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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Seizing the Mantel and Seizing the Pen

Diana (Birchall, not the ghost of the late Princess of Wales!) wrote the following in Janeites, in regard to the recent article by Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel...

...and I have taken the liberty of bringing it over here to my blog as well:

Diana: "If you're going to get a fair idea of the Hilary Mantel kerfluffle, it is misleading to read just the press coverage about her article or even see quoted excerpts. You need to read her actual, whole paper. It's gorgeously written with the richness of her historical imagination, but she  makes a mistake in comparing the restrictions on a basically trivial modern  media star to the monarchy of Henry VIII's power-wielding day. They're different animals. I suppose her point was the grotesqueness of Kate's role, but again she blurred  the point by straying over the border into what sounded like personal attack."

Diana, I completely agree with you that the Mantel article has been badly misconstrued by the British media, but I completely disagree with you that this was the result of a writerly misstep or misjudgment on Mantel's part.

Quite the contrary, I firmly believe that part of Mantel's tongue remained firmly in her satirical cheek, the whole time, because what she covertly desired, and was surely gratified to receive, was the very firestorm of ill founded, stupid criticism of her article that has ensued.

This is exactly what she wanted to happen! This article is "A Modest Proposal" updated to 2013!

Think of the British media as some vast Lady Catherine, which Mantel has artfully managed to goad and poke into a predictable, mindless outrage, descending on Mantel with a vengeance----the better to illustrate, at least to those observing this spectacle from the proper viewpoint, exactly the social phenomenon that Mantel wished to illustrate! I.e., that Mantel speaks the truth about the British national idiocy, its Royal Family, and, for assuming this position of upstart pretension, and daring to puncture the treacly mythology that the British people project onto the Royals, Mantel must be severely chastised--at least, in the court of common opinion.

I believe that Mantel used, as bait, the cover of her brilliant, off-center comments on the British monarchy, in order to induce the British media to bite and then unwittingly play their role, as Mantel's
puppet, in demonstrating the way the British media garishly and sometimes ghoulishly feeds off the Royal Family, particularly its female members, thereby constituting the other half of a grotesque circus which the British people apparently can't get enough of.

Mantel was perfectly well aware that not one reader in ten was going to read her article all the way through, let alone absorb her many subtle observations and ruminations. She knew, and expected, that most readers, especially reporters and op/ed writers, would tire quickly and then leap at the easiest, fastest way of translating--very poorly--what she wrote into pulp for fanning public outrage.

I think, most of all, Mantel really wants Kate herself to read the article, and to reflect on the role she has assumed, and to ask herself whether she really wants to play the role exactly as choreographed by her new (Royal) family, of if perhaps Kate wants to take a step or two outside that box, and behave in ways that might not be approved by her in-laws, but which would better serve the British people, particularly British women.

I think Mantel's half hoping that Middleton will respond publicly, in print, and actually acknowledge at least some of what Mantel says, and perhaps start a thoughtful national dialog about the topic, amongst those willing to engage in such  a thing.

And, in support of my theory, I believe I am not mistaken in perceiving three distinct and very knowing winks and nods by Mantel toward Jane Austen, the greatest satirist of the British Royal Family of all, in Mantel's final paragraph. See if you can spot them all:

"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. Get your pink frilly frocks out, zhuzh up your platinum locks. We are all Barbara Cartland now. The pen is in our hands. A happy ending is ours to write."

First, we have the idea of cutting off of female heads, with its unmistakable sexual innuendo, which was a favorite motif of Jane Austen's from her youth until her last years. Second we have the idea of the sacrifice of princesses, which Mary Crawford so wittily and incisively comments on in Mansfield Park, about the way that "Royal Families" eat their young, so to speak. And third and most obvious, "The pen is in our hands." is a direct echo of Anne Elliot's stirring feminist call to arms:

"Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything."

Mantel was well aware of the way that her own physical appearance would be contrasted to Princess Kate's, and that is precisely what she wanted! She wants British women to seize the pen (all sexual puns intended by both Austen and Mantel), metaphorically speaking, and to initiate a public conversation about female body image and reproduction, one not directed by shallow sexist tabloid soundbites, but by thoughtful consideration of the way that Royal Family media presentation shapes the lives of women in the UK and elsewhere.

I wonder what Mantel's next move will be.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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