A woman without character? Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

March 28, 2024   7 mins

Just over a decade ago, the late novelist Hilary Mantel delivered a lecture to an event at the London Review of Books and triggered national outrage. In the course of a talk on “Royal Bodies”, which ranged widely across royal women from Anne Boleyn to Marie Antoinette and Princess Diana, she had made what many perceived as disparaging remarks about Kate Middleton, then the Duchess of Cambridge. The Duchess, she said, appeared to have been “designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished”. Indeed, Mantel said, Kate “seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character”.

At this, the newspapers were soon in uproar. The prime minister David Cameron called the comments “completely misguided and completely wrong” and the Labour leader Ed Miliband agreed they were “pretty offensive”. Mantel doggedly refused to back down, saying that her remarks had been twisted out of context, and that she was in fact writing with sympathy about the perceptions that are forcefully projected on to royal women, the cage in which they are held to be goggled at. That was true, but also perhaps not the entire truth, for there was still a perceptible trace of authorial vinegar in the portrait: which of us would be happy to learn, even in sympathy, that we were held at low risk for “the emergence of character”?

Royals are public as well as private figures, of course, and authors are free to hang intellectual ideas on them to try out, as designers do with clothes. Yet while much of the lecture was sharply perceptive, I didn’t agree with the portrait of Kate. That word “selected” had rendered her passive, when in fact her behaviour thus far had suggested both an active intelligence and an unusual degree of self-discipline. The context of her entry into “The Firm” was different from that of other royal brides. Unlike Diana, who had barely emerged from the fractured chrysalis of her troubled aristocratic family when she first met the much older, more worldly Prince Charles, Kate was a contemporary of Prince William’s at the University of St Andrews. Her family background, which appeared warm and supportive, was comfortably middle-class. She seemed generally cheerful and unruffled, even when the press was at the barbed peak of its “Waity Katie” hysteria, trying to goad Prince William into a proposal or abandonment.

After the wedding, in her approach to royal duties, she clearly took the role she had inherited with marriage seriously. The royal whose attitude her own most resembled was the late Queen Elizabeth II, who had long understood the essential nature of the job: to turn up to public events looking the part, intuit precisely what was needed — gravitas, fun, consolation or reassurance — and deliver it while keeping one’s personal emotions on the back burner. This is what a monarchy demands, and the ability to act as an impeccable interpreter of the public mood, year after year, is a particular and testing art. A few have a natural aptitude for it, but most of us do not, and would quickly find its scrutiny and restrictions intolerable.

Grace under consistent pressure is an admirable quality. Were a ballet dancer to execute a string of flawless performances, or a pilot to conduct numerous flights without incident, it would not be deemed evidence of an absence of character: quite the opposite. Yet in Kate — especially for those who increasingly conduct their lives online — serene self-possession seems to drive a proportion of onlookers insane: what lurks behind it, what dark secret is waiting to destroy it, how best might it be disrupted? The uncomfortable truth is that what many people deeply crave in a young and beautiful royal wife and mother is not competence, but crack-up.

“What many people deeply crave in a young and beautiful royal wife and mother is not competence, but crack-up.”

The increasingly bizarre treatment of Kate, or the idea of Kate, is connected to the most dominant phenomenon of our age: a cultural prioritising of drama over duty. The supply of drama has spilled beyond the confines of the novel, theatre, cinema or television to become a commodity on which our public figures are judged. When Mantel spoke of Kate’s apparent absence of emerging “character” she was assessing her primarily through the hungry eyes of a novelist. In books, central female characters often generate dramatic tension by chafing against their circumstances, by the intensifying dazzle of their discontents, something that Kate refused to transmit. In contrast, Mantel described Diana as a “carrier of myth”: Diana, publicly trapped in the disappointments of her marriage, certainly carried more plot twists than any author had a right to expect. Unfortunately for her, the final one was her shockingly premature death.

Set against this artistic conception of “character” — distinctive qualities or flaws that, one way or another, deliver drama — is the societal judgement “of good character”, meaning someone who is broadly reliable and respected in relation to their behaviour to others. In recent years the electorate, in line with Neil Postman’s warning in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, has proved increasingly ready to select the former over the latter, even to the marked detriment of our civic health. The former prime minister Boris Johnson instinctively understood it as his job not to deliver the detail of workable policy, but to satisfy the public’s appetite for story: “People live by narrative,” he once told UnHerd’s Tom McTague. In the US, Donald Trump — that relentless generator of low mockery and high fury — is now running for a second term as president, after his first one ended in his supporters storming the Capitol building.

