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Mon Sep 01 23:03:38 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: Kate is no royal stooge

Alison Weir | 22 February, 2013 00:53
Prince William and Kate Middleton at their wedding in 2011. The Duchess of Cambridge is at the centre of a debate about royal brides
Image by: DOMINIC LIPINSK/REUTERS

According to William Shakespeare's Hamlet, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Being a respected author in a position to influence what people think is a huge privilege, but in the general scale of human affairs does one person's opinion count for more than others'? There is always another view that might be equally valid.

I have long admired Hilary Mantel's work but what was she thinking as she delivered her lecture, entitled Royal Bodies, at the British Museum earlier this week? Her subject, as befits Mantel's oeuvre, was the power of the British monarchy, from the Tudor period to the present day, with a parade of queens and princesses lined up for assessment on the age-old basis of looks and fertility. All well and good, one would think, until she launched, with surprising vigour, into the defenceless Duchess of Cambridge.

"Kate 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," Mantel said. "She appears precision-made, machine-made."

Such thinking reflects a modern, post-feminist, literary view of the role of royal women, and of the institution of monarchy in general.

Hers is a superior view, reflected in her question: "Is monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation?" She says she does not know, but the wording of the question implies it isn't, and that all the thousands (myself included) who thronged to celebrate the royal wedding and the queen's Diamond Jubilee are in some way immature.

As for poor Kate, whom tradition denies a voice to respond to criticism, is she really "a shop window mannequin, with no personality of her own?" This is a young woman who went to excellent schools, secured a place at Scotland's oldest university and graduated with a master's degree. Why, therefore, does Mantel ask: "What does Kate read? It's a question." This is a young woman who, far from having no character or personality, has chosen to take an extraordinary route in life and is making a success of it. If that isn't empowering, what is?

Mantel is correct in assessing the traditional role of a royal wife. Yes, it is to breed heirs, as history shows most graphically. But there is also a ceremonial role, and a charitable one. Queens, princesses and royal duchesses who have shown the gentler face of monarchy have always been popular. Their roles were decorous, symbolic and dynastic, and it is true that not much has changed.

But there is one huge difference between Kate Middleton and the royal brides of past centuries: her marriage was not arranged without her having any say in it. She chose to marry into the institution of monarchy, knowing she would be expected to play an archaic and often challenging role. That she is doing it to perfection is a tribute to her intelligence and strength of character.

To state that she was "designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished" seems particularly unkind. What shines forth from Kate's smile is sincerity and pleasure. She is clearly doing what she wanted to do all along, and enjoys doing. The word "radiant" may be hackneyed in royal reportage, but it certainly applies in Kate's case. Accusing her of having "no personality of her own" is unfair, given the constraints imposed on her. And surely no one "selected [her] for her role of princess because she was irreproachable". That may have been an issue in Princess Diana's day but it isn't now.

Kate met Prince William at university. They were together for eight years before they married, during which time they spent some time apart and lived together.

It is unlikely, in the wake of what happened to Diana, that attempts were made to influence William in his choice of bride. This was clearly a marriage of personal choice.

No one could suggest, either, that Kate is "without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character". She is a human being, like the rest of us, who has the usual human frailties. Her character shines forth in her determination not to let those frailties interfere with the role she has taken on. For that, she deserves our respect.

Whether Mantel likes it or not, both women and men, especially those in the public eye, are defined by what they wear and they always have been.

Throughout history, conspicuous display has been the outward manifestation of wealth and power; it was a political tool. In the Tudor period, magnificence was expected of monarchs and those closely related to them. Dress defined rank and was governed by laws restricting the wearing of certain fabrics to royalty and the upper ranks of the aristocracy, reflecting strict demarcations in society itself. In the 18th century, Marie Antoinette was still expected to dress sumptuously.

Like Marie Antoinette, Kate can't win. It's bad enough being lambasted for what you wear, but Mantel's criticism of Kate goes beyond that: it is symptomatic of the current trend of saying what you think, regardless of whom you hurt or offend. - ©The Daily Telegraph

To read Hilary Mantel's speech visit www.lrb.co.uk

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