Imagine Arundhati Roy having a go at Rahul Gandhi’s would-be wife (regardless of whether there is one close at hand). While the analogy may be not quite so handy, the fallout from a hypothetical Roygate in India would not have been far from the real Mantelgate here in Blighty. Two weeks ago, Hilary Mantel (twice-winner of the Booker prize) gave a lecture on royal bodies at the British Museum, sponsored by the London Review of Books.Days later on Fleet Street (a London area traditionally standing in for the British national press), something scandalous hit the fan –revolving around comments on Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.
Mantel made the manifestly obvious kicker that Kate’s entire whatfor and whyfor now is to be admired, to be treasured and to breed. Kate is, Mantel argues,quite unlike Anne Boleyn (Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife to Henry VIII) who was “a power player, a clever and determined woman.”Nevertheless “in the end she was valued for her body parts, not her intellect or her soul; it was her womb that was central to her story… a royal lady is a royal vagina.” The future queen consort Kate is espoused by the royal press machine as un-Dianalike devoted solely to duties marital and national. It is another matter that less than one-seventh of Mantel’s brilliant talk focused on the photogenic duchess. “Aren’t they nice to look at?” Mantel confided about the monarchy. “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…. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.”
Speaking in all possible shades of grey, she observes how the current royal Madonna-figure is dished out by the UK media, appearing “to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished”. This got translated by the tabloid Daily Mail in terms of an unsisterly, bitch-on-bitch [ouch!] fight:a “boxing match setting Muhammad Ali at the height of his powers against Victoria Beckham at her most undernourished”. The paper then added charitably that Mantel is “infertile” and “dreams of being thin”; implying jealousy alone can have spurred the tirade from an obese [ouch, again] cow.
Juxtapose this with Mantel’s first feelings: “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. Thesedays she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions.” The respectable liberal broadsheet Independent helpfully provided another list of attributes, so that ‘the author and the princess‘ could be compared; Mantel’s weight featuring again.
David Cameron took time off during his tireless trip in India to criticise Mantel’s comments as “completely misguided and completely wrong”. As usually happens, he too, quite obviously hadn’t read the entire transcript of her talk beforeinsisting that the perfect princess Kate, and not the author Mantel, is the model to which we should all strive. Would a similar pairing, or squaring off, between Roy and some future Mrs Gandhi provoke a similar judgement from 7 Race Course Road? In which eventuality, one is tempted to assume, Roy’s meagre weight, unlike Mantel’s, might work to her advantage.