Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Duchess as 'Mannequin'? Some Britons Are Upset

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Duchess as 'Mannequin'? Some Britons Are Upset

Article excerpt

The historical novelist Hilary Mantel, twice winner of the Man Booker Prize, described the Duchess of Cambridge as, among other things, a "machine-made" princess and "a shop window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore."

It is not often that sophisticated literary discourse is the topic of banner headlines on the front page of one of Britain's hell- raising tabloids. And it is still less common for a prime minister to weigh in with his own stiffly reproving critique, turning the affair into dinner-table talk across the country.

But so it was on Tuesday, when The Daily Mail, a tribune for right-wing causes, set out after Hilary Mantel, one of Britain's most celebrated historical novelists, for what the tabloid characterized as "an astonishing and venomous attack" on the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton -- cynosure of the tabloids and regular front-page copy -- in an article published in the current issue of The London Review of Books.

Writing less about who the 31-year-old duchess may actually be than about the idealized, objectified way Ms. Mantel sees her as having been cast for her starring role in the spectacle of royal life -- a distinction mostly lost in the furor that followed The Daily Mail's headline splash -- Ms. Mantel described her, among other things, as a "machine-made" princess and "a shop window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore."

Comparing her with two royal consorts of other times -- Marie Antoinette and Diana, Princess of Wales -- Ms. Mantel said the duchess, unlike them, was no "gliding, smiling disaster," but a character seamlessly suited to the role thrust upon her.

"Kate Middleton," Ms. Mantel wrote, "appeared to have been designed by committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindle of her limbs hand-turned and gloss- varnished." The duchess, she added, "seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of emergence of character."

"She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana, whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture," the novelist continued, "capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation."

Read in their full context -- a 5,800-word essay that Ms. Mantel delivered as a lecture at the British Museum two weeks ago -- the remarks took on a quality of sympathy, albeit somewhat condescending, rather than the contempt that Ms. Mantel's critics saw for the duchess, who is expecting her first child in July. Ms. Middleton married Prince William in 2011.

Ms. Mantel wrapped her views in an elegant but haughty style, at one point comparing the British royal family to pandas in a zoo, "expensive to conserve and ill adapted to any modern environment" but "nice to look at" and an object of pity for their "precarious situation," constantly stared at and living out their lives in a cage. …

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