February 20, 2013

Hilary Mantel’s portrait of Kate Middleton


Kate Middleton, the Dutchess of Cambridge

Hilary Mantel’sRoyal Bodies” in the London Review of Books discusses Kate Middleton, the Dutchess of Cambridge, and this passage about the recent portrait sticks out particularly:

In her first official portrait by Paul Emsley, unveiled in January, her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off. One critic said perceptively that she appeared ‘weary of being looked at’.

This theme of the gaze arises throughout Mantel’s piece. Mantel sees the Queen at a gala and finds herself gawking; she feels ashamed at her desire to watch (“I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at”). And soon she moves on to the subject of Anne Boleyn, a monarch she never had the chance to see:

Henry didn’t give up the throne to marry her, but he did reshape his nation’s history. So what was her particular attraction? Did she have a sexual secret? A special trick? Was she beautiful, or ugly?… It often surprises people that there is no attested contemporary portrait. Just because an unknown hand has written ‘Anne Boleyn’ on a picture, it doesn’t mean it’s an image from the life or even an image of Anne at all. The most familiar image, in which she wears a letter ‘B’ hanging from a pearl necklace, exists in many forms and variants and originates at least fifty years after Anne’s death.

Anne Boleyn, depicted by an unknown artist 50 years after her death

After fifty years, who could remember what Anne Boleyn looked like? In her novels, Mantel imagines an Anne Boleyn who could star as a wicked heroine in a modern YA novel. A feisty, virginal brunette, Anne wields her sexual power over Henry VIII, and takes control of the throne. But Mantel is a historical writer; Anne Boleyn is not here to respond to Mantel’s portrait of her.

But the Dutchess is very much alive, and British media leapt to her defense after Mantel’s feminist line kicked in:

We have arrived at the crux of the matter: a royal lady is a royal vagina. Along with the reverence and awe accorded to royal persons goes the conviction that the body of the monarch is public property. We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way, making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all.

Mantel’s summary of Kate’s public persona has exploded in the press, her remarks taken to “treat royal persons in an inhuman way” themselves. The sound bites about Mantel calling Kate a “plastic princess” who was “designed by committee” made national headlines. But the role of her gaze is a small and crucial point: Mantel was talking about the public Kate Middleton, the royal body that she asserts is public property. She speculates who the private Kate Middleton might be (“What does Kate read? It’s a question”) but does not assert that she or anyone in the public knows this side of the woman.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

The disparity between public and private life has sparked the idea for Mantel’s two Booker winners. Wolf Hall was inspired, in part, by Thomas Cromwell’s portrait by Hans Holbein. Joan Acocella’s New Yorker profile of Mantel began with just this portrait, describing its placement in the Frick in relation to a portrait of Thomas Moore, and describing how little we know about the man who became Mantel’s protagonist.

The Guardian responded quite succinctly:

Mantel’s long lecture about Kate, and the way we look at her, was full of irony. I don’t mean irony in its vulgar meaning of “sarcasm”, or the still more vulgar meaning of “saying something you don’t really mean”: but in the sense of inhabiting more than one position at once – of being able to observe something, but also to stand back and think about the way you are observing it, about the off-the-peg narratives and received ideas that shape your perceptions.

Tabloid papers – actually, all papers if we’re honest – deal in templates and received ideas: in pretty princesses, snooty highbrow authors, smirking fiends and tragic tots. It’s in the nature of that trade, though, that you can’t write about the templates and received ideas themselves. That is a level of reflexiveness, a level of self-scrutiny, too far.

But if you want to get in hot water for criticizing a public figure, it seems the LBR is the place to do it!



Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.