There’s been a huge fooferaw in Britain about a recent Hilary Mantel speech that contemplated what monarchy and public institutions like it do to actual human beings. Some Brits are up in arms about some phrases used by Mantel – in what is, in my view, a simply brilliant, must-read piece about all institutional humans (from presidents to popes and kings and queens) and their bodies. The outrage requires ignorance of the actual speech, because it’s spoken from a rather inspired version of empathy, not scorn, as Massie notes here.
Mantel has been writing some staggeringly good books about the Tudor period, so she knows the full history of monarchy, its quirks and details and foibles. And she points out something very obvious, though usually forgotten: the constant public viewing of a royal has to be a dehumanizing, even depleting, experience from the other side of the looking glass. It becomes both the most extreme form of celebrity, but still has to be scandal-free to survive. Those dead eyes in the new and genuinely awful portrait of Middleton (see above) are dead for a reason: self-protection. In one passage, Mantel recalls what Diana did for Britain and what Britain and the entire world did to the human being who was once Diana Spencer:
Diana was more royal than the family she joined. That had nothing to do with family trees. Something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity, fitted her to be the carrier of myth. She came near to claiming that she had a healing touch, the ancient attribute of royal persons. The healing touch can’t be felt through white gloves. Diana walked bare-handed among the multitude, and unarmed: unfortified by irony, uninformed by history. Her tragedy was located in the gap between her human capacities and the demands of the superhuman role she was required to fulfil. When I think of Diana, I remember Stevie Smith’s poem about the Lorelei:
There, on a rock majestical,
A girl with smile equivocal,
Painted, young and damned and fair,
Sits and combs her yellow hair.
Soon Diana’s hairstyles were as consequential as Marie Antoinette’s, and a great deal cheaper to copy.
But this exposure – from that first picture with sunlight behind her dress revealing one hell of a pair of legs – is what in the end killed her inside and then outside. How, in other words, do you remain a human being and an institution at the same time? And on that question, Mantel’s examination of the time she met the Queen is simply priceless. Mantel was invited to a social event at Buckingham Palace, which the Queen attended. As the Queen walked around, Mantel noticed people move away, shifting their gaze, trying not to engage: “The guests studied the walls, the floor, they looked everywhere except at Her Majesty.” Now imagine being the person at the center of this social embarrassment for your entire lifetime. You are so alone; you are so necessarily aloof; your humanity has to be contained for the enigma of the monarchy to remain. The alternative is a car wreck in an underpass in Paris. And then Hilary actually catches Her Majesty’s eye and we see the human cost:
I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment. She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.
And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at.
You were and you were not. And this is worth thinking about as well with respect to the Papacy. Perhaps what the introverted Ratzinger feared was the kind of public spectacle that John Paul II endured, as his slowly disintegrating body was wheeled around like some kind of relic, because the institution and the person were fused. And now, there is no escape from mass media, no relief from scrutiny, no amount of frills and lace and ermine and Prada to conceal the man beneath the robes. Maybe someone genuinely committed to the Gospels simply could not face that form of endless, merciless Hell. Hilary concludes:
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.
Middleton in some ways is the antidote to Diana: beautiful but safe, young but mature, alive but slowly dying under the exposure that never, ever ends. We have an institution that demands a mask for a human being to survive within. But the mask has been removed, and the flashbulbs won’t stop.