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Royal Bodies

Hilary Mantel spoke about royal bodies in the London Review of Books’ Winter Lectures Series at the British Museum on February 4, 2013. The Shakespeare Theatre Company is reprinting the article here, in edited form, with her generous permission. A much longer version of this article was published in the London Review of Books, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Feb. 21, 2013).

A royal body exists within a certain landscape—the throne room, the parade ground, or the balcony below which adoring subjects cheer, or filthy rebels curse. It is defined by a certain choice of accessories—scepters, crowns—and these, along with the brocades and velvets of royal attire, are more significant and more dangerous than ordinary clothes. Marie Antoinette, for instance, was eaten alive by her frocks. She was transfixed by appearances, stigmatized 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. But in truth she was all body and no soul: no soul, no sense, no sensitivity. She was so wedded to her appearance that when the royal family, in disguise, made its desperate escape from Paris, dashing for the border, she not only had several trunk loads of new clothes sent on in advance, but took her hairdresser along on the trip. Despite the weight of her mountainous hairdos, she didn’t feel her head wobbling on her shoulders. When she returned from that trip, to the prison Paris would become for her, it was said that her hair had turned grey overnight.

I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.

A few years ago I saw the Prince of Wales at a public award ceremony. I had never seen him before, and at once I thought: what a beautiful suit! What sublime tailoring! It’s for Shakespeare to penetrate the heart of a prince, and for me to study his cuff buttons. I found it hard to see the man inside the clothes; and like Thomas Cromwell in my novels, I couldn’t help winding the fabric back onto the bolt and pricing him by the yard. At this ceremony, which was formal and carefully orchestrated, the prince gave an award to a young author who came up onstage in shirtsleeves to receive his check. He no doubt wished to show that he was a free spirit, despite taking money from the establishment. For a moment I was ashamed of my trade. I thought, this is what the royals have to contend with today: not real, principled opposition, but self-congratulatory chippiness.

Painting of Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes (c. 1600).

And then as we drifted away from the stage I saw something else. I glanced sideways into a room off the main hall, and saw that it was full of stacking chairs. It was a depressing, institutional, impersonal sight. I thought, Charles must see this all the time. Glance sideways, into the wings, and you see the tacky preparations for the triumphant public event. You see your beautiful suit deconstructed, the tailor’s chalk lines, the unsecured seams. You see that your life is a charade, that the scenery is cardboard, that the paint is peeling, the red carpet fraying, and if you linger you will notice the oily devotion fade from the faces of your subjects, and you will see their retreating backs as they turn up their collars and button their coats and walk away into real life.

Then a little later I went to Buckingham Palace for a book trade event, a large evening party. I had expected to see people pushing themselves into the queen’s path, but the opposite was true. The queen walked through the reception areas at an even pace, hoping to meet someone, and you would see a set of guests, as if swept by the tide, parting before her or welling ahead of her into the next room. They acted as if they feared excruciating embarrassment should they be caught and obliged to converse. The self-possessed became gauche and the eloquent were struck dumb. The guests studied the walls, the floor, they looked everywhere except at Her Majesty. They studied exhibits in glass cases and the paintings on the walls, which were of course worth looking at, but they studied them with great intentness, as if their eyes had been glued. Vermeer was just then “having a moment,” as they say, and the guests congregated around a small example, huddled with their backs to the room. I pushed through to see the painting along with the others but I can’t remember now which Vermeer it was. It’s safe to say there would have been a luminous face, round or oval, there would have been a woman gazing entranced at some household object, or perhaps reading a letter with a half-smile; there may have been a curtain, suggestive of veiled meaning; there would have been an enigma. We concentrated on it at the expense of the enigma moving among us, smiling with gallant determination.

And then the queen passed close to me and I stared at her. I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialized and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment. She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.

And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologize. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at. I rejoined, mentally, the rest of the guests. Now flunkeys were moving among us with trays and on them were canapés, and these snacks were the queen’s revenge. They were pieces of gristly meat on skewers. Let’s not put too fine a point on it: they were kabobs. It took some time to chew through one of them, and then the guests were left with the little sticks in their hands. They tried to give them back to the flunkeys, but the flunkeys smiled and sadly shook their heads, and moved away, so the guests had to carry on the evening holding them out, like children with sparklers on Guy Fawkes night.

Photo of Queen Elizabeth II in Royal Dress (1953).

At this point the evening became all too much for me. It was violently interesting. I went behind a sofa and sat on the floor and enjoyed the rest of the party that way, seeking privacy as my sympathies shifted. And as the guests ebbed away and the rooms emptied, I joined them, and on the threshold I looked back, and what I saw, placed precisely at the base of every pillar, was a forest of little sticks: gnawed and abandoned. So if the queen’s glance had swept the room, that is what she would have seen: what we had left in our wake. It was the stacking chairs all over again; the scaffolding of reality too nakedly displayed, the daylight let in on magic.

We can be sure the queen was not traumatized by my staring, as when next we met she gave me a medal. As I prepared to go to the palace, people would say: “Will it be the actual queen, the queen herself?” Did they think contact with the anointed hand would change you? Was that what the guests at the palace feared: to be changed by powerful royal magic, without knowing how? The faculty of awe remains intact, for all that the royal story in recent years has taken a sordid turn. There were scandals enough in centuries past, from the sneaky little adulteries of Katherine Howard to the junketings of the Prince Regent to the modern-day mischief of Mrs. Simpson. But a new world began, I think, in 1980, with the discovery that Diana, the future Princess of Wales, had legs.

Diana was more royal than the family she joined. That had nothing to do with family trees. Something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity, fitted her to be the carrier of myth. Diana walked bare-handed among the multitude, and unarmed: unfortified by irony, uninformed by history. Her tragedy was located in the gap between her human capacities and the demands of the superhuman role she was required to fulfill.

For a time it was hoped, and it was feared, that Diana had changed the nation. Her funeral was a pagan outpouring, a lawless fiesta of grief. But in the end, nothing changed. We were soon back to the prosaic: shirtsleeves, stacking chairs, little sticks. And yet none of us who lived through it will forget that dislocating time, when the skin came off the surface of the world, and our inner vision cleared, and we saw the archetypes clear and plain, and we saw the collective psyche at work, and the gods pulling our strings. To quote a poem by Stevie Smith:

An antique story comes to me
And fills me with anxiety,
I wonder why I fear so much
What surely has no modern touch?

In looking at royalty we are always looking at what is archaic, what is mysterious by its nature, and my feeling is that it will only ever half-reveal itself. Royal persons are both gods and beasts. They are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a blood line: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs.

Is monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation? I don’t know. I have described how my own sympathies were activated and my simple ideas altered. 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.

Hilary Mantel was born in Derbyshire, England. She studied Law at the London School of Economics and Sheffield University. She was employed as a social worker, and lived in Botswana for five years, followed by four years in Saudi Arabia, before returning to Britain in the mid-1980s. Her books include Wolf Hall (2009), winner of the Man Booker Prize and the Walter Scott Prize; and Bring Up The Bodies (2012), winner of the Man Booker Prize, and Costa Book of the year 2012. In 2006 she was awarded a CBE.

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