A Royal Pain

A Royal Pain

Hilary Mantel helps me understand the mania over Kate and William’s baby boy.


Tony Appleton, a town crier, announces the birth of the royal baby, outside St. Mary's Hospital exclusive Lindo Wing in London, Monday, July 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The royals and, more precisely, media coverage of the royals evoke in me a simple, blunt-force reaction: Stop. Turn off the TV, turn it off faster. I don’t care about the royals or anyone that cares about them. I don’t want to see adults who value royals’ lives more than others’ reaching through the gates of Buckingham Palace as if to get the cure for scrofula.

And I sure don’t want to see the already dumb-downed MSM gushing over the “news” of a baby. The headline of the British mag Private Eye had it right: “Woman Has Baby.” Call me a Kenyan anti-colonialist, if you must, but I don’t get the royal fixation. I have no insights into it. I just want it gone.

And yet if, like me in calmer moments, you might be open to more nuanced thoughts on the construct we call “royalty,” you should check out Hilary Mantel’s essay, “Royal Bodies,” in February’s London Review of Books. Her novels about the reign of Henry VIII, who beheaded two of his six wives and imprisoned two others for failing to produce a male heir, are hot stuff right now. But it’s the essay (which raised a rumpus in London when it first appeared) that takes on the absurdities of today’s royal fandom, while sympathizing with the actual humans who are its objects.  

Mantel starts off before we learn that Kate Middleton was pregnant:

In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth….

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.

As if on cue, British-born Tina Brown praised Kate, or rather her body, for producing a boy. “I mean, once again, she does the perfect thing,” Brown said yesterday on Morning Joe. “Although there’s the constitutional change that we can now have a girl as the first-born to be the monarch, nonetheless, she does the traditional thing, and she gives us a prince. She gives a king.”

CNN contributor Victoria Arbiter similarly hailed Kate’s organs for their smart marketing campaign: “My first thought, I have to say, this is how brilliant a royal Kate is. There are women throughout British royal family history that have panicked over not being able to deliver a boy, and here we are, Kate did it first time.”

As Mantel writes (of an author tickled to accept an award from the Prince of Wales), “This is what the royals have to contend with today: not real, principled opposition, but self-congratulatory chippiness.”

That can change into self-congratulatory “concern,” which it did, for instance, when BBC News devoted a discussion to whether it was safe for a pregnant Kate to “run a few paces” of hockey while visiting her old school. “It is sad to think,” Mantel writes,

that intelligent people could devote themselves to this topic with earnest furrowings of the brow, but that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken. And in the same way one is compelled to look at them: to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours.

The flip side of such adulation is the desire to humiliate.

Along with the reverence and awe accorded to royal persons goes the conviction that the body of the monarch is public property. We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way, making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all.

As Kate and William left the hospital Tuesday amid wild cheers and a million cameras, the press asked the usual dumb questions, like, How do you feel? After answering that “it’s very emotional” and a “special time,” Kate had the grace to add, “I think any parent will know what this feeling feels like.”

Right, but non-royal parents suspect that Kate and William feel the feeling differently. And the media likes it that way.

Ad Policy