The Vagenda

Mantel vs Middleton: Bring Up The Bodies

Hilary Mantel and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge
Once upon a time, there was a radiant Duchess. Everybody loved her. Her hair was so shiny. Her bump was so neatly tucked away beneath a flimsy Max Mara dress that kept it clearly visible. Her hands were so neatly cupped beneath it. She smiled. She laughed. She flicked at the shiny hair when a light breeze threatened to ruffle it. She dreamed of being a mother.
That’s not why everybody loves her, just to be clear. She is also an intelligent woman who has a degree and many important, insightful opinions. But her hair does just happen to be so very, very shiny.
There was also a snooty novelist. Until recently we knew her for her prizes, her hefty books, without much interest in who she really was. Until this week, when we suddenly hated her, and for the first time began to examine her face. Her body. She didn’t look like the radiant Duchess. Her hair wasn’t shiny. She was infertile. She dreamed of being thin. 
Just to be clear. We don’t hate her because she is strange to look at, because she is childless, or even because she’s clever. We hate her because she hates the radiant Duchess. She is jealous and bitter, because she is not the fairest of them all.
And now the battle lines are drawn. The Duchess vs the Novelist. K-Middy vs H-Manbooker. Beauty vs the beast. How they must be spitting in fury, behind closed doors. 
We love a celebrity war. We always have. As Mantel tried to tell us, so artfully and so stylishly, in an article which sat on the LRB website for nearly a week before anyone screamed about it, we’ve been constructing these fictionalised battles for centuries. ‘Women beware women is a teaching that never falls out of fashion,’ she wrote. Those who misread her will no doubt have seen that as a warning: for women, against women. It isn’t. It is the teaching, not the women, she is warning us against.
There is no Anne Boleyn, as we know her from the portrait which isn’t her. Victoria probably was amused, sometimes. There is no Kate Middleton, radiant, plastic or otherwise, as we know her from the same newspapers now rushing to her manufactured defence. There is no vicious, vengeful Hilary Mantel. ‘Her real self is hidden within the dramas into which we co-opt her,’ Mantel wrote of Anne Boleyn.
The cult of celebrity rests on the fiction that we know these people. Their biographies, interviews, photographs, are a mirror which reflects the truth about them. But the truth is, we have invented fairytales, that walk and talk and give interviews, whilst behind the scenes the real people get on with the business of being themselves. 
The irony of comments like Louise Mensch’s, ‘Mantel has never met Kate, never spoken to her, but feels perfectly comfortable judging her character, “quirks” and her body’ alongside full-length pictures of the Radiant Duchess and ‘Grump vs. Bump’ headlines is breathtaking.
Mantel is well aware of how this all works. Of course she is. She’s a novelist. On seeing the Queen she wrote: ‘I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones… I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at’. She knows the machine intimately, its falsehoods and its chronic lack of context; now, inevitably, it’s turned upon her.
We own these alter egos right down to their cuff buttons. They are our household gods. It’s a dangerous thing, to attack them. To poke at that veneer of plausibility and find it has no substance. Once upon a time, we called it blasphemy.
Of course this isn’t reserved for women – I remember Paxman, in the height of Sachsgate, demanding of Russell Brand why he felt he was entitled to leave that message on an elderly man’s answer machine. He replied ‘Because I had forgotten he was an elderly man. I thought I was calling up Manuel.’
We can be equally capable of fictionalising men, but the narratives of fairytale are most often reserved for women, because they rest on appearances. Because we still equate a woman’s value and personality with her looks, her breeding potential, no matter how many prizes she has won. The beautiful princess, the evil queen, the ugly sisters. The witch. Lacy, sexy in stockings on page three, who reads Camus and dreams of being a surgeon. Ho, ho.
Needless to say, in the last few days Twitter has been awash with instructions for Hilary Mantel to look at herself in a mirror. The Mail informed us of the irrelevance that ‘Mantel’s treatment (for endometriosis) which included surgery, removing her womb, leaving her infertile, caused her to gain four stone’. That isn’t part of anyone’s fairytale.
But let’s be very clear: none of this is real. Kate’s perfection, Hilary’s venom, our collective outrage, the intellectual snobbery – it’s all a fiction. Their real selves are hidden, inevitably, infuriatingly.
What has really happened is that a writer has written an article. It’s a beautiful article about how we don’t really know the celebrity figures we think we know. We’ve never met them. We know their powerful alter egos, and we try to shoot them down at our peril. You can read it here.
That much, at least, is fact. 

11 thoughts on “Mantel vs Middleton: Bring Up The Bodies

  1. Have you actually read the LRB article in question? I’m so disappointed to have read this post on the Vagenda – not only have you apparently failed to understand Mantel’s point, you’ve stooped to insulting her face, infertility, and figure in order to disagree with her. Just to clear: following such comments with “We don’t hate her because she is strange to look at” doesn’t change the fact that you found her appearance relevant to the discussion, or that you were so full of vitriol for how she looks. Are we supposed to be impressed that you’re rising above her looks and hating her for other reasons?

