“Context is all,” wrote the novelist Margaret Atwood. The media’s reaction to Hilary Mantel’s apparently “venomous attack” on the Duchess of Cambridge neatly underlines the point.
At the beginning of last month, Mantel gave a thoughtful and considered lecture in which she explored her reaction to monarchy, both as it stands today and as it has in previous centuries, with wit and perspicacity.
True, she spoke of Middleton as a “jointed doll” and a “shop-window mannequin” with a paucity of personality. But if you actually read the piece, you see that this is how Mantel accuses us of seeing the duchess.
No matter. These phrases have been seized upon by the press. Mantel is now a traitor and a fat, jealous old woman.
The Daily Mail is kind enough to point out that she is infertile and that she gained four stone after surgery. David Cameron and Ed Miliband weighed in, each decrying the same fat, jealous woman for a lecture that, one suspects, neither had read.
Anyone who does take the time to read Mantel’s speech in full cannot but come to the conclusion that she makes a good point. The institution of monarchy has a pernicious tendency to consume its inhabitants and to suppress their humanity. They are a public property and a public spectacle. They are idols, yet they are gawped at like circus animals. “Royal persons are both gods and beasts”, says Mantel.
The novelist does not fixate on the Duchess of Cambridge – far from it. She discusses royal bodies from Marie Antoinette to Henry VIII. The impression given by the press that she devoted her lecture to focusing her jade-eyed jealousy on a vulnerable young woman is false. Her eloquent broadside is directed at us. Indeed, by reacting as it has done, the media has proved Mantel right.
Atwood, too, makes a good point. Context is a fundamental part of understanding. By focusing only on a few select parts, we frequently miss the meaning of the whole. The press’s wilful ignorance of this fact in its coverage of Mantel’s lecture prompts the question: who’s bitching now?