Hillary Mantel is fantastic. David Cameron and The Daily Mail are terrible.
This piece has become a “political football” and in the case of Hilary Mantel vs Tories Who Haven’t Bothered Reading Her Piece (and now sadly Ed Miliband too) I am certainly on her side.
But I have to admit I’m on her side with a bit less righteous fury now I’ve read the piece. Because I don’t think it’s a very good piece. I think it’s gloriously written in places, but I think the beauty of the writing is in broad inverse to the freshness of the points she’s making.
The piece is in three parts, roughly: Kate, Diana, and Anne (Boleyn). The Anne bit is the most insightful, presumably because this is territory Mantel has researched, knows and breathes, and for the other parts she knows little more than any other onlooker who writes worse sentences than she does.
The Diana part is full of memorable writing, but its insights are feeble: worse than feeble, rote. More royal than royal - terrible fate - blind to her destiny - public outpouring - new chapter in royalty - this is standard-issue Dianology, received wisdom, a distillation of mountains of Dianaerie. Far better expressed, of course.
The Kate part is the interesting bit, and the one which has got Mantel in entirely undeserved trouble. Undeserved because politicians have zero business ever bullying cultural critics, not because Mantel was being particularly wise or gentle and the idiot Tories haven’t realised that. In fact, I think, she was being quite mean, and knowingly mean, to Kate Middleton, which obviously isn’t a crime or even much to get upset about it.
But still, part of the reason I think this is because the piece was somewhat familiar to me. It reminded me of a few profiles or critical pieces I’ve read about other famous women. Taylor, Britney, Cheryl. As a piece of pop writing - a critique of the star and her world - Mantel’s talk hits some story beats I recognised. The emptiness of fame beyond the surface glamour. The tawdry mechanical apparatus behind the projection of celebrity. The manufactured, inhuman quality of the famous woman. The moment of bathos which shows that the celebrity was once a person. And, of course, the pious hope at the end that she will be OK.
It’s the celebrity profile as concern trolling - call it the Dead Eyes school of journalism, after the number one symptom of celebrity malaise (all critics can detect dead-eyeness, would that Doctors had their skill). Mantel rings the changes, because she’s shfiting focus from Kate to the Royal Family in general - so the moment-of-bathos bit is about the Queen not the Princess - and she has one fairly interesting tidbit about how people at the Queen’s parties won’t talk to her (The Truth About Life Behind The Velvet Rope, See P12). But the gist of it is all the same. A bit lazy, I thought. Perhaps intentional, though - Mantel’s smart, and there’s an irony that a piece criticising templates slips into a template so easily itself.
The great thing about Dead Eyes profiling is that it can get away with all kinds of beautifully composed digs because of its hand-wringing high-mindedness. It strips subject and fans - who are not its intended readership - of agency and makes it OK because, hey, it’s about lack of agency. If the system you’re criticising is inherently dehumanising, what’s a little more?
Maybe they’ve got a point. I don’t think Britain should have a Royal Family. I do - generally - think pop music should be made, but I don’t think the system that produces it is terribly healthy. I think people being mean to Taylor Swift is as worthy a topic for parliamentary attention as people being mean to Kate Middleton, i.e. not in a billion years.
And I do think our media culture of constant policing of celebrities - particularly women, particularly their bodies - is repulsive. The Mail sparked the row because it understood Mantel’s talk as an attack on this treasured right, and pounced. I just think the piece is closer to what it criticises than it might like.