Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 26 May 2016

'Painfully thin' Kate needs more friends like Mantel

By Matthew Norman

Published 22/02/2013

The Duchess of Cambridge
The Duchess of Cambridge

Few have had a better practical education about the law of unintended consequences than Hilary Mantel.

As a young woman suffering the undiagnosed endometriosis that later robbed her of her womb, she was prescribed anti-psychotic drugs which turned her psychotic.

Yet even our most prize-strewn literary novelist may be startled by how a speech in Kate Middleton's defence has drawn her into as a catfight, as media misogynists will promote it, with the object of her sympathy.

If it looks like a catchweight contest, it is no contest at all. What the Daily Mail – ever easily astounded and more easily scandalised – described as "an extraordinary and venomous attack" was quite the reverse. Whether anyone at the Mail bothered to read the 5,500 words, or did so and found them whooshing above his or her head, or understood them fine and wilfully misconstrued them, is unclear.

I'd go for the latter, because if anyone was in the crosshairs of Mantel's telescopic sight, it was those, like the Mail, who fixate on vulnerable Royals, such as Diana and now the Duchess, without a care for the consequences.

"Adulation can swing to persecution, within hours, within the same Press report," Mantel begins her closing paragraph. "It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn't mean... we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty... We don't cut off the heads of Royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. I'm not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I'm asking us to back off and not be brutes."

A gentle, venom-free cri de coeur, you may agree, with which to place in perspective her earlier remarks about the pregnant Duchess once being "painfully thin" (the source of untold fascination to the Mail).

Given the sublime precision with which Mantel chooses her words in print, you might argue that she should have spelt her meaning out in metaphorical block capitals for the hard of comprehending. But why the hell should such a clever woman dumb herself down on the off chance that an obscure speech, sponsored by the London Review of Books, might meander its way into the block capitals of a Daily Mail headline?

A stranger to false modesty and phony self-deprecation, her ego seems both colossal and, in its artlessness, endearing. It should allow her to treat the mischief-making and all the bitchy references to her steroid-induced weight with the disdain they demand.

She will, touch wood, be less concerned about being malevolently misrepresented by the Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, taking a few words out of context and moulding them into a charge of treason, than the prospect of her geologist husband, Gerald, feeling shamed by Iain Duncan Smith into retraining as a shelf-stacker.

Let us hope that the doughtiness with which Mantel overcame decades of wretched health and used the tragedy of infertility as the catalyst for literary greatness, inures her to this latest in an endless sequence of cretinously conflated rows.

We could do with hearing more from Hilary Mantel rather than less.

She may not be what the Daily Mail lexicon of cliche lists as a national treasure, but judged by her enemies as well as by herself, she is a diamond in the rough.

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