On February 4th Hilary Mantel gave a talk about the monarchy, about our attitudes to royalty and what they do to the people designated royal. If the talk had a guiding theme it was compassion, a plea for proportion in our dealings with princes. In her conclusion Mantel calls on us to become more mindful of the way we treat the royal family:
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.
The same is true of celebrity more generally. We don’t have to be captured by the glamour of those who are well known. We can choose to treat them as fellow humans, deserving of consideration and respect, rather than as intimations of the divine, opportunities for enchantment. To resist enchantment is to act on the understanding that, to borrow a phrase from Mantel, ‘their substance is the same as ours’. To allow our feelings about someone to become outsized, to hold them in awe or contempt, is kind of idolatry. But we do not have to involve ourselves in the thought-world of monarchy as inarticulate magic. We do not have to become brutes.
Of course this stepping back isn’t as easy as it sounds. An industry of images and comment builds itself on the idea of a substantial difference between the world in which we live and the kingdom of fame. How tempting it is to fall in with the consolations on offer, to share in the triumphs and sorrows of those we have made greater than ourselves. Tempting, too, to become furious with the personnel, the individuals who fill the space created by the cameras.
At the beginning of her talk Mantel talks a little about Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Her remarks are of a piece with the rest of her talk. She wants to warn the princess of the danger that surrounds her, the demand that she be something less than a human being:
I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.
There is only so much that the Duchess can do to escape this process of reduction. The surrounding culture industry needs her as a peg on which to hang mawkishness and faux-serious think pieces about what this or that manufactured drama tells us about The Modern World. She provides a pretext for something somewhere near the head of that procession of words and pictures that journalists, editors and politicians keep moving at the same pace as our days. If Catherine can be human then where will it all end? How can we be kept entranced by the same substance as ourselves? Better that she remain an object of veneration or, for a contrarian minority, an infuriating symbol of luxury and privilege.
Nothing much happened after the talk. But some time after the London Review of Books published the transcript the Daily Mail saw in it an opportunity for outrage. Francesca Infante reinvented it as a ‘bitter attack … an astonishing and venomous critique’. In the carnage of selective quotation an instance of outright invention catches the eye. Infante claims that Mantel compares Catherine unfavorably with Anne Boleyn:
She said the Duchess was quite unlike Anne Boleyn, who was ‘a power player, a clever and determined woman’.
Mantel says nothing of the sort at any point in the talk. But Infante had her theme and her article to write. What Mantel saw as the projections of an industry had to be misunderstood by that same industry as insults or slurs. And if there wasn’t enough to misunderstand, then why not invent something, some filler for the mechanically retrieved quotes from which Infante was making her sausage of controversy?
After the Daily Mail published the article all manner of opportunists leapt in. The Prime Minister took time out from his trip to India to make it plain that he had no more interest in what Mantel had said than anyone else, but that he was damned if he was going to pass up an opportunity to put himself on the right side of popular sentiment. Another MP, Andrew Griffiths, offered this gem on Twitter: ‘Hilary Mantel really is a mean & nasty lady. I wonder what in her life made her so bitter? Or is she just desperate for publicity?’
And so on. So much for not being brutes.
As I say, there is only so much that the Duchess can do in the face of a complex of speech that wants to use her for its own purposes. But we can do something, we can do a lot. We can start by insisting on the humanity of the royals, the absence of the uncanny. To do that requires an end to the giddiness of sovereign royal power. Not abolition, but the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, secured by the consent of the people.
The temptation to celebrity would remain. But our arrangements – the entire field of permissible speech and possible action – would become entirely of this world, owing nothing to magic. The aura of the unspeakable would leave the royals; they would no longer conceal the secret of power in the glare of their being constantly seen, of being in the public eye. It would mark the end of something, as all beginnings must. But it would be consistent with the most pressing task, of creating a society in which each of us has some purchase on the future to which we are all headed.
(If you would like to learn more about the resources that republican doctrine offer to the cause of radical change, I explore them in Maximum Republic. It’s available for the Kindle and can be accessed in pretty much any format here.)