    Here’s a quote from Mantel’s article:
    “…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.”

    She’s talking about the press portraying Kate as this perfect princess – those are the “certain rags” which are hung on her. Her point is that we think we know Kate; we think we have a right to judge her based on her outfits, her face and her shiny, shiny hair. Her point is that the media paints her a certain way based on how she looks, and no one bothers to think that there might be a person underneath there, not just a “shop-window mannequin”; we don’t bother to attribute her with a personality.

    Honestly, I don’t know whether I’m more disappointed that you jumped on the Hilary-hating bandwagon without thinking for yourself, or that you did it in such a disgusting way. Calling her “snooty”. Complaining that “Her hair wasn’t shiny. She was infertile.” (How is her fertility relevant? Like, at all?) Snide comments like “She dreamed of being thin.” and hidden insults like “We don’t hate her because she is strange to look at”.

    Go and read the original article. It’s far better than this post.

  2. Unfortunately, I think you’ve made the mistake of reading this article with a serious rather than sarcastic tone. This article makes fun of the idiocy of Hilary-hating and the fetishising of Kate (‘shiny, shiny hair’ vs totally irrelevant mentions of endometriosis.) And yep, we’ve read the original article, which is why we commissioned this piece. Please do read over it again in the spirit in which it was meant, because the last thing we’d do is actually jump on that totally shite bandwagon.

  3. Ha, sorry, got on my little high horse there, didn’t I? Just so INFURIATED by all this Hilary v Kate shite that seemingly reasonable people are spouting without taking any account of context. Glad you’re not joining them ;-)

  4. I think the key point- the best point is that we don’t know any of these personalities, and secondly a point which was less made is that there is a certain amount of complicity in this by both celebrities. Mantel has written about her hatred of her body etc and kate no doubt has agreed t othe “image creation” to an or a full extent. so whilst Pr and press have their role, the creation of an image and persona is also a way to protect oneself.


  5. The tone is perfectly clear, elegant and a worthy contribution to the foray .. It seems that no matter how much people try to illuminate what is trying to be said, many more still see what they want to see.

  6. Irony can often be lost without a body language accompanying it…
    Good article, though.
    Not living in the UK, I had no knowledge of this “controversy”. Thanks for the link to the original LRB article (it’s excellent reading).

  7. Why does “the Vagenda Team” feel the need to write back to every commenter who criticises them with this level self-righteousnous?? The comments on this site are usually courteous and often point out valid criticisms (not sure I agree with this particular one, but that’s beside the point). Rather than respond to people with a genuine view to having a discussion, the Vagenda Team always writes back in a snooty tone. You should show more courtesy to your readership, Vagenda Team, and also you might consider engaging with some of your detractors in a genuine “let’s have a discussion” way, rather than always getting on your high horse.

  8. This one just attempted to correct a misreading of our intent – usually, we just leave critical points for others to add in to and discuss. There really wasn’t much to discuss here apart from saying that the article was ironic, rather than serious, at the beginning. I can’t speak for all other additions into other articles (because it’s not always me who replies!) but in this case, I really don’t see the harm in or the ‘snootiness’ in agreeing with the commenter that the Mantel-hating thang was a “totally shite bandwagon” to hop on to, and clarifying that we wouldn’t want to be seen to be doing it. However, we will keep your thoughts in mind for the future.

  9. I have to defend the Vagenda team, here – I think both of their comments above are perfectly courteous. Let’s also remember that writing is a vulnerable thing to do; it’s hard to maintain composure at all times – or avoid offending occasionally in the name of humour. I would also assert that I don’t tend to find their comments self-righteous, anyway. They’re doing an important job, fabulously well – let’s all cut ourselves some slack.

  10. Thanks for linking to Hilary Mantel’s excellent article, she has a very god point about Kate (why do people still call her Kate Middleton by the way? Is she a feminist who hasn’t taken her husband’s name, or are people refusing the call her by her title?), and everyone should really be able to see that the poor woman doesn’t really have a choice in this. I really can’t understand the whole furore, Mantel’s not criticizing the Duchess, but just clearly stating facts.
    I did like the tongue-in-cheek tone of your article :)

  11. I am very thankful for this article although I can’t understand all of it because I don’t really know much about these two persons. I’m not interested in celebreties in general and even less into the royal family. I’m German and we mostly find this whole thing very ridiculous. But anyway I sometimes thought about how intelligent Kate Middelton may be. I consider much more than it is usually presented in public but I think it might be the conservative media and public who wants to make a difference between intelligence and beauty, especially if it is about a female member of the royal family and a young one. It’s the same thing you can experience when you are a “normal” young woman who has not yet achieved a high professional position – like me who is still a student. When I was doing a guided tour through a museum’s exhibition I recognized that one beautiful, older (and probably rich) woman was so angry at me for being in the position to tell her something about the artwork she (or her husband) can afford. This made me at first very angry, then disappointed and sad because I didn’t really realize before how much is still to be done in order to achieve real equality for men and women. I like your blog for pointing to these little daily issues which deal directly or more subtle with this injustice. Thank you for being more aware.