Why the royal fuss? Mantel made sense on Kate

Julia Bell likens the furore over Hilary Mantel's comments to the reaction to someone telling children that Santa is not real.

Story highlights

  • Award-winning novelist Hilary Mantel described the Duchess of Cambridge as "machine-made"
  • Mantel's comments have sparked criticism, including from UK Prime Minister David Cameron
  • Julia Bell argues that Mantel has been misinterpreted by a press wanting headlines
  • She says the novelist was asking why Britain needs to "believe in" the royal family

When I was a child I had an illustrated chart of all the kings and queens of England on my bedroom wall. I loved that poster: There was moody King Alfred sighing over burnt cakes, fat, arrogant Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I with her inscrutable half-smile, Charles II hiding in the tree. They were live and vivid stories of heroism, frailty, failure, fealty, attached to real ruins that real families (including ours) seemed to trudge off to engage with at weekends -- thanks to the National Trust. To me they were a kind of half-fantasy. Factually real, but entirely constructed in my imagination.

No wonder then, that historical novels have such an enduring appeal -- the latest blockbuster on the life of Katherine Parr is about to hit our shelves. For the writer imagining what it must have been "really like" back then is a huge part of the appeal.

The late author Christopher Hitchens called the royal family our "national fetish."

Shrunk now from the awesome Tudor kingdoms, the current royal family now has a largely "soft" social and tabloid power, and any negative mention of the royals, especially by someone who has been as handsomely rewarded as Mantel by the establishment, is met with screams of utter hysterical disapproval.

Read more: Author's description of Catherine as 'machine-made' doll sparks angry reactions

If you read the original article it's an erudite, writerly essay that speculates about the national drama that is the royal family, and acknowledges -- much like the spectacle that is playing out at the Vatican -- that the royal family is pure theater with real living human beings playing out these arcane rituals stuck in the middle.

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Mantel is not actually calling Kate a "jointed doll," she is suggesting that the duchess's public image -- the role she plays in the collective psyche -- has overtaken the real person, much like it did with Diana, Princess of Wales.

But the fact that the Daily Mail and other conservative commentators have broken out in such a bad case of shrill hysteria in the face of this examination of the author's mixed feelings about the royal family is quite amusing, actually, because it sounds so utterly insincere.

Aside from the fact that Kate is pregnant and the Mail needs to keep her in the headlines, such is their fawning need to be seen as the courtiers-in-chief, there is also a question of why Mantel's essay has caused such a fuss. It's almost like someone has just told all the children that Santa is not real.

Mantel is merely pointing out that Catherine is not really a duchess, just a woman who agreed through marriage to play this role, which few would wish to have for all the kingdoms in the world -- all that suffocating attention.

Read more: Duchess of Cambridge -- from college sweetheart to queen in waiting

Mantel, like all good novelists, understands the power of the imagination to create reality: all she is doing is pointing out the drama that the royal family play out on a national stage. We agree as a nation, to believe in the royal family -- why? Because we always have? This is the really interesting question and the one that Mantel was asking.

That she should be met with such opprobrium for asking it suggests something interesting about the national psyche. In the absence of any real national culture the royal family is increasingly the obsession of the English -- the Scots and the Welsh would take independence if they could have it. They are expensive, anachronistic, a sentimental link in a chain to a collective history -- a bit like a living breathing monument. But the issue about whose nation they represent, and what they are really for remains louder than ever.