It would be easy to lose count of the number of times that the British Press has put itself beyond parody. But it is nonetheless disappointing to see the Press I usually trust – such as the generally reliable Independent – fall into the same trap as the tabloid trash.
When I first caught the headline view of what Hilary Mantel had supposedly said about the Duchess of Cambridge in her LRB lecture, my first reaction was ‘what a silly cow’. But unlike a lot of those who have jumped on the indignation bandwagon, I thought I’d better read what the author had actually said before making a judgement.
What I found was that her words had not just been taken out of context but twisted round into almost the exact opposite of what she had actually said.
Mantel’s comments about the Duchess, it turns out, are one small element of a speech that addressed the treatment of royal women from the hapless consorts of Henry VIII, via Marie Antoinette to the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
Let us be crystal clear: Hilary Mantel does NOT say that Katherine Windsor, nee Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge is, in and of herself, ‘a plastic princess fit only to breed’. What any half-way intelligent reading of the speech makes clear is that what we are invited to see, through the lens of the very media that is now throwing up its hands in hypocritical horror, is a plastic, breeding princess.
And Mantel reminds us what happens when the adulations slips and the beast turns on hollow idol it created. “We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days,” she writes, “but we do sacrifice them.”
Now, it may have been a risky choice to make a point like that using a living person as an example. She could have played it safe and stuck to history. But Mantel wanted to show that the way women in the public eye are treated has changed a lot less than we might like to think. And the press have obligingly made her point for her.
Whether Mantel stirred up this hornet’s nest unwittingly or with deliberate intent isn’t known. For her sake, I hope she knew what she was doing. Then she might have been braced for the attacks that have included slurs on her weight and her childlessness – both, it should be remembered, the result of the painful and debilitating illness, endometriosis.
This whole ‘scandal’ has been a story of lazy journalism, beefed up by people from the Prime Minister downwards who were ready to jump in and comment without reading or listening to the LRB lecture, and then soured by personal attacks that should sicken every one of us.
Maybe we can’t expect any better of the tabloid press. But please let us at least hold the rest of our journalists to a higher standard than this.
We know Words with Jam readers like to make up their own minds; so listen to the speech, or read the full transcript here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n04/hilary-mantel/royal-bodies