"I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at."
February 17, 2013 6:02 AM   Subscribe

Royal Bodies by Hilary Mantel
"I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting?"
posted by Fizz (53 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm troubled by "But aren't they interesting?" directly following another clause starting with "but."
posted by escabeche at 6:22 AM on February 17, 2013


How I've not made the panda to monarchy connection before this article!? I do not know, but that is how I shall view them from now on.
posted by Fizz at 6:24 AM on February 17, 2013 [13 favorites]


I did read TFA but I have to say, if we can run out of pandas we can just give someone enough bamboo and they can be the new panda.
posted by idiopath at 6:24 AM on February 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


What a nasty, sneering article...
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:33 AM on February 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


It did not feel particularly nasty to me. She seemed to tap into that part of humanity that revels in the criticism of someone in limelight. A recognition that she is just as guilty as the paparazzi in hounding these individuals.
posted by Fizz at 6:50 AM on February 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


Nasty? I had the exact opposite impression. For all the snide jabs at the monarchy, it seems she has a sympathy for their plight - we deride them for not being as human as the rest of us, while at the same time ensuring that they are out into a position in which they cannot be as human as the rest of us. She was certainly a lot more kind towards Henry VIII than most people I've read discussing the man.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:53 AM on February 17, 2013 [16 favorites]


She enjoyed only the romances of Barbara Cartland. I’m far too snobbish to have read one, but I assume they are stories in which a wedding takes place and they all live happily ever after.

Whoa, she had just cited a description of Diana Spencer as a "fatal non-reader." She can't cruise through one book by Cartland to see what it's maybe about as opposed to making this proudly ignorant statement?
posted by BibiRose at 6:57 AM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ugh. Defenses of the royal family always have this oddly mawkish tone, like Chris Crocker under a sheet, writ large.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:07 AM on February 17, 2013


She can't cruise through one book by Cartland to see what it's maybe about as opposed to making this proudly ignorant statement?

trust me, there are things it is best to be ignorant about, and cartland is one of them

remember, you can't unread a book once you've read it
posted by pyramid termite at 7:14 AM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


With all due respect, what an insult to pandas.
posted by Neekee at 7:20 AM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've struggled to square my anti-monarchist opinions with my minor fascination with the royals themselves. Given the popularity of Mantel's books (I've yet to read any myself), I'm obviously not the only one.

I liked most of the article, but the final closing "don't be a dick" moral is problematic because it could be read as "don't criticise the monarchy, for they are people too". The story of Diana became a catalyst for an actual conversation about whether we should have a monarchy, and that discussion was important and necessary and a long time coming. Just because we enjoy weddings and babies and coronations doesn't mean we should accept the status quo.

I like Kate in as much as someone can like a largely mute, pretty princess. I enjoyed the wedding, I aspire to her style and I mimic her hairdos. But Britain has accepted being subjects and that saddens me.
posted by dumdidumdum at 7:21 AM on February 17, 2013


They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.

If Kate gets to be a royal vagina, what is the author saying about other women, the non-royals, who have children with their non-royal men and just have a job that goes nowhere?
posted by discopolo at 7:24 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't see the claimed nastiness at all - crudely summed up from one of the final lines, the idea of the essay is her developing sympathy and sense that "we don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them". Naturally the easiest way to protect them would be to abolish them, but this country is wrapped around them like a trained ivy, and it will take a lot of doing.

Not to be a dig at lucien_reeve, but it is sad that anything that touches meaningfully upon women's issues is usually judged and hacked down immediately by self-assessed gatekeepers in a way that you don't really see in any other field. It sometimes feels that feminist discussions are becoming a stifled theological minefield and losing a lot of their meaning and vibrancy thereby.
posted by forgetful snow at 7:24 AM on February 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


Is monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation? I don’t know. I have described how my own sympathies were activated and my simple ideas altered. The debate is not high on our agenda. We are happy to allow monarchy to be an entertainment, in the same way that we license strip joints and lap-dancing clubs. Adulation can swing to persecution,

This is the crux of the matter. How does the monarchy proceed from here. They are a bit ludicrous in this age, like Shakespearian actors forced to wear their costumes to the grocery store and the dentist. I have argued on the Blue for their continuance as an international symbol for Britain, but I can understand the dislike by tax payers for supporting their lavish life style.

