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Thursday, February 21, 2013

 

Hilary Mantel

Earlier this month, the novelist Hilary Mantel gave a lecture subsquently published in the London Review of Books concerning the nature of royalty, physicality and publicity. This lecture began with the controversial comparison of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and Marie Antoinette.

Actually, 'controversial' is perhaps the wrong word. The beginning of her speech has attracted massive and disproportionate opprobrium in which even Prime Minister David Cameron has deemed it necessary to declare that Mantel was 'completely misguided and completely wrong'. Heavy-handed, pompous and downright inappropriate as this comment was (since when was it a Prime Ministerial duty to rule upon cultural analyses?), it was far from the most malign; Hadley Freeman gives an eloquent run-down, remarking, for instance:

It is worth looking at what is going on here. Lazy journalism, clearly, and raging hypocrisy, obviously: what has any paper done with Kate for the past decade but use her as decorative page filler? Indeed, when the BBC covered Mantelgate (Mantelpiece?) it included lingering shots of the duchess's fair form while quoting in horror from Mantel's speech about the royal women existing to be admired. This is also a good example of how the Mail fights back when it feels it is being attacked. For if Mantel was attacking anyone in her talk, then her aim was clearly at the Mail with its obsessive, prurient fascination with Kate. To see the Mail gasping at Mantel's suggestion that the duchess is "designed to breed" when it has been on "bump watch" since she walked down the aisle is the Fleet Street reenactment of Captain Renault in Casablanca proclaiming himself to be "shocked to find gambling is going on here" while collecting his winnings. It then added helpfully that Mantel is "infertile" and "dreams of being thin". Yeah, no wonder she's jealous of our Kate, the fat childless cow.

A female intellectual has once again drawn the unedifying spectacle of personal abuse disguised as social analysis, it would seem, of a fairly typical kind: not declaring outright that her sex renders her unreliable, and laced with nods to feminism, but still subjecting her to attacks that would simply not occur to most writers to level at a male equivalent. Freeman suggests that Martin Amis would not have drawn the same ire for the same speech; I would add, I expect Martin Amis would like to be taller, but I have yet to see anyone bring it up when criticising his comments about our Muslim fellow-citizens.

Freeman also makes the point that liberals have a habit of accusing women of being 'unsisterly' when they express 'an opinion about an industry that exploits their own, as invariably happens when a woman discusses, say, Page 3 girls or strip clubs.' It's a fair point ... and yet, reading the speech itself, it feels just slightly wide of the mark.

You can read the speech on the LRB website, and of course if you're going to form a judgement about this whole unseemly business, you should. Having done so, and speaking as a female writer - it evokes a complex reaction.

If this speech were made by a man, I think many woman would feel a certain caution towards it. The problem is not that Mantel criticises the tabloid objectification of women; there's a more complex issue which is twofold. The first issue is this: in condemning the commodification of female royals, Mantel often doesn't draw a clear line between a woman's public image and her actual self, which at best lends itself to being taken out of context. Take, for instance, the conclusion of her first paragraph:

It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.

When she says 'becoming a jointed doll' and 'she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own' is she talking about the real Kate, or the press portrait of Kate? Is she saying Kate is a genuinely inane woman, or that she's been portrayed inanely? Taken in context, the later references to what 'the press will find' suggests that 'becoming' and 'was' refer to the fictionalised Kate of tabloid text rather than the actual woman. It is, however, carelessly phrased and highly open to misinterpretation, more so than a public comment on a contentious subject really ought to be. In context Mantel is probably not saying that Kate is a stupid woman, but she doesn't do much to make sure we don't get the wrong end of the stick.

Hold that thought, because it's important.

The second problem is this: the way she chooses to interest herself in male versus female royals. Probably the best thing to do is to quote each of her monarchical descriptions in turn; however, do read the full piece, because quotations out of context are exactly what's caused this whole debacle in the first place and I have no desire to contribute to that.

On Marie Antoinette:

Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks. She was transfixed by appearances, stigmatised by her fashion choices. Politics were made personal in her. Her greed for self-gratification, her half-educated dabbling in public affairs, were adduced as a reason the French were bankrupt and miserable. It was ridiculous, of course. She was one individual with limited power and influence, who focused the rays of misogyny. She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade. But in truth she was all body and no soul: no soul, no sense, no sensitivity.

On Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, as compared with Diana, Princess of Wales:

[Kate] appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture. Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. .... Something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity, fitted her to be the carrier of myth.

On Prince Charles:

A few years ago I saw the Prince of Wales at a public award ceremony. I had never seen him before, and at once I thought: what a beautiful suit! ... I found it hard to see the man inside the clothes; and like Thomas Cromwell in my novels, I couldn’t help winding the fabric back onto the bolt and pricing him by the yard. At this ceremony, which was formal and carefully orchestrated, the prince gave an award to a young author who came up on stage in shirtsleeves to receive his cheque. He no doubt wished to show that he was a free spirit, despite taking money from the establishment. For a moment I was ashamed of my trade. I thought, this is what the royals have to contend with today: not real, principled opposition, but self-congratulatory chippiness.

And then as we drifted away from the stage I saw something else. I glanced sideways into a room off the main hall, and saw that it was full of stacking chairs. It was a depressing, institutional, impersonal sight. I thought, Charles must see this all the time. Glance sideways, into the wings, and you see the tacky preparations for the triumphant public event. You see your beautiful suit deconstructed, the tailor’s chalk lines, the unsecured seams. You see that your life is a charade...

On Queen Elizabeth II:


And then the queen passed close to me and I stared at her. I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment. She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.


On Anne Boyleyn:

Anne Boleyn, in particular, is a figure who elicits a deep response, born out of ignorance often enough but also out of empathy. The internet is abuzz with stories about her, as if everything were happening today.

On Henry VIII:

In fact Henry constrained his sexual appetites. He had few mistresses compared to other grandees of his time. I think it was more important to him to be good, to be seen to be good, than to be gratified in this particular way. In fact I think we can say that the old monster was a bit of a romantic. Later in life, when he married Anne of Cleves, he didn’t want to have sex with a woman with whom he wasn’t in love; it was a scruple that baffled his contemporaries.... When we call him paranoid, we must acknowledge he was right to think his enemies were everywhere, though he was increasingly bad at working out who they were.
As for depression, he had a great deal to be depressed about: not just his isolation on the world stage, but his own decay and deterioration...

Add these together, and there's a certain common quality: when she speaks of male royals, she speaks of interior experience. She pretends to be Charles to look through his eyes and attributes to him her own analysis of royal experience; she considers the personality of Henry VIII and casts his misdeeds in the forgiving light of emotional stress. Meanwhile, what does she have to say about the women? Or rather, what does she take an interest in? Novelistic imagination is clearly in play when picturing the male royals, but when she 'writes' female royals, her imaginative gaze is directed from the outside in far more than the inside out - not just to emphasise that female royals exist 'to be looked at', because that's a phrase she used about Henry VIII, but because she simply doesn't choose to exercise the same imaginative sympathy. She steps into male shoes far more readily than female ones. Of the female royals she does choose to consider emotionally, we have two very doubtful cases. There is Diana, whose myth is created by 'something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity' and nothing to do with the undoubted and active intelligence Diana employed to manipulate and navigate her myth to best advantage: the old idea that women do things 'naturally' rather than strategically is present in positively Victorian force here. Then we have the living Queen, written as vulnerable like Henry, but here, the story is largely a boast that Mantel managed to intimidate her with a stare - a claim that empowers Mantel at the expense of her subject. (Which may or may not be true - it's a little speculative, let us say, to assume that an open stare would have power to startle a lifelong monarch in her twilight years - but it invests as much imaginative power in Mantel's gaze as Elizabeth's inner life, and it makes the act of appearing onstage in shirt sleeves seem a small score by comparison. Assuming, of course, that the unjacketed writer wasn't simply too hot; again, her sympathy goes to the male royal; stature as well as masculinity seem to intrigue her, else why find the unremarkable sight of stacked chairs so 'tacky'?)

It's the same aspect we see with a lot of writing dominated by what feminists call the 'male gaze': as it were by coincidence, male 'characters' attract imaginative sympathy and interest in their inner lives while female characters attract visual sympathy and interest in their exterior presentations; their insides and outsides are conflated without due care for distinguishing the two.

Now, it's possible that Mantel was simply trying to convey the different roles of men and women and didn't manage to make that quite clear. It's also possible that as a novelist - which is what she is, a novelist with a BA in Jurisprudence; she is not an historian - she simply did what novelists do and wrote characters as her narrative instincts prompted her. Some female novelists write better men than women. It's also possible that she genuinely sees women through a 'male gaze' and the undertones of her piece are an accurate representation of her attitudes.

