Hillary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” was a welcome bit of stocking filler for the Christmas just past, this author of great repute having only become known to me with the news of her recent ground breaking Booker Prize success. Being at least as fond of history and literature as the next person I was mildly bemused by this late discovery, but putting this quickly behind me, got stuck into the first part of her Thomas Cromwell epic with some enthusiasm.
I have now been wrenched free of this happy absorbed state by this absurd business of her British Museum lecture and the most direly pressing question of whether or not Mantel was mean about Katherine Middleton. The internet sphere has run riot, with far too many articles already springing up on this matter, and opinion falling either in vehement defence of the author or overly affronted defence of the princess. What’s one more then?
Rather then just weigh in directly, I’m going to try a little experiment on myself. I have yet to read the full transcripts of this speech and was only introduced to this all when I read Hadley Freeman’s article yesterday. This was followed by condemnation after counter-criticism after outrage with even David Cameron offering up his unimpressed thoughts on Mantel’s supposed cruelty in the midst of his Indian road trip. Taking these in, what is my uninformed opinion?
First and foremost, I cannot stand outrage, offence, hurt feelings, whatever you want to call them. A thick skin and a bit of self-confidence is what most of these situations calls for and my knee-jerk reaction to the knee-jerk reactions of most of Mantel’s new detractors was close to, “Aw, better call the waaaaaambulance.” The court of public opinion is a stupid, fickle thing and even if I ever did fall in line with the naysayers I would quickly become disgusted with myself for being susceptible to that kind of gallows justice.
This is all to say, luckily for Mantel, that my natural reaction is to defend her, certainly to the point of reading the damned speech and making up my own mind. Innocent until proven guilty is a cornerstone of proper law completely ignored in that aforementioned false judiciary. It just isn’t good enough in this situation to form your opinion on the opinions of others, Hadley Freeman, Zoe Williams, Robert Jobson, Sam Leith or the Prime Minister.
Right, I have now read the speech. Very intelligent, very engaging and above all it resonates, with me at least. A bit intellectually snobby? Maybe. But that in and of itself is no crime and is probably why several critiques found it hard to penetrate the apparent judgements on Middleton to see the underlying wisdom. Mantel’s comments with regards to the princess would be rather insulting out of context, but this only enforces the importance of context and the need to understand it.
From Middleton to Antoinette to Diana and Boleyn it is a sweeping mini-odyssey into the portrayals and roles of female figures throughout history and well worth a look, if only to shed all of that hot air surrounding it. Mantel’s distaste of the media’s hideous habit of binging on photos and headlines of all things of great unimportance to sate our voracious appetites, is easy to sympathise with. I say leave us starving of innuendo, I want real news.
Incidentally, Mantel closes the speech with the acceptance that this particular issue wasn’t very high on the agenda of public debate. The irony of having pushed it up the order to the nth degree is probably not lost on her. This wasn’t an attack on a person, but on several institutions that deserve a great deal more ire for precisely the reasons Mantel discusses. Certainly more ire than she herself deserves for having dared to discuss them.