I'm old enough to have been swept away by the glamor of Diana (in California I stayed up to watch her wedding because I myself was getting married a few months later.) To this day I'm saddened not by her death but by how she became the butt of sneering jokes. I'm not sure what she should have done differently, but I suppose that Kate is tailoring her life to be the anti-Diana. Perhaps William and Kate could fulfill the nation's ideas of modern monarchs, but I suspect King Charles and his consort will be the death of the institution.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:27 AM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


their plight

Many people have difficult jobs. Few are so well compensated.

Here in Canada the monarchy is a polite fiction, and a useful one. Having a distant queen costs us basically nothing, and it's nice that our head of government and symbolic head of state are not the same person.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:29 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would rather our symbolic head of state were a panda, and I mean that in all seriousness.
posted by Evstar at 7:42 AM on February 17, 2013 [21 favorites]


"Having a distant queen costs us basically nothing, and it's nice that our head of government and symbolic head of state are not the same person"

Not sure I would want to pay the price of having a monarchy, but I for one would LOVE it if it were possible for America to elect introverted types into the presidency. As things stand right now you cannot win teh job if you're not extroverted, and too many presidents go beyond that into downright egomania.
posted by ocschwar at 8:23 AM on February 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


I like pandas.
posted by Mezentian at 8:29 AM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here in Canada the monarchy is a polite fiction, and a useful one. Having a distant queen costs us basically nothing, and it's nice that our head of government and symbolic head of state are not the same person.

This is emphatically not true. The costs of the Monarchy to Canada are substantial. In fact more substantial than any other commonwealth country since we are the only nation that fully subsidizes royal travel to our colony in addition to maintaining the completely superfluous government office of GG.

For example a four day visit from Chuck and Camilla in 2012 cost Canadians 1.2 million cdn in directly attributed costs. You can be certain that the actually cost was a multiple of that and was absorbed by a variety of public budgets that had reduced services to public that funded them. The 2009 visit was declared to cost 1.7 Million but reporting based on access to information requests revealed it was $2.57 million.

It sounds trivial but then take a look at the number of royal visits in the 21C.

The budget for the governor general is $20 million in direct costs and another $17 million in costs charged to other departments. There are also the costs of maintaining the GG's two residences.


It's not a polite fiction. It's an extremely rude subsidy to the completely undeserved wealth and power of one of the richest families in the world.
posted by srboisvert at 8:34 AM on February 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


"It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control. I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes."

Mantel has not refrained from having an opinion, but is asking us to reckon with the royals' humanity even as we gawk and criticize. That's a much more nuanced position than "don't be a jerk."
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:37 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I for one would LOVE it if it were possible for America to elect introverted types into the presidency.

Lots of people argue that Barack Obama is an introvert. (I tend to agree.)
posted by lalex at 8:39 AM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


and it's nice that our head of government and symbolic head of state are not the same person.

I've actually become a bit of a fan of the model of a distant monarch acting as a pressure valve, which is probably quite the opposite of what the Republicans expected from the referendum in Australia. And I always have in the back of my head that it can all go horribly wrong. But so could a president.
posted by Mezentian at 8:39 AM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think Mantel wrote this article to make an argument. I think she got this image of royal bodies in her head and ran with it. The imagery part is just great as it should be, coming from such an accomplished fiction writer.
posted by BibiRose at 8:42 AM on February 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hmm. I see what she's saying, but one thing that isn't really mentioned is the political weight of both pandas and the British monarchy. Pandas are supposed to be the subject of disinterested preservation efforts, but which zoo gets a panda cub (and the attendant bump in publicity and ticket receipts) is a fiercely political process, as far as I understand it.

Likewise, the idea of the royal family as being purely passive recipients of attention doesn't jibe well with the problematic case of the letters written by Prince Charles to government ministers. Traditionally, correspondence between the heir and the government is accepted as a way for the heir to learn about how government works, and to prepare him/herself for accession to the duties of the monarch. However, there is a general supposition that the Prince of Wales used his privileged access to government to lobby for personal causes - such as his personal antipathy to modernist architecture and enthusiasm for homeopathy.

I say "general supposition", because the letters were blocked from becoming public (due to a Freedom of Information request) by the Attorney General, on the grounds that they would impact Charles' credibility as a potential monarch if their content were to become public.

