Even if I hadn’t seen Hilary Mantel’s now-infamous piece in the 21 February London Review of Books, I’d certainly have heard about it by now. I’ve written quite a bit on the Tudors, and I’ve written quite a bit on the Windsors, and I’ve written quite a bit on Mantel – even if I’d somehow missed an LRB piece that brought all three of those things together, people would have sent me plenty of links to it. They did anyway, curious to know my thoughts about “Royal Bodies,” which briefly stirred a controversy into which even the British Prime Minister felt obliged to dip an oar. Media in the UK scolded Mantel for being mean to Prince William’s wife, the former Kate Middleton, and there was a good deal of counter-scolding from (to use the term rather elastically) the literary community, arguing that Mantel’s comments were being taken out of context, that her intent had been ironic, and that in any case she was mostly commenting on gender and power-politics in the Tudor era, not our own. The cottage industry of royal-watchers accused Mantel of being bitter; the literary community accused the royal-watchers of missing Mantel’s point entirely.
The little irony of course being that when I first read the piece, the controversy that caught my eye – the one that first caused me to uncap my pen and start underlining – had nothing to do with Prince William or Kate Middleton or Princess Diana; I was struck by Mantel’s quick mention of an article that appeared in the Historical Journal, a piece of speculation by Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Cornelius Kramer that Henry had Kells antigens on his blood type. If this had been true and his wives were Kells negative (as would have been statistically likely), there’d be medical pathology behind the fact that so many of Henry’s offspring died at birth or shortly thereafter – Kells antigens create just such a reaction in Kells negative women after their first pregnancy.
It’s interesting but thorough nonsense – even what little we actually know about Henry’s sexual record doesn’t present like Kells at all – and I read along expecting Mantel to politely disown the whole idea. But although she toyed with it, she then took up the article authors’ second contention, that Henry went on to develop something called McLeod syndrome, a fairly nebulous collection of symptoms that, taken together, sound a lot like simply getting old – only that, crucially, don’t seem to affect the centers of higher reasoning and decision-making.
I was disappointed that Mantel seemed to swallow McLeod syndrome as easily as she swallowed Kells. But then, it’s the one way most Tudor fiction disappoints: in order to fill narratives with multi-layered complexity, authors (at one point Mantel makes a slighting reference – for which she ought to be ashamed of herself – to “lady novelists”) tend to leach that same complexity right out of Henry. No matter how complicatedly are portrayed all the knights, serving women, ladies maids, and ministers all around him, he’s usually just made into a burbling, bloodthirsty buffoon. McLeod syndrome would put a medical name to some of that, but lord knows novelists haven’t needed a Merck Manual to make one of the most complicated figures of his era a squint-eyed homicidal maniac. It’s even a weakness in Mantel’s own superb two novels, and she’s certainly not repenting in this piece. “In fact,” she tells us, “I think we can say that the old monster was a bit of a romantic.” She ponders about the ‘romantic’ part, but she’s certain of the ‘monster’ part, especially over time (when, presumably, his McLeod syndrome could be nice and flowery):
It is said that as a young man he was sweet-natured; though the claim would have had a hollow ring if you were Richard Empson or Edmund Dudley, ministers to his father, whom he executed as soon as he came to the throne. But it’s incontrovertible that as Henry aged he became increasingly angry, irrational, wilful and out of control.
It’s certainly unanimous, but I don’t know about ‘incontrovertible.’ It’s a necessary convention of modern eras to call a man insane just because he has a couple of his wives executed, but the actual sources we have for the last, say, twenty years of Henry’s reign controvert quite a bit about a simple story of a deranged madman sinking deeper and deeper into purblind tyranny. Reading Mantel’s piece, I had the same sad thought I’ve had reading dozens of Tudor histories: even after all these centuries, Henry is still waiting for the novelist who makes him live again. I would have thought he’d get such a novel long before a worm like Thomas Cromwell would, but villains always have an easy appeal.
And nobody else cares about Henry VIII and Kells antigens – they care about an award-winning novelist being badly misinterpreted as speaking ill of the Windsors.
That part of the controversy genuinely confuses me, because this is without any question an exceptionally mean-spirited essay. There’s no a single breath of irony in it, although there are great gusts of plain old-fashioned spite. About Kate Middleton we’re told she “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.” Not only was Middleton not ‘selected’ (Mantel forgets her hero is dead; the Palace didn’t ‘select’ Middleton, William selected her – and she him – after an eye-wateringly normal college romance), but the comment itself is unmistakable bile: Mantel wouldn’t like any friend of hers talked about that way.
But the bile is a gimmick in any case, and you can tell that by the way she layers it on. After a speech by Prince Charles, she glimpses the clean-up crew stacking chairs and goes to town:
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.
To which you want to say, “Look, I’m sorry your taxi home was late, but don’t take that out on the universe.”
And it’s not just poor Charles who’s deconstructed into cardboard scenery and wasted pomp. The tricky thing with attention-getting bile as a gimmick is that it’s slippery enough to get away from its user. This happens to Mantel rather hilariously, when her headline-grabbing flailing at one point nails an extremely innocent bystander:
… 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.
The point of all this flailing is fairly obvious, and it proved out: to incite a temporary brushfire of outrage. Everybody invited to a podium has the right to grab for such outrage if they feel like it (I’ve never been able to resist the temptation, for instance), although it’s a shame in this case that it’s posited on such wilful misreading of the facts. “A royal lady is a royal vagina,” Mantel writes, her headline ready-made, temporarily not caring that no line could be further from the truth in the case of Henry VIII (or in the case of Prince William, for that matter, who would otherwise have had ‘selected’ for him a young woman who’d already successfully given birth).
And if Henry himself had taken a podium? His headline might have been “Lady novelists say the darndest things.”