Of princesses and tabloids

February 21, 2013

When visitors enter the UK, they should be greeted by a life-size model of a dragon (though what is life-size for a dragon?) with a placard by it that says: “Welcome to the United Kingdom. We devour princesses!”

The dragon might be made of newsprint, for it is the newspapers – followed by waddling broadcasters, tut-tutting along – who are the devourers of these women. The latest British royal scandal features two central British institutions, the royal family and the tabloid press, oddly paired with a distinguished writer. The first two have flourished in a swamp of contempt (on the royal side) and addiction (on the press side) ever since the postwar years, when automatic deference to royalty was replaced by a destructive neediness.

The present queen, Elizabeth II, was a young woman of 25 when the death of her father propelled her to the throne in 1952. No scandal of her making attended her as a princess, nor has any since she became queen. Her sister, Princess Margaret, was a different matter. In love in her early 20s with a divorced “commoner,” Group Captain Peter Townsend, she renounced him at her sister’s request and later married the photographer Anthony Armstrong Jones. She later divorced him. Margaret, a heavy smoker and drinker, was a fixture in the popular papers – mostly for real or alleged affairs, especially with the minor aristocrat Roddy Llewellyn, a man 17 years her junior.

Margaret’s fame was dwarfed by Princess Diana; a woman of rare beauty with a quality of effortless stardom. Like Marilyn Monroe, Diana was destroyed by a fame she had sought avidly, played with feverishly and finally was consumed by. Diana was tabloid gold, an original woman who offered herself, while also withholding herself, thus increasing the fascination. The slow breakdown of her marriage, the post-marital affairs and the serial charity events she attended propelled her to a celebrity no other modern princess has matched.

Certainly not Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge (not a princess yet, but likely to be, and then a queen); wife to Prince Charles’ elder son, William, a man who could be king either after, or even (as is much speculated) instead of, his father. She invites the appellation of a “nice girl” – pretty, charming, stylishly dressed. But her nature and passions are a mystery. This week, however, she has succeeded in uniting Prime Minister David Cameron and opposition Labor Party leader Ed Miliband. They both condemned a “venomous attack” on her by the novelist Hilary Mantel, twice a Booker Prize winner and one of England’s most lauded novelists today.

The revealer of this venom was the Daily Mail, described last year as “the most powerful newspaper in Great Britain … the defender of traditional British values, the voice of an overlooked majority whose opinions inconvenience the agendas of metropolitan élites.”

Mantel, in a speech that was printed in the London Review of Books, was sharp, though “venomous” is too strong a word. In her lengthy essay, “Royal Bodies,” mostly about the wives of the Tudor King Henry VIII, the period in which her latest novels are set, Mantel described Kate Middleton this way:

Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.

The Mail, the voice of middle England, called Mantel “the darling of the literary establishment … using her position among the novel-writing elite to launch an astonishing and venomous attack …” Few positions are worse, in the Mail’s opinion, than being part of anything that can be described as “elite.” Few reputations are more contemptible than being an establishment “darling.” Cameron, on a trip to India, said Mantel may be an ace novelist, but “what she’s said about Kate Middleton is completely misguided.” Miliband was even stronger. “These are pretty offensive remarks, I don’t agree with them,” he said. Ad aide said Cameron had not read Mantel’s entire speech, and I doubt Miliband had, either.

Much of the commentariat has rallied to Mantel’s side. Alex Massie in The Spectator, Sam Leith in The Guardian and Jenni Russell in the Evening Standard, among others. Most make a similar point: Mantel wasn’t really concerned with Kate in her speech. Where she discussed her, she was ultimately sympathetic to the young woman’s plight of being trapped in a tabloid cage. At the end of the piece, she made a plea for the avid, cannibalistic public to “back off and not be brutes.”

Although I dislike the Daily Mail – I was once treated to some of its bile, over two pages in its Sunday edition – I found the consensus disturbing.

The quotes from Mantel’s speech that the Mail used in its condemnation of her are no more out of context than any other quotes from a speech or an essay. They don’t represent the burden of the piece, but they’re there, high up, mostly not qualified by any clauses arguing that it was the press making Middleton into a “shop window mannequin” or preventing any “emergence of character.” Mantel is a precise writer: Had she wished to say that, she would have done so. The statements were what she really thought of Kate.

Nevertheless, Mantel is also sympathetic (though less so than critical). She does blame tabloid journalism in some part; her argument is complex and finely done, and the Mail ignores nearly all of it. But it was an attack that must have hurt. The Mail riposte didn’t lack venom itself, but harsh criticism invites a reply in kind. Although Mantel is right that we should pay attention to royal bodies (since from them comes British heads of state), any argument about their nature should provoke debate.

The Daily Mail is the most powerful newspaper in Great Britain because it gets up every morning and denounces evil, hypocrisy, lies, stupidity, threats to freedom and threats from militants, activists and protesters. Four and a half million readers read it for that. The royal family, and especially the younger part of it, touches both a sentimental and a servile streak in the press. The royals and the tabloids are the British themselves. We’ve had royalty for two millennia and tabloids for almost two centuries. And because we also love theater, we love to see them fight, like Katherine and Petruchio – but watching can be cruel.

PHOTO: Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, visits the Kranji Commonwealth War Cemetery in Singapore September 13, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Chong

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