Which is tricky, because the monarch is supposed to be politically impartial - above politics, specifically - and the heir is supposed to engage with government in order to prepare for rule, not to affect policy. The Attorney General has potentially helped the royal family to dodge one bullet, but in doing so has given the impression of the government and the monarchy colluding against the public, which is exactly what is supposed not to happen.
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:43 AM on February 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


it's nice that our head of government and symbolic head of state are not the same person

This is also true in such obscure parliamentary republics as "Germany" or "Italy."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:55 AM on February 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hilary Mantel; got to love her writing and her insight into the Tudors and thus monarchy is not easily surpassed.
posted by adamvasco at 8:56 AM on February 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm with BibiRose; this struck me as a magnificent piece of writing. Hard to take, at first -- I had moments of "holy shit what a rotten thing to say about Kate, she's still alive, she might read this!" But one of the strengths was that though she began with women's bodies, men's bodies were duly considered too, and the ending balance seemed appropriate considering the undue attention the media pays to women and girls in the public eye.

I might assign this to my media literacy students this semester. They have a hard time thinking of celebrities as vat-bred for our consumption, for our tastes and vindictiveness; they think they are getting real stories about the Kardashians and Taylor Swift. Maybe if I assigned this and said "every time you hear 'royals', think 'celebs'"...
posted by gusandrews at 9:08 AM on February 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


Well, perhaps this would all be resolved if the English threw this rabble out and placed their true King on the throne.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:13 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting?

Not really, no. As far as I'm concerned, the only bad part about England dissolving the monarchy would be the fact that it would utterly dominate the news cycle for weeks.

What I would dearly like is to never, ever hear one more word about them. They seem to be in the class of celebrities-because-they-are-celebrities. Don't care, not interested.
posted by Malor at 9:30 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you want to read something on a Sunday morning that won't leave you unsettled, don't read Hilary Mantel.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:57 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a fan of historical fiction (although sadly I have not yet read Mantel's work) I often come across books told from the first-person perspective of a legendary female royal personage. These aren't necessarily bad, but I think they miss an important point. Without any evidence to the contrary, we should probably assume that such people lacked anything like the perspective, depth and personal reflection required to plausibly serve as a narrator in a novel.

Mantel mentions Marie Antoinette -- Maria Antonia as was -- as a soulless clotheshorse, and that is not entirely fair. I see her as a tragic, sympathetic figure, not so much because of the circumstances of her death but because she was essentially a child prostitute, and raised to it from birth. She was married off at fourteen. Once married, she was almost immediately despised by the courtiers and the country for her nationality and her lack of sophistication, and soon enough for her inability to produce an heir. That inability was due entirely to her husband's crippling medical problems preventing him from consummating their marriage. After seven years of allowing her to be considered useless, he finally addressed his problem with medical aid, and she was able to do her duty. She disappointed her controlling mother, the Empress of Austria, for being unable to live up to political expectations under these circumstances.

Marie Antoinette was much like a lesser Kardashian sister thrust upon the world stage. She was only one of the young women and men, throughout the centuries, expected to bear the burden of royalty without knowing what it was to be fully human. Charles doesn't really know that either, for all of his good intentions and books and orders and so forth. William and Harry might have a better idea. Kate probably does.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:14 AM on February 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


The extent to which this is a false analogy is quite shattering, and leaves me almost tearful.
posted by Decani at 10:23 AM on February 17, 2013


Sigh. I posted a link to this on my Facebook wall, and less than three minutes later someone commented, "Wow, she really hates Kate Middleton! But I guess Diana was a hard act to follow." I'm left with this vaguely annoyed feeling, because first off, I know this person didn't read the whole essay in that tiny amount of time. And second... it's not about Kate Middleton, or Diana, or any one specific figure of the monarchy. It's about all of them, and how we consume them.

Sheesh. That'll teach me to post anything more high-brow than links from io9 on my Facebook page. :/
posted by palomar at 10:52 AM on February 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's not a polite fiction. It's an extremely rude subsidy to the completely undeserved wealth and power of one of the richest families in the world.

which is why I'm secretly hoping (secret no longer, I guess) that whenever William or whoever ascends to the throne and thus to reign o'er us, he says something the effect of, "Hey all, thanks for all the pomp and adulation, but seriously, this is bullshit. I've got no more of God's blood in my veins than anybody else and bluntly, I don't need all the publicity and fame. Fact is, it's toxic. So here's what we're going to do. Me and the family are going private. We've got ample wealth already, thank you very much, acres and acres of real estate we can sell if needs be, not to mention the yacht. So anyway, thanks again, I'm off to our place in Norfolk for the summer. See you when I see you, but please don't try to touch me as if actually means something significant. That's just weird."
posted by philip-random at 10:53 AM on February 17, 2013 [7 favorites]



I for one would LOVE it if it were possible for America to elect introverted types into the presidency.

