Hilary Mantel’s Royal Women

henrysqueensI’ve been watching with interest the storm of controversy regarding author Hilary Mantel which started late last night here, and is still flooding my Facebook news-feed. The Daily Mail published this article ¬†with selected quotes from a piece by Hilary Mantel entitled Royal Bodies, in which she calls Kate Middleton a “plastic princess”.

As is to be expected, people are rushing to Mantel’s defense saying the article quoted her out of context, as of course it has. The Daily Mail does make a rather vague reference to Mantel’s original article half-way through or so;

The London Review of Books attempted to clarify the comments made by Mantel about the Duchess of Cambridge, saying the author was actually criticising the media and their portrayal of the Royal family.

What Mantel really wrote is about how the media make the royals suffer.

Perhaps it’s what she intended to write about. Or at least it was her original intention. I make no secret of the fact that I am not a Hilary Mantel fan and I thought Bring Up the Bodies was a dreadful book. I wouldn’t, however, go so far as to slander her on the basis of an article by a tabloid newspaper. The comments on Kate Middleton are not my problem. It’s the inherent sexism that creeps into Mantel’s writing.

While, as usual, I was imagining I was the only person in the world who found sexist tones in Mantel’s writing, Philippa Gregory posted an interesting comment on her Facebook Fan Page this morning;

Anyone outraged by the reports of what historical novelist Hilary Mantel said about Kate Middleton today should read the thoughtful and complex essay that is the source of the controversial quotes. Travelling today I read the newspaper first and was surprised that Mantel should say anything so personal and so critical of a young woman who cannot reply. Even in the context of a long essay I was sorry to see a woman with a strong voice speak critically of another. There are enough misogynists in the world without women joining in. Ironically, Mantel’s final point in her long essay in which she looks at the way that royals have been scrutinised from the wives of Henry VIII to the present family, is that as a society we pay too much attention to them, and that we swing from adulation to persecution. I really doubt that Mantel expected her thoughts to be stripped of context and headlined as an attack on the Duchess – but she has, probably by accident, demonstrated her point.

I have stated before that Mantel does not execute her secondary characters well. In general, leaving gender aside, her characters are shallow, flimsy and often lean towards caricature. With the book Bring Up the Bodies in mind, we had three female characters that had repeated appearances as secondary characters so I will dub them the “main” female characters. There was Anne Boleyn, conniving manipulative temptress/ambitious shrew. Jane Seymour, stupid, dull, greedy and malleable. Jane Boleyn, scorned woman/vengeful wife. Three traditional sexist stereotypes, three cardboard cut-outs of women whose only drive appears to be for selfish ambition, dominate the Man-Booker Prize winning novel. Or in Jane Seymour’s case, the promise of chicken.

You will notice Royal Bodies finishes off with Mantel’s current monarchy of choice, the Tudors. Her prize-winning novels are based on the reign of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. In this period of course there were four Queens, the first three being Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour.¬† I read an article last year where Mantel discusses these women in a little more depth, entitled Anne Boleyn: witch, bitch, temptress, feminist.

Mantel always peppers her writing, be it novel or article, with her little whimsies and prose. It is in fact in her constant and tiresome analogies where I see most of the misogyny-laden stereotypes shining through. In her article on Anne Boleyn she discusses Katherine of Aragon, not as Henry VIII’s widowed sister-in-law, but as his “pre-used bride”, also alluding that Henry’s head was turned by Anne because Katherine had become “shapeless and showing her age”. In fact Henry had affairs very early on in the marriage, when they were both young, beautiful and madly-in-love newlyweds, and bringing her age and looks into the matter of him having affairs is irrelevant. Her age is only relevant in the question of conception.

It is the most common knowledge of Henry VIII that he disposed of his first wife, murdered his second, and went through another four in his desperate attempt to father an heir. This was not the norm, Henry VIII was, and remains, an exception to all of the rules. While it was the first and most important role of a Queen to be the mother of a dynasty, it was certainly not her only role. With Mantel’s incessant references to “breeding”, she attempts to reduce the role of a Queen to a brood-mare.

By deriding Anne Boleyn as a “Goodwife Anne ” who “didn’t convince” she completely glosses over the many roles a Queen Consort¬† had to play, and all but accuses Anne Boleyn of putting it all on for a show. It’s a common view among those few who still take a medieval view of Anne Boleyn, even if it is not a popular view these days.

Let’s take a look at the actual role a Queen had to play . To be a mother to her children, a maternal role-model for her younger Ladies-In-Waiting, run a large household and staff and manage it out of her own income, set an example of piety, give alms, be a patron to scholars, sew altar cloths and shirts for the poor, play the traditional role of peacemaker, maintain a merry court, and be an obedient and good wife to her King. In fact two of Henry’s Queens were left as Regent while he was away at war (he lost) and dealt with wars with Scotland (that they both won).

Every one of Henry’s wives played this role. There were no exceptions. A Queen did what was expected of her. They reformed religion, won wars, published books. Even little Catherine Howard paid for warm clothing for the elderly Lady Salibsury, who was imprisoned in the freezing cold Tower, out of her own purse. Every one of these women was remarkable. Any attempt to diminish them is nothing less than insulting.

Unfortunately it is often female writers who perpetuate it. Women should know better. Yet it seems, they do not.

In using words like “pre-used” “Witch Bitch” and “dull little woman” Mantel essentially attempts to reduce the women to what she dubbed the “royal vagina”. Yet Henry VIII never viewed any of his wives as a genitalia, despite his manic desperation for an heir. He viewed them as Queens of England, at least until he tired of them.

It is not, however, just the women who get this sort of treatment. I’ve seen Mantel’s sexism work both ways. I’ve seen her writing border on homophobic with the treatment of certain characters in Bring Up the Bodies, I’ve seen the entire court of Henry VIII portrayed as a seething nest of vipers with little real thoughts in their heads at all, completely dehumanised and, again, treated as cattle.

Misogynist? Homophobe? Misanthrope? It is easy to pass the buck to Cromwell when we’re talking Bring Up the Bodies. When I’m reading one of Mantel’s speculations on Henry’s Queens, or on Kate Middleton, I suspect it is largely a complete lack of tact, and the joy of using words with brute force to try and make people uncomfortable.

Inadvertent, perhaps, as Gregory gently pointed out, it may be. An attempt to spark controversy, it certainly is.

But I “would not open windows into mens souls”.



2 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel’s Royal Women”

Comments are closed.