Hilary Mantel, beloved author of the Man-Booker-prize-winning books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, is currently on the hot seat, despised for dissing the lovely Kate Middleton in her recent speech at the British Museum: Royal Bodies from Kate Middleton to Anne Boleyn. According to Mantel, “[The princess]…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.”
But Kate wasn’t the only one Ms. Mantel dissed.
Overlooked in this beautifully written, devastating assault on Middleton was Mantel’s framing of Kate as a heroine in a romance novel. Mantel begins this extended metaphor with a quote from a critic who describes Kate’s first official portrait as looking as if it “might pass muster as the cover of a Catherine Cookson novel.” Catherine Cookson, Mantel tells us, writes “simple tales of poor women extricating themselves from adverse circumstances…the nation’s favourite reading.”
Mantel then quotes Princess Diana’s biographer as revealing that Diana “…enjoyed only the romances of Barbara Cartland.” Thus, the poor woman “didn’t know the end of her own story.” Diana was “a fatal non-reader.” That is, she expected a happily ever after a la romance fiction, the only books she knew.
Diana’s reading material did her in.
Mantel asks, “What does Kate read? It’s a question.”
Hmm…Mantel seems pretty sure that the princess is not reading Wolf Hall.
Mantel concludes that poor, simple, hapless Kate—a woman “without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character”—doesn’t control her own fate. We do. We are the ones who appropriate this beautiful, romance-novel, cardboard cut out as the heroine of our royal fantasies. We “are happy to allow monarchy to be an entertainment.” But is Kate a person or is she a princess? We have to choose, because she can’t be both.
“We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago…”
Here, of course, she means Diana.
“I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes. Get your pink frilly frocks out, zhuzh up your platinum locks. We are all Barbara Cartland now. The pen is in our hands. A happy ending is ours to write.”
But of course, Mantel has no love for the romance novelist. She doesn’t believe in happy endings for real people, just for lightweights like Kate. Mantel admits she’s “too snobbish to have read” a Barbara Cartland novel. But she’s quite sure it’s about a non-person, non-character, empty vessel of femininity, happy with marriage and breeding—Kate Middleton to a tee. Diana was flawed and worthy of real fiction, the stuff of Wolf Hall. Kate, empty and perfect, is worthy only of those “lady writer” books. We shouldn’t “be brutal,” after all. By ignoring history (and good historical fiction) we get, Mantel implies, the ditzy, dumb, empty romance-novel heroine we deserve.
I don’t think Mantel is far off the mark with her assessment of Kate, but who knows what’s under that “plastic” smile? Still, I think I’m going to send Mantel a copy of anything by Loretta Chase. Or Elizabeth Hoyt. Romance novels, like princesses, can be empty or impressive–if you can just get past the lousy covers.