Men are often permitted to survive the frantic generation of drama: it is everyone around them who suffers. Yet women — in art and life — have a greater tendency to be destroyed by it. There is no strutting female equivalent of the male “hellraiser”, but rather a woman who, soaked in the crocodile tears of the tabloids, is tragically “causing concern” among friends. Art and its audiences have always relished the restless struggle and disintegration of female characters who are, or become, unmoored from the harbour of marriage and children. Flaubert’s Emma Bovary — her imagination inflamed by reading novels — is bored with her marriage and disenchanted with motherhood; she seeks solace in affairs and excessive spending, the consequences of which hasten her suicide. Zola’s Nana, a courtesan who ruthlessly captivates Parisian society, has her beguiling face eaten away by smallpox. Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse, immolated on their blazing talent, are hung posthumously high in the musical hall of fame, next to Sylvia Plath in the poetry section and Marilyn Monroe in cinema.

In Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, a middle-aged English woman called Sasha Jansen, mourning an unhappy marriage and a dead child, finds herself in Paris, a vulnerable drifter seeking solace from stray men. Rhys herself, who died at 88 after a precarious but surprisingly long life, had much in common with her literary creations. As the writer and editor Diana Athill crisply put it: “Jean was absolutely incapable of living, life was just hopelessly beyond her. When she was young, she floated from man to man in a hopeless way
 by the time she was old, she floated from kind woman to kind woman.”

In Rhys’s latter years — hard-drinking, irascible and impoverished — Athill and a small group of female friends formed what they called “The Jean Rhys Committee” which met regularly to ask “what should we do next?”. Rhys’s claim to such loyalty, I suppose, was the weight of her literary talent, her ability to exert an odd kind of fascination, and the fortunate soft-heartedness of her friends. The dramatic collided with the dutiful, and was kept alive by it.

From what I can see, the Princess of Wales exists at the opposite end of the feminine spectrum from Jean Rhys. Pinned firmly in place by her royal obligations, her wealth, her marriage and three children, she belongs to the realm of the respectable and dutiful rather than the erratic and dramatic. She is not a “character” in the artistic sense, nor does she desire to be, but both a survivor and upholder of an institution: hers is the territory of the prompt thank-you note, the kept promise, the commitment to public service, the uncomplicated pleasure in children, the stoic endurance of difficult times in the hope that better ones will come along soon. The public senses an emotional solidity in her, and it is partly why she is held in broad esteem. In this age of insistent self-definition, duty to others might be an unfashionable concept, but it is nonetheless one that keeps families and institutions from chaos and collapse.

With the advent of the internet, however, anyone with a keyboard can become a form of author, with the freedom to insert a toxic form of drama into real-life situations. What was extraordinary, during the Princess of Wales’s recent health problems, is how speedily and carelessly such speculations overrode the bounds of decency. It was already known that she had undergone major abdominal surgery, and was taking time to recover. And yet — egged on by the participation of silly celebrities and malicious US comedians — conspiracy theories about cosmetic surgery and affairs and nervous breakdowns spread like knotweed. According to social-media researchers, these were also vigorously introduced and amplified by fake accounts set up on Twitter and TikTok, some associated with Russia-linked disinformation eager to spread the termites of mistrust and doubt in Western institutions. Only the Princess of Wales’s revelation of cancer, which carries a testing drama all its own, served to shut up the majority of them.

Unlike these callous gossips, Mantel recognised her own complicity in dehumanising royalty. Upon encountering the late Queen, the novelist said: “I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones.” The Queen looked back at her, she said, briefly hurt. Mantel warned of the way in which “cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty” precisely as it has done in recent weeks. Her talk concluded with a prescient instruction for those who comprehend monarchy mainly as a source of entertainment: “I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.”

In the midst of treatment and recovery, the most hitherto stable of royal women could be forgiven a keen sense of injustice: her job description, it seems, must now include the ability to weather the online public’s fits of brutish mania for drama. With its contempt for duty, and its savage appetite for story, it is hungry to chew up far more than just the Princess of Wales.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.