But here's the thing, the thought I suggested you hold. As a female novelist myself, and as a woman who has expressed opinions in public, I had a certain shrinking feeling as I read Mantel's piece. I didn't know - I don't think the speech really makes clear - exactly what she meant to imply about female selfhood and the personalities of female royals. What I did feel, instead, was a reflexive cowering, an automatic battening down of the hatches: Oh boy, this is going to be trouble...

There are men who respect women but disagree with or dislike particular opinions expressed by particular women. But there are also men who do not like women, and who, while they will probably not admit it even to themselves, have a deep-down aversion to respecting any woman's opinion. When a woman makes a public statement of any kind, these men read not with the tabula rasa interest they would display towards a man, but with an automatic antagonism, not searching for the meaning or point of a woman's words, but for the opportunity to tear her down. Some men don't argue with women by questioning their conclusions, but by finding opportunities to misrepresent, excuses to degrade, reasons to dismiss her as a human being. For some men, the ultimate argument is always 'How dare you expect real people to listen to your opinions, you uppity bitch?', and reading a woman's words is a search for the slip, the infelicity, the loose thread they can yank out and wave as a banner to prove this woman had no right to waste our time talking in the first place.

If you're a woman who talks in public, you are talking into a siege. Let me illustrate the point thus: as I typed that last sentence, I felt an instinctive cringe, because I could already hear the voices screaming in my head: sexist bitch, how dare you imply all men are like that. I felt the automatic impulse to quality, to reiterate that no, saying there's a siege does not mean all men are participants, even though I already said as much at the beginning of the previous paragraph, and even though doing so would slow down the flow of words with repetition. For a novelist it's very frustrating to break off and add a disclaimer every single time you make a statement. But as a female speaker, it's the only way to minimise - not prevent, but minimise - the amount of vitriol-throwing.

Mantel didn't. She went with the flow.

And besides my doubts about her piece as a piece, there's also a frightened woman inside me who twitched as I read her words - words I myself could find cause to argue with as one mind to another, but words I am not eager to see brandished as proof that yet one more uppity bitch needs to shut up and sit down. Didn't she anticipate this reaction, whispered my instincts? Didn't she see this coming? Didn't she know?

And right there, in the automatic assumption that a woman should have seen how her words could be twisted and should have headed this twisting off: that, there, is the burden of women speaking in public. A female writer-speaker must monitor her words for imperfections as frantically as a model must monitor her body, and therein lies the real problem. It's not just that women are cast as clothes-horses: it's that every woman, princess or author, beauty or intellectual, is under a hostile gaze, a gaze that prefers the 'jointed doll' and seeks with furious attention for any slight waver, any extra pound or faltered smile or careless phrase, to justify the pitchfork and torches.

Mantel wasn't wrong that culture monitors a princess for cracks. She just didn't go far enough: she didn't, in fact, connect the misogyny that polices female beauty with the misogyny that polices female speech - and for that, she ran afoul of misogyny in her turn.

You know, I don't like that speech she gave. I think there's an argument to be had about it. But it's almost impossible to have that argument in the midst of a culture screaming about a woman's weight and family and unacceptable femaleness in response to her making a debatable set of remarks, and we have a bigger problem than what a single female novelist said about some public figures. It's almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion about 'an industry that exploits' women, about women's rights to participate and what is and isn't empowering. It's almost impossible to have a sensible discussion about women in public.

I don't think Mantel's speech was a stellar contribution to the debate. It's almost impossible to say that without lending support to a set of people who would like Mantel and me and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and every other woman in the world to sit down and shut up. These people seize the debate, scream too loud for nuanced thought to be heard, and everything becomes a matter of binary alliances.

If only they'd sit down and shut up, we might get somewhere.

Comments:
The writing in that speech strikes me, more than anything else, as sloppy. If only she'd defined a terminology, some way of making it clear when she was talking about the constructed image of royalty and when she was talking about the person (which I agree does rather break down along sex lines).

I wonder whether perhaps she wrote the speech while thinking in the old-fashioned mode in which a speech was for once, not forever: some infelicities of style and unclarities of presentation could be forgiven or ignored, rather than picked apart eternally.
 
