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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

55

This Winter's Required Reading

A single article, which combines monarchy and the physical ailments of the long-dead and the idea of celebrity and the nature of female visibility and sexuality and ownership in one majestic sweep. Hilary Mantel's "Royal Bodies". GO, read. Argue! Read it twice before dinner and once after. Today I like it, tomorrow I may hate it, but I am ABSORBED nonetheless.

The Independent has it all wrong, for the record. Mantel may say Kate Middleton is plastic and has dead eyes, but, amazingly, you must trust me when I assure you it is with the deepest kindness that she says it. Or, don't trust me, because when I woke up this morning I discovered The Guardian had already explained it.



55 Comments / Post A Comment

Jolie Kerr

I just sent this to you. After seeing it on Philippa Gregory's Facebook page because of course. (And of course you're the smart one in the family who read about it in a newspaper.)

Nicole Cliffe

Never apologize for getting your news from Philippa Gregory's Facebook page. I saw the Guardian link because I was reading reviews of "The Thick of It."

Heidi

@Jolie Kerr PHILIPPA GREGORY'S FACEBOOK PAGE? WHY AM I NOT FOLLOWING IT. OMG.
Also, this is amazing, and I have thoughts and feelings and love about it, but first I have to go LIKE Philippa Gregory's facebook.

Megan@twitter

If Mantel insulted anyone, it was Diana.

stephanieboland

@Megan@twitter Nah, mate. She's lampooning the media's view of Diana and the public excess surrounding her.

Amphora

I'm with this Guardian commenter: the media reaction is "Sheer stupidism at work," creating a controversy where none exists. Ironically, Mantel has been victimized by the yellow journalists she's inveighing against (am I wrong for thinking the Independent should be better than that?)

Amphora

Also so many quotable lines: "that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken."

Amphora

And this:
"I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage."

RK Fire

@Amphora That was my favorite part of her speech as well! It's incredible.

TheBourneApproximation

@Amphora

I am perpetually amazed at how poor reading comprehension can be among people who are supposed to be adults.

The British press is like an idiot commenting on a blog: read the goddamn article before you post your stupid comments!

Amphora

@TheBourneApproximation I'm not giving the press the benefit of the doubt: they're cynically fabricating a story and using Kate Middleton and Hilary Mantel's names to bring in readers.

teaandcakeordeath

@Amphora
This whole article just proves how important is for understanding the context of what someone is saying before pulling out inflammatory quotes. Ironic then that Mantell ends with:
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.

carolinaclay

This is everything.@y

anachronistique

I was almost late for work because I was trying to finish reading this piece before I left.

HMSBeagle

@anachronistique I was saving this for after work so I have a chance of being productive today.

queenofbithynia

I don't know about all this, I feel that I cannot possibly trust the arguments and observations of someone who writes so well.

themegnapkin

@queenofbithynia really? I feel like Hilary Mantel's brain is so big and her writing so genius, I cannot possibly question her arguments and observations. I mean, of course I *can*, but I'm pretty sure I'd be wrong.

queenofbithynia

@themegnapkin Basically yes! The one part that rang entirely and easily false was when she implied in passing that the public had only just turned against poor Prince Harry (also implied: undeservedly) when in point of fact everyone has hated that creep since the Nazi Costume days of yore, haven't we?

But the rest of it is written so well as to make the truth or falsity of her interpretations more or less irrelevant -- it is the sort of writing where you say, well, she may be right and she may be wrong about the particulars, but it's true about human nature, so who cares? I am trying to train myself to care. It is hard because my natural instinct is always to care more about beauty than truth.

I am definitely going to read her novels sooner now than I was going to anyway, so that's good.

queenofbithynia

@queenofbithynia

Also, I am afraid that any criticism of her line of reasoning would only end up making her point for her, since I would effectively be saying that she is using these royal (certainly) humans (possibly) as stretched and bleached canvases to forcefully scrawl ideology all over, to which anyone could respond, but that's what she said. Still!

It makes me think of the most beautiful writing there is about royalty, which is in the beginning of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon when Rebecca West describes the film of the assassination of the king of Yugoslavia:

Now King Alexander is driving down the familiar streets, curiously unguarded, in a curiously antique car. It can be seen from his attempt to make his stiff hand supple, from a careless flash of his careful black eyes, it can be seen that he is taking the cheers of the crowd with a childish seriousness. It is touching, like a girl putting full faith in the compliments that are paid to her at a ball. Then his preoccupation veils his brows and desiccates his lips. He is thinking of Yugoslavia again, with the nostalgia of an author who has been interrupted in writing his new book. [...]

There are pages of this, it's all incredible. What is also incredible is that you can look up the same archival footage of his death and see exactly what Rebecca West saw. Or actually, you can see none of it, because she made it all up. It is pretty stunning. All the Hilary Mantel stuff about Diana and Kate is sort of in this tradition, I think, and it is great writing with great thought in it but it is not in the business of making very many factual statements, only just a few, and should not be misread in that fashion, I should say.

themegnapkin

@queenofbithynia that is so interesting! I don't have time to think this through right now, but I will read the article again and re-evaluate.

martinipie

Ugh this is so FANTASTIC and I love it and I love things about bodies and public perception of bodies and how women's public bodies are porous and I wrote a 20 page paper on Woolf and porous bodies and my thesis had a porous body and aaaaaa academic bliss! Okay done with my raving

teaandcakeordeath

@martinipie
Erm ... please dont be too done with your raving as that all sounds fascinating and I'd like to hear you rave some more!

