Saturday, February 23, 2013

Let's be grateful for Hilary Mantel's wicked eloquence

The storm over the novelist’s comments about the Duchess of Cambridge distracted us from her many acute – and witty – observations on royalty, says Gaby Wood.

HIlary Mantel
Hilary Mantel: wicked wit Photo: David Rose
Hilary Mantel does not need to be defended. To suggest that she doesn’t know her own mind or can’t speak it would be silly – almost as silly as the storm that erupted this week over her comments about the Duchess of Cambridge. But we could certainly read her better.
For those of us who heard Mantel speak at the Telegraph Hay Festival last summer, the furore has been a baffling accident of timing. As she said in the opening sentence of her LRB talk on February 4 (the two week-old utterings at the heart of this recent matter) she began to think about the subject when asked, at Hay, a standard question: if you had to give someone a book, which would it be and to whom would you give it?
I was there when Mariella Frostrup asked her that, and the whole thing was very funny. On the sofa at the Sky Arts Book Show set were Hilary Mantel, Tim Minchin and Boris Johnson – a brilliantly blond and joshing threesome. Mantel said: “This will interest you, Boris: Thomas Cromwell is the only man in history who ran away from home to become a merchant banker.” Minchin described Johnson as “a very sexy man”, and stroked his shoulder.
And so merrily on, until they were each asked to recommend a book. Mantel suggested she’d like to give Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber to the Duchess because Marie Antoinette was, as she put it, “devoured by her frocks”, and Mantel wished to offer her a word of warning. “I’d like to say to her: Assert yourself! You are more than a jointed doll.”
We reported those comments in this paper at the time. Not a peep as a result.
Did anyone notice Mantel’s searing sympathy for the royal family? For the “violations” of Diana, the “bewilderment” of the Queen, the “self-congratulatory chippiness” the Prince of Wales has to contend with in members of the public? What about her pertinent question about Richard III’s body under the car park: “Why are we all so pleased about digging up a king?” And in purely literary terms, her paragraph about pandas is a masterpiece of mischief, worth quoting in full. 

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