Enfilade

Mantel on “Royal Bodies”

Posted in books, opinion pages by Editor on February 24, 2013

From the Editor

cov3504Hilary Mantel’s talk, “Undressing Anne Boleyn,” at the British Museum (4 February 2013), published as “Royal Bodies” in the London Review of Books (21 February 2013), has occasioned considerable discussion in the UK, thanks to the comments of the two-time Booker Prize recipient regarding the role of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, and her body in British society. With no intentions of fanning the flames of the controversy, I thought it might nonetheless be of interest to Enfilade readers, particularly since Marie Antoinette serves as one source for the argument (whatever one makes of Mantel’s engagement with history, I’m repeatedly gobsmacked by her writing and the views offered into the past). From the LRB article:

Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks. She was transfixed by appearances, stigmatised by her fashion choices. Politics were made personal in her. Her greed for self-gratification, her half-educated dabbling in public affairs, were adduced as a reason the French were bankrupt and miserable. It was ridiculous, of course. She was one individual with limited power and influence, who focused the rays of misogyny. She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade. . . .

coverMantel’s first novel, A Place of Greater Safety — finished in 1979 but not published until 1992 — addresses not Tudor England but Revolutionary France, imagining the lives of Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. Larissa MacFarquhar brilliantly profiled Mantel in the fall in “The Dead Are Real,” for The New Yorker (15 October 2012). And in terms of the current controversy, Jenny Hendrix, writing for The Los Angeles Times Books (19 February 2013), offers a sampling of the response in the British media. Here, I give the last words to Mantel:

It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. 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. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control. I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes. . .