EKPinc

"She enjoyed only the romances of Barbara Cartland. I’m far too snobbish to have read one, but I assume they are stories in which a wedding takes place and they all live happily ever after."

I hate it when people are to snobbish to read something -- even in jest(?)

skyslang

@EKPinc I agree. but give her props for admitting it.

3penny

Alison Weir promises via the tweeters to post a riposte. Since Weir hypothesized in one of her madly readable Tudor histories that Anne B. suffered from Rh incompatibility, resulting in her multiple post-Elizabeth miscarriages, and never mentiond the Schrodinger's goiter that Mantel describes, I am hoping for historian cage match of rare scope. Hypothyroidism! Spanish ambassador misrepresentation! Anne of Cleves wuz robbed! Let's get ready to rrrrrrumble!

BethroTull

@3penny Is there a particular book of hers you recommend? I just finished Bring Up the Bodies last night and loved it. I'm intrigued by the possibility of the Rh incompatibility and all the other craziness you mention.

Amphora

@BethroTull I tried to read the Captive Queen after Wolf Hall and it was like following up filet mignon with cotton candy. Sugary fluffy dreck (sincerely hoping her nonfiction is better!)

3penny

@BethroTull Her biography of Elizabeth is fantastic (oh, E's death is wrenching), and her bios of Henry VII (she's got one that focuses on the wives and one that treats them more peripherally) really draw a complicated, interesting picture of him as a ruler. I haven't read any of her fiction, but I think she uses narratives well to help describe historical figures in a way that's easy to follow.

Mantel is strong drink; almost anything, set in period or out, would seem light by comparison. But for historical context, yes, I would recommend some of Weir's nonfiction.

par_parenthese

I read the Daily Mail sometimes for gossip (I know, I know, I'm duly ashamed of myself) and their take on this was... let's say slightly more sensationalistic. Which I'm sure comes as a shock.

londonienne

@par_parenthese The Daily Mail is my guilty pleasure too but I stayed clear yesterday. Was it as reductive as "old, fat, childless woman slags off young, thin, pregnant woman"?

skyslang

I find her denigration of Kate Middleton and her aggrandizement of Diana problematic. She's speaking in SUCH extremes. Kate is a wooden doll. Diana was some sort of fleshy goddess.
I don't see anything nuanced or intelligent about this characterization. It's flat and barely more nuanced and interesting than the celebrity journalists she's railing against.
I don't think that was her point, either. This isn't written as satire. As satire, it might work.

par_parenthese

@skyslang Aggrandizement of Diana? I didn't see that at all. It was more like Diana-as-Wild-Card, Kate-as-Known-Quantity, IMO.

skyslang

@par_parenthese This sounds pretty grand to me:
"Diana was more royal than the family she joined. That had nothing to do with family trees. Something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity, fitted her to be the carrier of myth. She came near to claiming that she had a healing touch, the ancient attribute of royal persons. The healing touch can’t be felt through white gloves. Diana walked bare-handed among the multitude, and unarmed: unfortified by irony, uninformed by history."

Oh, squiggles

@skyslang I think she was writing about Kate and Diana as media figures and royalty, not as real people. Because, and this is the point I think she was trying to make, that's all we will ever know. Taking real people and turning them into an idea of a person. We do that with celebrities all the time, where their media persona, the public perception of who they are ends up being larger and more impact-full then whoever they really are.

TheBourneApproximation

@skyslang

Isn't that kind of the point, though? She's talking about Kate and Diana as public property, personas created by things like tabloid journalism. Like @par_parenthese says, Kate provides a completely inscrutable, reliable, and "machine-like" contrast to Diana's more unreliable and often uncomfortable fit with the intrusive gaze of the press. It's not about the women themselves - it's about their bodies, public ownership, and the concept of the monarch.

martinipie

@skyslang I agree with the other commenters--Mantel is not expressing her own feeling toward Diana, but the public perception of her, which was certainly much more princess-y, mythologized, and adored than any other member of the royal family at that time were. She was a fairytale, the rest of them were boring to the Brits and still rather are.

par_parenthese

@skyslang Sure, but I think that's the idea. So the media built Diana up as this goddess, this supernatural creature, this Amazon, this receptacle for all of Britain's fantasies. I don't think Mantel is saying she WAS a goddess, but that that's how she was perceived, or how she was created.

queenofbithynia

@skyslang It isn't grand at all when it comes with this long and learned disquisition about what being a royal woman really means, the dangers and indignities of being a publicly-owned breeding vessel and a concentration symbol for various resentments. "Royal" is no more complimentary an adjective than passive or receptive, other descriptors Mantel uses for her. Royal, in this context, = "carrier of myth" and the myth Diana carried was that of a sacrificial animal.

skyslang

@queenofbithynia That's a very astute reading. It's not necessarily a positive image of Diana that Mantel is creating here.
I would go back and edit my first comment to replace "aggrandize" with "mythologize".

