Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Marie A, Anne B, Lady Di, and Kate

In these excerpts from a feisty and challenging talk for the London Review of Books, Hilary Mantel speaks about how the bodies and appearances of those most public of women, queens and princesses, have been appropriated by the societies in which they live. Mantel is the widely acclaimed author of the novelized Tudor histories Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
[Marie-Antoinette] 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. She was so wedded to her appearance that when the royal family, in disguise, made its desperate escape from Paris, dashing for the border, she not only had several trunk loads of new clothes sent on in advance, but took her hairdresser along on the trip. Despite the weight of her mountainous hairdos, she didn’t feel her head wobbling on her shoulders. When she returned from that trip, to the prison Paris would become for her, it was said that her hair had turned grey overnight….
Marie-Antoinette ca. 1775 (Musée Antoine Lécuyer; Saint-Quentin, Aisne France)
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. What does Kate read? It’s a question.
Kate 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 the emergence of character. She 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. Kate seems capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation….
I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage….
Diana was more royal than the family she joined. That had nothing to do with family trees. Something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity, fitted her to be the carrier of myth. She came near to claiming that she had a healing touch, the ancient attribute of royal persons. The healing touch can’t be felt through white gloves. Diana walked bare-handed among the multitude, and unarmed: unfortified by irony, uninformed by history. Her tragedy was located in the gap between her human capacities and the demands of the superhuman role she was required to fulfill. When I think of Diana, I remember Stevie Smith’s poem about the Lorelei:
There, on a rock majestical,

A girl with smile equivocal,

Painted, young and damned and fair,

Sits and combs her yellow hair.
Soon Diana’s hairstyles were as consequential as Marie Antoinette’s, and a great deal cheaper to copy....
"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."
It’s no surprise that so much fiction constellates around the subject of Henry and his wives. Often, if you want to write about women in history, you have to distort history to do it, or substitute fantasy for facts; you have to pretend that individual women were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do. But with the reign of King Bluebeard, you don’t have to pretend. Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story. The history of the reign is so graphically gynaecological that in the past it enabled lady novelists to write about sex when they were only supposed to write about love; and readers could take an avid interest in what went on in royal bedrooms by dignifying it as history, therefore instructive, edifying. Popular fiction about the Tudors has also been a form of moral teaching about women’s lives, though what is taught varies with moral fashion....
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.
Portrait by an unknown artist of a youngish Henry VIII, c. 1520. In her talk, Mantel discusses several hypotheses as to why he became so irascible and irrational later in life.
 As the odious and asinine Oscar show opening demonstrated, women's bodies are perpetually ripe for objectifying, no matter how elevated their status. But back to Mantel. NPR and the book review media in general raved about both titles published so far in her projected trilogy on Henry, his wives, and Cromwell:
Like its predecessor, Bring Up the Bodies is unremittingly exciting. Even though you probably know how the story ends, it's hard — almost painful — to stop reading. But it's not just the plotting that is stand-out. More than any other novel she's written, Mantel's latest overflows with stunning prose. Including the weirdly beautiful first line, "His children are falling from the sky." The author writes the kind of sentences you want to live in, even when describing something as broad and universal as the passage of time: "The months run away from you like a flurry of autumn leaves bowling and skittering towards the winter, the summer has gone."
Mantel has been held in high esteem ever since her 1985 debut, the exceedingly black comic novel Every Day Is Mother's Day, but she seems to get more ambitious and self-assured with each new book. Bring Up the Bodies isn't just her boldest book; it's also her best — and it reaffirms Mantel's reputation as one of England's greatest living novelists.
Read an excerpt from Bring Up the Bodies here. Think you know a thing or two about the glories and travails of queens and such? Quiz yourself with Royal Women Knowledge Cards! Or read about Henry's extra-marital affairs in The Mistresses of Henry VIII.


  1. The thought of "royals reading" (or not) reminds me of Alan Bennett's "An Uncommon Reader", which depicts the Queen as she becomes an avid reader. A small gem.

    1. Thanks for the tip ... I like his stuff a lot & this sounds most intriguing.

  2. The Royals have my sympathy, for they are a targeted anachronism whose every movement triggers money for their predators. It is not in the Royals' interest to slit their emotional wrists in public, and I think the media loved Diana so much because of her willingness to do so.
    How could a commoner like Kate find a pleasing path? If she acted out her thoughts, she would be roundly criticized. If she held her feelings in check, someone like Hilary would accuse her of being a mannequin. The pandas have it easy by comparison.
    History is a concoction of prevailing rumors. The wives of Henry VIII are a sideshow that fascinates because the motives are simple and shared by all. Ordinary folk do not manipulate the cacao market, nor devise the end of slavery to cripple rival Portugal. And those who do prefer that we shine the light of our curiosity another way.

  3. Fascinating Glean today,thanks. Part of me wants to read bringing up the bodies but I have such a strong dislike of Henry VIII I don't know if I handle the book.