Lots of people argue that Barack Obama is an introvert. (I tend to agree.)


His reserved demeanor certainly stands out compared to just about every president besides maybe Bush Sr. But compared to British PMs and ministers? Not so much.
posted by ocschwar at 11:12 AM on February 17, 2013


Me and the family are going private. We've got ample wealth already, thank you very much, acres and acres of real estate we can sell if needs be, not to mention the yacht

If I were the British people, I might at that point ask for some of the real estate back.
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:23 AM on February 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


She was only one of the young women and men, throughout the centuries, expected to bear the burden of royalty without knowing what it was to be fully human.


I find it more than a little unsettling that you've just decided who is and isn't "fully human".
posted by dubold at 11:27 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I find it more than a little unsettling that you've just decided who is and isn't "fully human".

Do you honestly think that was what Countess Elena was saying?
posted by Summer at 11:50 AM on February 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


It was being in the USA in the early 2000's that changed my mind that the monarchy is a good thing. In America, the president is a truer monarch - the national focus of patriotism and true political power both meet in a single individual, but this individual acts like a slimy politician, because that's what he is, but he is never grilled like one, because with the absence of a greater figurehead, he's the monarch. This causes huge problems.

For example, the president was pushing for a war (with Iraq) that did not survive cursory examination, but that examination was almost completely shut down by a fever pitch that questioning a slimy politician was unpatriotic. Opposition to war was widespread, but incited fury and backlash, and was outright stunted in the wider media by their fear of criticising the monarch and appearing to be against the country (when questioning the slimy politician was clearly the greatest service to country they could offer).
Watching it all go down, I think that if the USA had a figurehead, such that the president could be freely treated like the slimy politician he is, there is a very real chance that the USA would not have started the war on Iraq. (And without the USA going to war in Iraq, Britain would have had no obligation to follow, and would not have invaded either.)

The president is never questioned as if he's a politician. Never interviewed by real interviewers, never grilled, never has his feet held to the coals, like politicians need to be and have always needed to be. And yet a politician is exactly what he is. And the reason for that collective failure is that he's the national figurehead.
You need a separate figurehead. A powerless monarch seems like a workable approach.
posted by anonymisc at 12:05 PM on February 17, 2013 [16 favorites]


This article gave me another thought - in the US, the weekly magazine racks are all about the famous-for-being-famous glitterati. The Kardashians, etc. In the UK, much more about the royals.
I haven't thought this through, so it's probably complete crap, and it's no doubt been discussed by others, but if national glitterati are invariably going to be put in these role-model / aspirational / vicarious-living sort of lights, it might make a kind of sense to have an explicit arrangement with the national glitterati to be better role models. That living (setting an example for others) is a job you do, we pay you to do it to the best of your ability. Don't go nuts. Kardashian etc has no obligation to society to behave or to set a good example. Tax-funded royalty does.
Does it work? Is it worth it? I don't read the rags, I wouldn't know.
posted by anonymisc at 12:18 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


The framing of this post is rather unfortunate, as it gives the impression that Hilary Mantel is comparing the royal family to pandas. If you read to the end of the article, it becomes clear that she's actually rejecting this comparison. 'But aren't they interesting?' is said with heavy irony; it's not meant to be her own opinion.

Listen to the podcast, and you'll hear the audience greet her remarks about pandas with a ripple of well-bred middle-class laughter -- which only goes to prove her point, I suppose.
posted by verstegan at 12:44 PM on February 17, 2013


You need a separate figurehead. A powerless monarch seems like a workable approach.

One of the Dutch royals, perhaps? There have been precedents. (Mind you, Juan Carlos was able to put some power to good effect during the attempted coup.)
posted by IndigoJones at 3:04 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


But aren’t they interesting?

No, even a powerless monarchy is a stamp of approval on a caste system where birth defines worth.
posted by anadem at 3:50 PM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, even a powerless monarchy is a stamp of approval on a caste system where birth defines worth.

