**. If anything the Mail’s shrill dogwhistling only weakens the institution. If it’s fit to survive an institution should be able to survive questions regarding the fitness of its attitudes and practices. Yet much of the response has been an exhortation to stop thinking and instead marvel at what we have. This, if anything, weakens the institution as it leaves questions unengaged with and therefore unanswered. And unanswered questions have a nasty habit of hanging around, turning into cracks in foundations. I’m not for one moment suggesting that what’s a relatively minor flurry will bring down the royal edifice, though an accumulation of unanswered criticism may. Currently though, as with the life of her most famous subject, Mantell appears to be discovering what it’s like when the favour of a conservative establishment goes against you.
* It’d be wonderful if someone would selectively quote Paul Dacre from one of his editorial meetings. Reputedly a Tarantino rewrite of the opening of Four Weddings And A Funeral would be more fitting for public consumption from the Mail’s puritanical viewpoint.
** Post-Diana, quite the opposite if anything.