The Duchess of Cambridge, whom she describes as the princess with “a perfect plastic smile” who learned her hockey skills while a student at Marlborough College, is not the only royal who has come under fire from Hilary Mantel.
The British Museum lecture by the double Booker Prize-winning historical novelist, which runs to 5,600 words, includes cutting criticism too of the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince Harry plus Henry VIII, who met Jane Seymour, the third of his six wives, while hunting in Savernake Forest.
A considerable section of the lecture dealt with the Tudors. Referring to Anne Boleyn, Hilary Mantel told her audience: “It was said she had won Henry by promising him a son. Anne was a power player, a clever and determined woman.”
“But in the end she was valued for her body parts, not her intellect or her soul. It was her womb that was central to her story.”
“The question is whether she could ever win the battle for an heir. Or was biology against her? At his trial Anne’s brother, George Boleyn, entertained the court by telling them that Henry was no good in bed.”
“Conception was thought to be tied to female orgasm, so the implication was that what George called Henry’s lack of ‘skill’ was the problem.”
“Yet clearly he was able to make his wives pregnant. Was something else wrong? The old notion that Henry had syphilis has been discarded. There never was any contemporary evidence for it.”
“The theory was constructed in the 19th century, as part of a narrative that showed Henry as a sexual beast justly punished for his promiscuity. In fact Henry constrained his sexual appetites.”
“He had few mistresses compared to other grandees of his time. I think it was more important to him to be good, to be seen to be good, than to be gratified in this particular way. In fact I think we can say that the old monster was a bit of a romantic.”
“Later in life, when he married Anne of Cleves, he didn’t want to have sex with a woman with whom he wasn’t in love. It was a scruple that baffled his contemporaries.”
Hilary Mantel pointed out: “Often, if you want to write about women in history, you have to distort history to do it, or substitute fantasy for facts. You have to pretend that individual women were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do.”
“But with the reign of King Bluebeard, you don’t have to pretend. Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story. The history of the reign is so graphically gynaecological that in the past it enabled lady novelists to write about sex when they were only supposed to write about love.”
“And readers could take an avid interest in what went on in royal bedrooms by dignifying it as history, therefore instructive, edifying.”
New research, she reported, suggested that Henry had a blood type called Kells positive, which meant that he carried an extra antibody on the surface of his red blood cells. The blood type is rare, so if it was assumed Henry’s wives were Kells negative, then their lack of compatibility was the reason for their multiple reproductive failures.
“His first child with Anne Boleyn was a healthy girl, and his first child with Jane Seymour a healthy boy,” she added. “Jane died soon after Edward’s birth, so we don’t know what would have happened thereafter.”
“The world’s focus on body parts was most acute and searching in the case of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. No one understood what Henry saw in Jane, who was not pretty and not young.”
“The imperial ambassador sneered that ‘no doubt she has a very fine enigme’: which is to say, secret part.”
And Hilary then declared: “We have arrived at the crux of the matter — a royal lady is a royal vagina. Along with the reverence and awe accorded to royal persons goes the conviction that the body of the monarch is public property.”
“We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way, making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all. Is monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation? I don’t know.”
Ending her lecture, Hilary Mantel widened her controversial comments that have gone round the world by insisting: “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.”