I would still argue that her descriptions of Diana and Kate are her own and not the press' or the public's. In her time, especially the early pre-divorce years, Diana was treated much as Kate is now: as a pretty, perfect fashion plate. The similarities are remarkable. She didn't get the tragic treatment until after she died. So, ok, maybe Mantel is only writing about the late Diana story.
However, the way she speaks of Kate is surely her own. This is not the voice of the press or the public. This is Mantel's perception.

harebell

@skyslang
but... she's being ironic about Diana. She's criticizing how we mythologize these figures, not trying to mythologize them herself or even talking about them as actual people -- because her point is that we can only know the media representations of them, not them themselves, and that there is a big chasm in between.

skyslang

@harebell Is the criticizing it? Is she being ironic? I don't see any critical language, but maybe my reading was superficial. Could you cite something?
What I see is a repetition of the post-death Diana myth, not a critique of it. She simply repeats, same as any celebrity journalist, but in fancier language.
Also, everyone is focusing on what she wrote about Diana. How about what she wrote about Kate?
I

queenofbithynia

@skyslang oh, I have a word about what she wrote about Kate --it stands out remarkably when she writes "painfully thin." that is so amazingly tin-eared, set in the rest of this jewel-like splendor -- someone writes "painfully" and you know the next words will be "thin," "shy," or "eager to please," as long as you are reading a mediocrity. A phrase like that is television static; it carries no meaning only buzzing. I theorize that her feelings are so strong that they tripped up her thoughts and let her fall into cliches. that is the power of princesses for you.

stephanieboland

@queenofbithynia I'm sure Mantel is capable of not resorting to cliche if she doesn't have something to gain rhetorically from doing so.

Sallymander

I wasn't too impressed with Mantel's commentary either. It smacks of a writer who's getting carried away by her own premise; the relish with which she smears Kate and butters up Diana is more a telling expression of her own eager interpretation of the royal image than any kind of objective analysis thereof.

skyslang

@Sallymander Absolutely! This is the response I've been trying to write for the last few minutes.

harebell

@Sallymander
But she's smearing *the public image broadcasted about Kate* and *the public image broadcasted* about Diana, and how f#cked up it is that we feel like we know & make judgments about them, rather than about their images, which are manipulated and airbrushed for us for $$$$$$$, not by the royal handlers per se, but by the media who present us the images they know we will eat up, and pay money for.

Sallymander

@harebell I don't think that's what she's doing (at the very least, not well). The distinction between representation and reality is nothing new; this rambling piece of discourse just sounds like the self-satisfied nonsense of a stylistically accomplished writer who has learned that with enough lofty words, she can insinuate that she is making a deep point.

skyslang

@Sallymander Wow, you are saying exactly what I'm thinking, except much more eloquently than I could.
I especially agree with "the distinction between representation and reality is nothing new."
If that's her point, well yeah, so what?
Although "the self-satisfied nonsense of a stylistically accomplished writer who has learned that with enough lofty words, she can insinuate that she is making a deep point." is pretty spot on, too. Just because she has a command of the language doesn't mean she's making any sense.

par_parenthese

@Sallymander @skyslang

You know, I heard an excerpt of the actual talk (since it was originally a speech), and it seemed much clearer as she said it that she was pointing fingers at writers and journalists and "US" generally for our mythologization of royal women, from Marie Antoinette and Anne Boleyn to Princess Diana and Princess Kate.

dontannoyme

@Sallymander I agree with you and I applaud your ability to put this down in writing. I'm still not sure whether she was setting up Diana as an Aunt Sally to Kate (or vice versa). And I do think although she says she's talking about the public perception of Kate in actual fact it comes across as her own feelings about Kate.

As I writer she is definitely in love with her own ability to express every last sentiment and sensation and she sometimes goes over the top. I hated all her books before Wolf Hall because of the obsession with over-expressing every last thing that happened - her memoir is particularly bad for this and goes on for pages about, eg, the time she had a sherbet lemon. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

But somehow her writing in the voice of TomCrom made her edit all this stuff out and the result is a much better book.

rianne marie

Well now I need to read more Hilary Mantel! Quite aside from the content I am in love with how she uses words.

anachronistique

@rianne marie I know jack-all about the Tudors but I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies because her writing is just phenomenal on a sentence-by-sentence level.

rianne marie

@anachronistique I have even taken Wolf Hall out of the library more than once. It just ends up on the bottom of the pile, and then I can't renew it because other people want it and I sort of gave up.
Now it's going back on the hold list and third time's the charm.

Dandyliongirl

I super love this but I am distracted from thinking too much about it by remembering what a great novel A Place of Greater Safety is.

themegnapkin

I'm so grossed out by the backlash against Hilary Mantel. If you look at Twitter, the great majority of it is along the lines of, Hilary Mantel is fat/ugly/barren, therefore she is jealous of Kate Middleton, who is thin/gorgeous/fertile. Ugh, what century are we in?

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