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Hilary Mantel’s got a point

Where did all this outrage about twice Booker-winning author Hilary Mantel and her now fabled “spat” with the Duchess of Cambridge come from? It’s been a good two weeks since Mantel gave her speech for the London Review of Books. Was the Daily Mail waiting for a slow news day, or trying to catch Mantel unawares, when they launched their vitriolic attack on the writer yesterday, for daring to voice the words “bland” and “princess” in the same breath? Coming next week: “K-Middy: my life as Samantha Brick – why women hate me for being beautiful”.

But actually, despite the media’s enthusiastic comparisons of Mantel and Middleton’s respective weights, that’s not what Mantel’s speech was really about. I highly doubt that Mantel’s words were prompted by her irrepressible envy for Kate’s “painfully thin” figure and buoyantly blow-dried hair. In fact, in a hideous spectacle of unself-conscious irony, the reaction of news outlets to the novelist’s measured and shrewd speech has attested to the dangers of the very media machine that Mantel was criticising.

What further proof is needed that Kate is little more than a “shop mannequin”, than the way the Mail reported on the story? Describing her visit to the charity Action on Addiction on the day the story broke, the Daily Mail tells us, “Wearing a patterned wrap dress by upmarket High Street label MaxMara, the 31-year-old duchess seemed proud of her gently swelling stomach, holding it protectively.” The tabloids’ incessant ‘bump watch’, their eager anticipation of the duchess’s procreation, rather vindicates Mantel’s argument that the press regard “her only point and purpose being to give birth.”

Mantel’s speech, of course, was not even about Prince William’s wife. What Mantel was really trying to draw our attention to is how our intense scrutiny of the royals’ every move treats them, especially the women, like zoo animals: “however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage”. Even if we’re not at the zoo that day, we somehow feel qualified to comment on the animals; Mantel’s words were “hurtful”, David Cameron was compelled to comment from India, presumably having neither read the speech nor asked the Duchess how she felt.

Mantel warns that adulation of royal women can quickly “swing to persecution”. Anyone who bothered reading to the end of her speech would realise that she has a lot more compassion for Kate than the Daily Mail. The Wolf Hall writer concludes by urging the press and public to “back off and not be brutes.” If only we had taken her advice.

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