In that case, elected powerless monarchs, Phantom Menace style! :)
posted by anonymisc at 6:30 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Many countries separate the positions of Head of State (mostly a figurehead, with reserve constitutional power in a crisis) from Head of Executive (a politician). Constitutional Monarchies take this one step further: they have a Head of State plus a reserve Head of State (our Queen) in case the first one gets broken. Mezentian mentioned Australian constitutional crisis of 1975; I think the risk of the Queen's using her right to delay and perhaps her hypothetical ability to refuse to appoint a more compliant Governor General must have delayed Gough Whitlam's instinct to have Sir John Kerr dismissed.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:19 PM on February 17, 2013


I'm pretty sure Britain nationalized the Monarchy's holdings a good while back. The Queen is paid only 15% of the income, and doles it out to her family as she sees fit. The other 85% goes into the public purse. I think this means she's actually a profit centre for Britain, not a cost.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:11 AM on February 18, 2013


She can't cruise through one book by Cartland to see what it's maybe about as opposed to making this proudly ignorant statement?

In defense of Mantel, Cartland herself (who was Diana's step-grandmother, actually) is reported to have said "The only books she ever read were mine and they weren't awfully good for her."

If I were the British people, I might at that point ask for some of the real estate back.

In point of fact (one often missed by Americans), there is a legal distinction between the properties of the royal family and the properties of the Crown per se. Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, for example, belong to Britain itself, while Sandringham and Balmoral are estates owned directly by the Queen as inherited property. If you read history or historical fiction, the distinction between the monarch's private wealth and the public purse comes up quite frequently (with respect to, say, building palaces or waging wars).

a four day visit from Chuck and Camilla in 2012 cost Canadians 1.2 million cdn in directly attributed costs

Eh. This for a country whose GDP is approaching $2 trillion. I mean, a million bucks US or Canuck is barely enough to build a decent warehouse these days.

Anyway, I agree with the sentiment above that this is a brilliant article and not at all comparable to snark or envy. Her insight into how the role has changed (and how well cast the actors) between Diana and Kate is worth it by itself.
posted by dhartung at 12:17 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


In point of fact (one often missed by Americans), there is a legal distinction between the properties of the royal family and the properties of the Crown per se. Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, for example, belong to Britain itself, while Sandringham and Balmoral are estates owned directly by the Queen as inherited property. If you read history or historical fiction, the distinction between the monarch's private wealth and the public purse comes up quite frequently (with respect to, say, building palaces or waging wars).

Precisely - I think the all the Crown Estates would at that point have to be surrendered. Things get trickier with e.g the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall, I guess - but I would assume they would also cease to provide funds to the Royal Family and Prince Charles also. And, obviously, the Crown Jewels and gifts of state would be retained by the state, also. The Sovereign Grant and Civil List would also cease to exist, and without the Duchy of Lancaster the Privy Purse would also effectively cease to exist.

That wouldn't make a huge difference in some ways - it's not like the Queen can just sell Regent's Street to make some quick folding money, and the revenues from the Crown Estate no longer flow directly to the Crown. But it's not wholly clear what a post-monarchy royal family would actually do, or how they would fund it.
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:32 AM on February 18, 2013


Because of their unique requirements, they may be kept safely--and well--in groves of a certain kind of eucalyptus tree, and if you wish, special viewing areas may be constructed so that tourists can observe their goings on.

Those little bears, though, you can just put in a cage.
posted by mule98J at 9:49 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


(Mind you, Juan Carlos was able to put some power to good effect during the attempted coup.)

To put on my Grizzled Conservative hat and offer an actual defense of the monarchy: you should judge a tree by the fruit it bears. Everything about a monarchy is derived from codswallop and malarkey, but for reasons involving the crooked timber of humanity, there are circumstances where the presence of a king can be mighty beneficial to the common good.
posted by ocschwar at 7:08 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hadley Freeman writes in The Guardian about reactions to this article.
posted by BibiRose at 7:55 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hadley Freeman writes in The Guardian about reactions to this article.

Proof again that free speech is vitally important.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:57 AM on February 19, 2013


Kate Middleton: benefit scrounging mother moves into palace at taxpayer's expense
“Dole Queen Owns Horse!” screeched the front page of yesterday's Sun. This masterpiece of balanced headlining ran alongside a full-length picture of a distressed-looking pregnant woman who is due to be relocated into an extravagant new home at the government’s expense. The thirty-one year old, who has never held a full-time job, will shortly be moving into a twenty-bedroom palace with a fleet of staff, all funded by the taxpayer at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds per year. Kensington Palace, to be precise. The state is to fund the redecoration of every room to suit the unemployed mother-to-be and her husband, who is also out of work after a brief stint in the army.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:37 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


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