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Hilary Mantel 'sees racial element' in Meghan treatment

By Rebecca Jones
Arts correspondent, BBC News

Published
media captionHilary Mantel: Royal women's bodies are "still perceived as public property"

Award-winning author Dame Hilary Mantel has suggested racism has been a factor in the criticism the Duchess of Sussex has faced since marrying Prince Harry.

"I hesitate to call her a victim," the novelist told the BBC. "But I think there has been an element of racism in the invective against her.

"I think it's more deeply embedded in people's consciousness that any of us are willing to admit," she continued.

The duke and duchess are to step down as senior royals at the end of March.

Harry and Meghan, who married in 2018, have said they intend to split their time in future between the UK and North America.

Dame Hilary's comments come ahead of the publication of The Mirror and the Light, the final part of her trilogy about the life of Henry VIII's adviser Thomas Cromwell.

The saga began with 2009's Wolf Hall and continued with 2012's Bring Up the Bodies. Both books went on to win the Booker Prize.

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According to Dame Hilary, the kind of relentless scrutiny that Meghan has faced since becoming a royal wife goes back centuries.

"There's an intense concentration on the bodies of royal women," said the author, who became a dame in 2014.

image copyrightBBC/PA Media
image captionMantel said the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (right) should be "given a chance"

"If anyone doubts that, we only have to look at what happens when our royal ladies are pregnant and when they give birth.

"They are perceived as public property in the same way that Tudor women were perceived."

Dame Hilary said she finds this "sad" and "objectionable" because "it is simply turning the individual woman back into a breeder".

When asked specifically about the Duchess of Sussex, Dame Hilary said the "scrutiny" of royal bodies "does include the skin".

"Let's give them a chance at what is obviously a very trying time," she said of Harry and Meghan, who announced in January they plan to "carve out a progressive new role" and be financially independent.

image copyrightPA Media/Getty Images
image captionThe Mirror and the Light follows on from Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

It is not the first time Dame Hilary has expressed an opinion on the modern monarchy.

In 2013 she faced criticism for likening the Duchess of Cambridge to a "shop window mannequin" who would become a "jointed doll on which certain rags are hung".

Her comments were taken out of context, but that did not stop the then-Prime Minister David Cameron leaping to Catherine's defence.

Speaking to the BBC last week, Dame Hilary said her aim had only been "to see the individual behind the institution".

image copyrightPA Media
image captionMantel previously made comments about the Duchess of Cambridge

Opinion remains divided on whether media coverage of the Duchess of Sussex has "racial undertones", as Kensington Palace suggested in 2016.

Last year Hillary Clinton said race was "clearly an element" in the backlash Meghan had faced since her relationship with the prince began in 2016.

Yet others - among them Home Secretary Priti Patel, TV presenter Piers Morgan and Meghan's father Thomas Markle - have questioned whether racism has been a factor.

"I'm having trouble buying that, there's never been a problem in terms of race with Meghan at her school or any place," Thomas Markle said. "I don't think she's being bullied in any way by racism."

"I don't have any issue with Meghan Markle because of her skin colour, or her gender," Morgan wrote in his Daily Mail column. "But I do have a lot of issues with the way she has behaved and treated people since marrying Harry."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThis famous portrait of Cromwell was attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger

The eagerly awaited publication of The Mirror and the Light later this week is widely regarded as the literary event of 2020.

Readers have waited eight years for the novel, which completes the story of Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief fixer and right-hand man.

There has been a strict embargo on the book, with even Dame Hilary feeling the pressure not to divulge any details in advance.

"It breeds a great deal of tension," she observed.

She also believes there may have been a recent attempt by cyber-criminals to hack into her computer and obtain the manuscript in advance.

"Fortunately my husband is a former IT man," she told the BBC. "We are pretty well alert to any scams going so we were on it rather quickly.

"Margaret Atwood's experience has taught us all to be extra careful," she went on, alluding to attempts made last year to steal the manuscript of The Testaments.

The Mirror and the Light has received positive reviews, with critics describing it as "a sublime epic" and "a masterpiece".

One reviewer has tipped its author to make history and win the Booker prize for an unprecedented third time.

"Oh yes, who wouldn't?" she said when asked if she would like to win again. "But I can honestly say it was not present in my mind when I was writing."

Yet some critics have suggested her new novel - which is longer than the two books that preceded it - is just too huge.

One critic said "bloat has set in", while another complained that it came "clogged with research data".

image copyrightBBC/Company Productions
image captionMark Rylance played Cromwell in the BBC's Wolf Hall drama

There have been suggestions that Dame Hilary's editor was unwilling to intervene, or that the author herself was less inclined to heed advice.

The author acknowledges the book, whose UK edition runs to nearly 900 pages, is a "demanding" read.

"But I make no apologies for asking a lot of commitment from my reader," she went on. "That's what delivers the satisfaction.

"I work closely with my editor," she continued. "Not line by line, but I certainly hope that I take advice and that I listen.

"It isn't though up to my editors to say 'you can cut that bit of history out', because I know what's necessary and I did cut a lot.

"I came to a position where I thought everything in this book is there for a reason."

Looking to the future, Dame Hilary said she has a couple of novels part completed.

One is at an "a very early stage", while the other, a contemporary novel set in Botswana, is "midway" towards completion.

"There's a time for a project, and it may be that when I go back to them I think that one's off the boil [and] I'll move on," she explained.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionWolf Hall was staged by the RSC with Nathaniel Parker as Henry and Ben Miles as Cromwell

So while she will keep the option of writing another novel "open", she feels her future now is writing for the theatre.

She is currently working on a stage adaptation of The Mirror and the Light for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were previously staged by the RSC in a two-part production that premiered in 2013.

"I've spent enough time sitting in a room by myself [and] I'm not sure I want to die at my desk," she told the BBC.

"Who knows? If my venture into adapting my own work is successful, there could be more work to be done for the stage.

"I've never enjoyed myself so much as I have in the rehearsal room."

The Mirror and the Light will be published in the UK by Fourth Estate on 5 March.

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Related Topics

  • Books
  • Hilary Mantel

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