Oh this so captures the many conflicting feelings and thoughts I had when I first read about this controversy.

Here is something I have been struggling with-if you look at gossip pages on the internet many pieces about the Duchess speak of her in terms extraordinarily similar to those used by Mantel but their authors have not received similarly weighty criticism. Mantel, unlike other women who have made such criticism, has been recognized to have intellectual stature and the medium in which she writes is given some cultural respect. She even attempts some level of serious analysis beyond what is found in the gossip columns. This means that she has worked her way up to a cultural level where she is noticed and criticized for saying things not dissimilar to those said by many others.
 
I'd seen some of the fallout from the controversy crop up on my Twitter feed and heard a bit about it on NPR. This is the first time I actually read the speech in question and my impressions were as follows--

1. What a thoroughly unpleasant read that was. The pretentious snobbery was off the charts and I was not impressed in the slightest.

2. It seems I'm not the only person to have considered a comparison between the royal family and pandas in the zoo, but since she got it out there first, I'll have to chuck the whole idea now that she's spoiled it.

What the tabloid press has done with it is indeed way off the mark, but that doesn't necessarily make it a particularly good speech.
 
I wonder whether perhaps she wrote the speech while thinking in the old-fashioned mode in which a speech was for once, not forever

Actually I doubt it; she's not that old, after all, and besides she must have given permission for it to be published - you can't just print someone's speech without their say-so. Rights have to be negotiated, contracts have to be signed, and usually money has to change hands.
 
@Sheila: I was less engaging with the speech itself (which I think Kit has done a great job of addressing) than with the fact that such speech and similar arguments are completely ignored if they take place in different venues or are uttered by men.
 
For myself, I'd be more inclined to take issue with such a speech if it were by a male writer, or at least - since I just did take issue with it - take issue of a less complicated kind. When a woman writes more sympathetically of men than women, there's generally more going on than when a man does the same. What, I don't think I could possibly say on the basis of a single speech (and I haven't read WOLF HALL; tried it and didn't like it), but I found it at least curious.

Like Sheila, I didn't much care for the attitudes it assumed. Mantel may be a perfectly lovely person in private life, of course, but it was - I'll say, novelistically quick to assume and project motivations, and the motivations attributed tended to favour men and flatter Mantel, which I found hard to like. As I said, a novelist receiving an award in his shirt sleeves may or may not be trying to score off the royal on-stage, but if you talk in the same piece about how the Queen withered in your glance, it rather stands out.

She's in a difficult position, of course, because she isn't a trained historian, there is a difference between the expertise of an historian and an historical novelist who's done research, but if she's asked to speak in public then her opinion on history versus present is probably what people want to hear. Which means, in effect, she's giving lectures on a level of publicity that calls for more expertise than she has. That's not really anybody's fault, but it is a problem aside from sexism, and one that sexism can exploit.

And likewise I didn't think Freeman pointing out that Mantel won a Booker really proves anything; Booker winners can be wrong about stuff.

All in all I think this whole clash involves a lot of people punching above their weight, intellectually speaking, which never helps clarity. Of course, I'm not an historian either, so I'd be punching above my own weight to critique her speech on historical rather than literary grounds; all I'm entitled to say on that score is that I'd rather like to hear an actual historian's opinion on the subject.
 
Another issue I took with Mantel, since I'm trying to take intelligent, non-sexist issue - the Barbara Cartland comment:

Sue Townsend said of Diana that she was ‘a fatal non-reader’. She didn’t know the end of her own story. She enjoyed only the romances of Barbara Cartland. I’m far too snobbish to have read one, but I assume they are stories in which a wedding takes place and they all live happily ever after. Diana didn’t see the possible twists in the narrative.

Of course, if you're appearing as a female public intellectual, and on the strength of writing popular novels at that, you need all the heft you can manage, and happily boasting yourself 'too snobbish' to read Cartland is one way to make yourself look serious.

But the thing is, if you're really serious, you research. This was a talk given in the British Museum and published in the London Review of Books; preparation is a given, and it would surely not be difficult to potter down to the local library and pluck a couple of Cartlands off the shelf for a quick skim. Bringing up any book purely to condemn it when you haven't read the book in question is the kind of thing you'd expect the Daily Mail to do, not a person standing out against Mail culture.

