Reading and Royal Bodies: Mantel Most Misunderstood

There’s been something of an uproar recently around one of the authors from the Autumn semester of Studying Literature: Hilary Mantel.  No, she hasn’t capped her nearly unprecedented run of prizes and awards by being nominated for the vacant position as Pope.  Instead she has become the centre of a tabloid firestorm which led to her being condemned by the Daily Mail and the leaders of both major political parties.  It’s a curious story, and one that I think should concern us, as it presents us with some sort of parable about reading itself.  An activity which you all carry on every day, but which seems to be oddly absent from a public row about a novelist.

To begin at the beginning, Hilary Mantel published an essay in the London Review of Books, based on a talk she gave to their podcast series.  It’s not a magazine of huge circulation, it’s the sort of book-based publication your tutors have a subscription to.  It’s like The Guardian but with more literary emphasis and slightly less left-wing politics.  (I also recommend it thoroughly: fascinating stuff about the sort of subjects you didn’t know you wanted to know about…)  In it she considered the way royal female bodies are the subject of scrutiny and interpretation, how they are recreated by people’s perception of their role.

This would have caused very little stir, perhaps.  After all, not everyone scrutinises the LRB each fortnight.  But the Daily Mail was incensed by some particular remarks Mantel had made about Kate Windsor, and trumpeted that she (Mantel) had called her (Windsor) a “plastic princess designed for breeding.”  We wouldn’t usually link to the Daily Mail at Ask Bunbury, but it’s worth having a look at their piece, if only to see how they framed the issue.  Indeed, they “framed” it in more than one sense, since the sidebar of pictures attached to that article might be seen as supporting Mantel’s point about the scrutiny of women’s bodies in public life.

As you will have noticed if you followed that link (and welcome back), the matter didn’t stop there.  David Cameron was asked at a press conference what he thought of Mantel’s comments, and he made a public statement saying he thought she was “totally wrong and misguided”,  It’s unclear whether Cameron or any of his staff had actually read the essay in question, as he seemed to take at face value the Daily Mail‘s description of it as a “venomous attack”, or The Sun‘s account of it as a “bizarre rant”.  The same appears to be the case for Ed Miliband, who issued a statement stressing the great job Kate Windsor does.

Whatever one’s politics, it does seem remarkable that neither statement attempts to understand what Mantel’s piece of writing was actually saying.  Either neither leader could spare a researcher or intern for the time required to read the essay, or they thought it would be politically damaging to try to put Mantel’s comments in their context.  I’m not sure which possibility should concern us more, but the question of reading – and interpreting – a text is at the heart of this public row.

One (ex)-politicians was keen to assure us that they were familiar with the original context of the comments, however.  Louise Mensch tweeted that she had read the whole piece “in five minutes”, causing the columnist Hadley Freeman to point out that it was about 6000 words in length and wondering if this qualified Mensch for the X-Men.  Again, an intepretative dilemma: should we see Mench’s tweet as a hyperbole, reflecting her feeling that the essay was easily digestible, or as conclusive proof that she had not in fact bothered to work her way through it?  Since Mensch writes novels under her maiden name Louise Bagshaw, she is herself unusually dependent on the time people are willing to take in engaging with an extended text for its own sake, rather than extracting zingy quotations.

So, a curious affair of reading, (deliberate) misreading, not-reading and possibly lying about reading.  If nothing else it underlines the way the discussions we have within Studying Literature are part of a wide network of arguments over what texts mean, which can quickly enmesh the most famous people in the country.  And it’s up to you to perform your own reading of this contested text: here’s a link to the original essay: “Royal Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

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