The irony was delicious. The Mail runs a story headlined “Kate puts her baby bump on parade”, mixing an attack on Hilary Mantel’s alleged literary offensive against the Duchess with incessant cooing over Middleton’s “gently swelling stomach”. By doing so it deftly manages to commit the crime that Mantel’s LRB-sponsored lecture was about, obsessing over the bodies of royalty, and specifically the wombs of royal women. Jumping on such delicious irony, the outraged Guardian pointed out that the Mail’s crime was exactly what Mantel claimed had driven Diana to destruction over fifteen years ago.
Mantel’s lecture protested the centuries-long reduction of the royal woman to a royal vagina. With Diana this treatment entered a new era. It began with the discovery that Diana “had legs”:
A sort of licentiousness took hold, a national lip-smacking. Those gangling limbs were artlessly exposed, without her permission. It was the first violation.
Spinning a princess’ death into an elegant phrase, Mantel recalls how “Diana visited the most feminine of cities to meet her end as a woman”. It’s a phrase around which Mantel’s lecture was crafted and sold under the sensationalist title “Undressing Anne Boleyn”. Her words that night were later printed in an edition of the London Review of Books featuring Mantel’s lecture on the front cover and priced at £3.50 – the cost of savouring royal destruction dressed up in words “hand-turned and gloss-varnished”.
But this sanctuary of literary elegance was burst open by the internet and a piece of shrapnel – the phrase “a plastic princess made for breeding” – picked up and shot back out into a baying online audience. From this point on, ‘Mantel-gate’ became as much a story of how different rhythms of publication exploit and exacerbate existing divisions as one of tabloid sensationalism. The scandal exposed a rift between two modes of writing about and perceiving the world as deep as that separating royal blood and common stock – a rift between the crowds that collect in the British Museum of an evening to hear a lecture admonishing the destructive actions of people they have, of course, never been, and those people themselves.
Tabloids conduct their business at a pace that can ill-afford the six thousand words it took Mantel to make her sensational argument. Elegance and literary subtlety costs: the cost of a glass ceiling designed by Norman Foster, the cost of a trip into central London, the cost, not necessarily a financial one, of an education that makes room for Marie Antoinette and all her clothes. The cost, even, of an editor’s personal family fortune, £23 million of debt, and Arts Council funding of £21,000 a year. Thriving without paying these costs imposes very different requirements on the writing and reading of current affairs: fast headlines and the ubiquitous image, news as shrapnel, small chunks that cut deep.
From this original difference between literary elegance and tabloid punch grows not mutual destruction, but mutual dependence. Like any arch rivalry – Moriarty and Holmes, Lex Luthor and Superman – these publications define themselves, in part, by what they are not (in 2012 the Daily Mail received mentions in 18 articles across 24 issues of the LRB). Each ignores its adversaries in a theatrical show of contempt, refusing to link to any other publications in their online articles; but audiences still move between them via intermediaries who link to both (The Guardian, The Independent), gifting free publicity with little risk of audience desertion attached.
Were any of the additional readers reaching the LRB and Mail websites persuaded to abandon their prejudices by what they found? If these prejudices are rooted as much in the rhythms of publication (length, format, tone, etc.) as in its content, then probably not. Advertising revenue must have jumped. Perhaps regular readership did too. And so the dance that the LRB and Mail are locked into was kept in motion by their opposing rhythms.
But within a single body, a single royal body, the opposition can tear the dancer apart. Forced to adopt the rhythms of both types of publication, literary elegance and tabloid punch, the royal body must dance at two paces at once – a solo tarantella. As with two waves perfectly out of sync, the result can be annihilation.
Has the very architecture of print publishing been driving us, individually and collectively, the body royal and the body politic, apart? Has the ease of learning about the sins of the other – the snobs in the British Museum, the trolls commenting on the Daily Mail website – without actually having to face up to their views in anything resembling a common public sphere, helped generate the rift that Mantelgate exposed?
Pinning responsibility for the division of a nation, and the internal division of its figureheads, on media outlets such as Fox News is great sport for LRB commentators. But Fox has its own dance partner in the liberal commentariat led by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The syncopation of their rhythms fuels the dance they are locked into, driving left and right to the extremities of the political ballroom. Fox shapes society as much as society produces Fox; but so do Fox’s arch rivals.
Yet on the Mail’s website, a curious thing: as I write this, a comment on the plastic princess story has risen to the top of the pile with the question “Has anyone, including PM Cameron, taken the time to read what she wrote..?”. It’s only at the top because of a fluke of timing: it was the last to be posted before comments were closed, and as such is the “newest” addition, the first anyone who loads the page sees. Allowing readers to comment creates the possibility of a different rhythm interfering with whatever the writer has tried to establish. This small white box at the foot of an article opens space for a hybrid manoeuvre – shortish, sharpish (“This huge outcry … is frankly ridiculous”), but carefully constructed. Perhaps the impact of the white box is negligible. But it suggests that the way the web is built, and the way in which its content is sold, may change the rhythms we are forced to dance to.
Not far into her lecture, Mantel likened Kate and her kind to wildlife:
I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.
By driving us further into extremities of style, the press, from literary magazine to tabloid paper, helps create cages for us all. Obviously cages are not always bad: they can protect us as much as they constrain us. But this makes paying attention to how they are built even more important. Mantel’s story was about how we are all responsible for caging royalty; Mantelgate is a story about how, through shaping the architecture of the internet, we are all responsible for caging ourselves.