Royal Bodies – Then and Now

The press has excerpted bits of Hilary Mantel’s London Review of Books lecture, “Undressing Anne Boleyn,” delivered at the British Museum (, reducing her literate comments to schoolyard insults leveled at the Duchess of Cambridge – and it’s causing a giant flap.

Maybe when we glance in fascination at the royals, we look for clothes and mistakes, but Mantel’s long gaze is historical and stares at monarchy itself – a foreign concept to us. But a fascinating one, and you know my heart is with the pageantry of it all – whatever would the British put on cookie tins without the royals?

So I like to think of Kate as smart, picture her recognizing her place in history (knowing she is neither Anne Boleyn nor Marie Antoinette but a modern woman), and rising above the media fray, embracing the fuss even. While Mantel describes herself, as “as a person of expanding girth and diverse afflictions,” Kate is young and beautiful, pregnant with an heir to the throne – royalty!

But Mantel wins with words! Oh it is delicious this piece. Mrs. Hughes, after reading it, said: “How does Mantel do that? Take every thread and weave it together in the end to make the reader feel so satisfied.”

That lecture must have been some event, an evening when the well-worn British praise “Brilliant!” would be exactly right. It’s “Wolf Hall” for our time with Mantel’s descriptive passages about Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana so true and imaginative at the same time.

As she works on the completion of her trilogy, Mantel’s heart must really be with the Tudors centuries ago – but her mind can look at now and make magic for us. She considers her own experiences with the British royals with a seemingly spot-on description of the slightly tacky ring to all of it, when the fairy dust blows away and the folding chairs and the sticks from the canapés are revealed. She is masterful. In her descriptions of the queen parting a room of trying-to-be-cool guests or Diana’s moment of transformation into princess, the prose sings – just like the books.

Mantel asks, “What does Kate read?” I hope she reads Mantel and chuckles. Truly, she has the last laugh. She loves her prince and he loves her, she gets to live in Kensington Palace – I wish her well. And I’m nuts for Mantel.

©Katy Gilmore