Yes, if they're bad books you probably won't enjoy them. Yes, there is such a thing as contagious bad writing - or at least, I find that my own writing tends to take a sharp dip in quality if I spend too much time reading stupid things. (I cannot say whether Cartland's books are stupid, though, because I haven't read them. I am therefore not going to opine on them. All I can say is that if Mantel thought the books likely to be stupid, she might well have be unwilling to put them in her brain. But if there's such a thing as contagious bad fiction, there's also such a thing as a fictional detox: a day or two of reading good stuff and you're fine again.) The one thing it wouldn't be, though, is a waste of time. If you're going to analyse how a culture's myths shapes its victims, you ought to have a working knowledge of what those myths actually are.

Making sure to say that you only read Cartland by way of researching this talk would be reasonable, if a little over-emphatic, but making sure to say that you haven't read the books you're calling a bad influence on people ... does not suggest as much intellectual ballast to your opinions as a talk for the British Museum and the LRB deserves.
 
I cannot express how angry it makes me when people pass judgement on (or praise) books they haven't read or music they haven't heard. For me, that type of intellectual slovenliness undermines any other statement or claim made in an argument.

I feel this all the more strongly for having gone back and read books which 'everyone knows' contained particular phrases, arguments and attitudes to find that though the books might indeed be poorly written they had also been mischaracterized.
 
Funnily enough, I did read a Barbara Cartland novel once, out of curiosity and Because It Was There in a house I was living in at the time. It was called The Unpredictable Bride and the story actually started with a wedding.

A quick trip to the Google has found me a summary:

To the world, it was the most fantastic of marriages. One day Lucinda was an obscure, dowdy country girl; the next, she was the diamond-decked mistress of a vast London town house and wife to a young lord, legendary for his wealth, daring escapades, and magnetic attraction for women.

Would the world wonder why he chose her? Would they guess he was using this young girl to cover his affair with the glittering, sophisticated Lady Devereux? Lucinda hadn't time to care. She was too busy becoming the overnight darling of London society--too busy earning the notice and respect of the man she was irresistibly, hopelessly, growing to love ...


I recall it being readable enough--a fluffy confection of wish-fulfillment that ended with the heroine rescuing the hero from the clutches of Napoleon's army. (No, really.) If it was typical of Cartland's work, I understand the appeal, even if it wasn't quite to my own taste. I can certainly understand why a woman stuck in a less-than-ideal marriage might take consolation in stories where Big Misunderstandings end with the lovers bound more tightly for what they've gone through instead of falling apart.
 
I've read loads of Cartland (I know, I have no taste). A fair few of them have the wedding before the love (possibly so that she can get into the ascending... to the... stars the moment they realise they're in love) but it's fair to say that every single one has a happy ending with the hero realising how wonderfully unlike the normal run of women the heroine is.

The vast majority of the heroes are widely sexually experienced and considerably older than the heroine. A lot of them have significant mistresses. They are all rich (if not at the beginning of the book, certainly by the end) and frequently of noble rank. The heroines' purity and steadfast love help to win them over in the end.

(Goodness me, what can Lady Diana Spencer possibly have gleaned from these books?)

They are terribly written, it has to be said. Most of them have a moment where the heroine realised she loved him! The... emotionally-charged... sex scenes are... awful. (The ellipses are mandatory. There exists a joke in which husband arouses his wife by three little taps.) Paragraphs, particularly in the later ones which she dictated, are frequently one sentence long.

She does deserve some credit for basic background research (even if she did pinch some Regency details from Heyer). Some of the stories go to exotic locations and get caught up in lesser-known events (I cannot speak to their accuracy in the slightest).
 
You know, if someone is a 'non-reader', I actually incline to draw fewer rather than more conclusions based on what they do read. A penchant for Cartland might be a sign of naive views on romance, but it might just as easily be the mark of a naive reader: somebody who doesn't read more sophisticated material for the simple reason that it's too demanding. I think you can draw some conclusions about the tone of books someone likes, whether they're comfortable with an atmosphere of warmth or cynicism or paranoia or whimsy, but plots are a somewhat different matter. A simplistic plot is a simple plot, and a simple plot doesn't put too much strain on the unpracticed reader, and to assume without proof that there's any more to it than that is ... well, the kind of thing that people who read and write for a living and consequently take books very seriously are prone to do.
 
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