Royal bodies are capitalist commodities
23rd July 2013
I'm recovering from an operation at the moment and pretty immobile; I've spent a lot of time in front of the telly but I won't this week because no matter how you try, you can't avoid getting updates on the royal labour and birth. So I've taken refuge in reading a good book, in this case, Hilary Mantel's, Booker Prize winning, Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, which also won the Booker Prize.
The central character in both novels is Thomas Cromwell; I wouldn't say hero because Mantel shows us her characters 'warts and all'. Probably every character, including Cromwell, has as much that is repulsive as to be admired in their make-up. Wolf Hall describes the part he played in the rise of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII's break from the Roman Catholic Church. Bring Up The Bodies, shows us the role played by Cromwell in Boleyn's downfall.
I like Mantel's style in the 2 books. She writes almost like a play; battles, murders, affairs, all take place off-page and you find out about them in the conversations of the main participants. This seems to bring the story more real somehow, almost as if you imagine yourself overhearing these conversations yourself.
That this is the book I'm reading as every facet of the Duchess of Cambridge's labour is publically broadcast, is ironic given the furore that erupted over a speech that Hilary Mantel gave earlier this year, which discussed the position of a royal bride, and what's demanded of them. For a while it made Mantel public enemy number one with large sections of the media.
"Prime Minister mauls best-selling author Hilary Mantel over 'plastic princess made for breeding' jibe", screamed the Daily Mail. As Cameron and Ed Miliband, following Cameron's lead as he does on all matters great and small, jumped in to condemn Mantel, clearly without bothering to read the content of the speech they were condemning. "'Plastic' princess slur at Kate" was the headline in the Sun, which went on, "Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel has attacked the Duchess of Cambridge as a “plastic” princess whose only purpose is to breed".
If they'd actually bothered to read the interview they'd have seen that Mantel doesn't actually criticise Kate Middleton (as she was) rather the role selected her for her by society and more particularly, by the establishment and the press.
It's hardly Kate's fault that the Duke of York's assessment of her allegedly was that she was a good choice because she would ‘breed in some height’ or that she increasingly has become defined by what she wears and how she looks.
Mantel compares her to Marie Antoinette, a character that appears in another of Mantel's novels, 'A Place Of Greater Safety', about the French Revolution. She also discusses the expectations that were placed on Anne Boleyn, a central character in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. That Boleyn became queen and then ultimately lost her head is in large part down to her promises and then failure to bear Henry VIII a son.
If anything, Mantel's speech is a plea to let Kate Middleton develop as a person, rather than treating her in the same way that other female royals that Mantel has included in her novels, a vessel to bear the next heir to the throne, "a royal lady is a royal vagina".
While this seems to be no less the expected role of a royal female now than it was in the periods in which Mantel sets her novels, there is one new aspect. Capitalism makes everything into a commodity and a royal birth is no different. This morning I forgot that I was avoiding the news and switched on BBC Breakfast. The business section was on and they were discussing the financial benefits of a royal birth to ailing British capitalism. "A royal event is a retail event" was business correspondent, Steph's assessment. Apparently the birth will give a 5.2% boost to spending in the short term and £243 million will be spent on commemorative gifts.
I can't imagine there will be many comrades rushing out to snap up this tack, so if, like me you're looking to escape from royal watch with a good novel, you could do worse than to pick up one by Hilary Mantel.