Oh what a mighty calumny Hilary Mantel has caused. Her ravishing, slightly odd, fastidious, eloquent, essay on suits, frocks, fabrics and royal bodies in the London Review of Books would have been a good read. Now that the Daily Mail has spiked her, it is a must read.
So, her remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, having been designed by committee, and Mantel’s ruminations on royal gynaecology has gone viral. Marvellous.
Mantel doesn’t, of course, say anything horrid. She merely points out what we all know, that Kate Middleton has been finished: finessed, drilled, dressed. She will be perfect. She will be adroitly, vacantly, nice. The royal family’s scalding experience of earlier, unruly recruits into the firm – Fergie and Diana, mother of Middleton’s husband William – made any other option intolerable and to be avoided whatever the cost.
Mantel’s LRB piece is a rumination on what she knows so well – royal bodies: What they wear, how they rustle around space, how they are produced, how they are penetrated; and how they are seen – to repeat George III’s mantra they must be seen, above all be seen.
Mantel argues that the purpose of the royal body is to breed. Yes. But there is more. Being seen is not just about being visible – indeed it is hardly that – and I don’t really share Mantel’s observation that we stare at royalty to find antiquity, to find the special.
When we stare aren’t we searching for something else? Aren’t we struggling with that paradox of monarchism, the evidence that they are not so much immortal as merely mortal? Aren’t we searching for something about them that is human?
That, finally is the problem: our democracy warrants their sovereignty and yet we worry about the price THEY pay. Not the price we pay for their indulgences; not the price we pay for our compromised, unfinished democracy, for our abjection as subjects rather than citizens.
No, the price they pay for the seeming pointlessness of their privilege, what Mantel describes as the airy enclosure that is always a cage.
The paradox is that when they show their humanity they are in trouble. Being seen in the royal firmament is never to show their humanity, it is about the parade as propaganda: it is about being seen as superior, as sovereign.