Way back in 2013, the legendary author Dame Hilary Mantel faced a barrage of criticism when comments she made about Kate Middleton were taken wildly out-of-context and deemed inappropriate by people who had no idea what they were talking about. Mantel gave a lecture at the British Museum where she talked about the ways that royal women’s bodies are commodified as they are reduced to breeding machines by a patriarchal system. The tabloids, however, mostly took some of the juicier quotes, such as one where she said Middleton was akin to a ‘shop-window mannequin’ and used them as proof that Mantel hated women or something. It was a mess and all it did was prove that Mantel was right.
Now, as she gets ready to release her third book in the Thomas Cromwell series, The Mirror and the Light, some journalists are clearly hoping for Round Two of the Royal Rumble. In conversation with the BBC, Mantel was asked about Meghan Markle and the press’ treatment of her.
‘It brings me back to this question of the body. Ir does include skin, so racism is a factor. I think it’s more deeply embedded in people’s consciousness that any of us are willing to admit. So, I hesitate to call her a victim. But I think there has been an element of racism in the invective against her.’
Mantel further contextualized her answer by returning to her earlier comments on Middleton:
‘There’s an intense concentration on the bodies of royal women. If anyone doubts that, we only have to look at what happens when our royal ladies are pregnant and when they give birth. They are perceived as public property in the same way that Tudor women were perceived. It is simply turning the individual woman back into a breeder.’
I’m sure the usual talking-heads of right-wing British tabloid tattle will be all over this, claiming that Mantel is back to her old tricks or something. The press was obscenely cruel to Mantel the last time around, focusing heavily on her own appearance — something she’s written about extensively — as ‘proof’ that she was just jealous of poor pretty Kate.
But Mantel is right: The entire concept of monarchy does reduce women to breeders because that’s the only purpose they are seen as fit to embody, even if they’re the Queen. You only have to look at the past few decades of press coverage of Diana, Meghan, and Kate to see how even the most glowing coverage of all three women is rooted in their looks, their clothing, and how effectively they are using their wombs. It came to an especially ludicrous peak during Meghan’s pregnancy as she faced endless sneering over minute things such as the frequency with which she held her baby bump and her right to choose her own gynecologist. Society demands a lot of pregnancy, and nowhere is that more evident than with the royal women. The British public feels that they own the royals so they have ‘the right’ to say and do whatever they want. Meghan’s body is that of a 30-something mixed-race black American woman, a former actress who has been part of an industry built on sexualization. We’ve seen exactly how that has impacted the discourse around her.
Mantel, who has won the Booker Prize twice with her Thomas Cromwell books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, has already landed on the long-list for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction with The Mirror and the Light, and it’s not even out yet! I’ve promised myself that I’m actually going to read Wolf Hall this year after putting it off for a long time, so wish me luck!