Juliet Dunlop: Hilary Mantel right to fear Kate obsession

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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When Vogue published a cut-out-and-keep guide to being Kate Middleton, it must have hoped the irony would not be lost on readers.

From the rakish tilt of her hat (a 50-degree angle) to the height of her heels (four inches), it dissected her appearance with mock mathematical precision. Over several glossy pages, her teeth were counted, curls calculated and eyebrows measured. Pie charts and graphs provided the back-up analysis.

The editor, a woman, probably thought it would appeal to other women who, like her, had grown up with Sindy and Barbie. And the Duchess of Cambridge was real, after all.

Yet Vogue must have realised that such stalkerish examination, such unhealthy poring over of face and body and clothes, would feed into the growing perception that the duchess is somehow not “real” – that she is a creation, to be bought and sold and copied. The accompanying article made no reference to matters that could not be illustrated by charts or photographs. Kate by numbers, a comprehensive guide, was a study of royal style without substance. At least it was honest about it.

Which is more than can be said of most of the Kate coverage. Not the Italian or French magazines that published topless photographs of Kate last year, or the Australian paper which displayed a pregnant, bikini-clad Kate, but the scrapbook, one-dimensional coverage she is afforded by almost every section of the British press.

Perhaps it is why everyone from the Daily Mail to David Cameron queued up to attack the author Hilary Mantel this week, after she compared Kate Middleton to a “shop-window mannequin with no personality of her own”.

Mantel, whose Booker Prize-winning novels are set in the court of Henry VIII, had given a long speech about the way royal women have been portrayed over the centuries. The duchess, not surprisingly, featured in Mantel’s meaty lecture.

It may sound cutting – “She appears precision-made, machine-made… as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without risk of the emergence of character…” - but read the speech, and Mantel is defending Kate. The “threadbare attributions” she speaks of, the accusations and the criticisms, refer to the role the press – and the public – have chosen for Kate. It explains much of the outrage. She is not a woman, merely a photo opportunity, and clichés and clothes have been used by newspapers and magazines to fill in the blanks.

Hackles were also raised after Mantel made the point that we are obsessed with the Royal Family’s ability to breed. She compares the media’s pursuit of the royal pregnancy to the close observation of hormonal pandas. We do stare at them, we are fascinated by them and they are endangered.

“These days she is a mother-to-be,” says Mantel. “Once she gets over being sick, the press will find 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.”

Mantel’s only mistake may be in underestimating the “gloss-varnished” Kate. While Fleet Street fought over who would bloody the author’s nose, the pregnant Kate appeared, as if by magic, wearing a dress that clung to her swelling stomach. She smiled and nodded and obligingly patted her bump for the cameras. The appearance, at a charity event for abused women, her vulnerability for all to see, was perfectly judged. It was a Diana moment.

And, if Kate is a “jointed doll on which certain rags are hung”, or a Vogue pattern to be copied, she is still a role model for millions of women; a glamorous wife, and soon a mother. Kate is confident, intelligent and, largely, in control of her image.

Yet Mantel is right to be fearful. We are in danger of becoming like “spectators at Bedlam”. Curiosity can turn into cruelty. And, however hurtful her words may sound, the thoughts behind them are still relevant and truthful. Mantel’s anger is aimed at the press, not the newly christened Princess Kate. “I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes,” she says.

Does that sound like a venomous attack to you?