At lunch in the chairman’s dining room at Berry Bros & Rudd yesterday I discovered a fellow former English Literature student at Newcastle University who shared an appreciation of the acid drops that emanated from the pens of E. F. Benson and the divine Nancy Mitford. I’d much rather gossip about Lucia’s pretentions or Lady Montdore’s monstrous sense of entitlement than the Chinese take-away of British luxury goods houses or the rogue element of horse meat in our supermarket food, wouldn’t you?
It is a rare book these days that hurdles all the cyber babble and becomes a hot topic of conversation. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels inspired by the life of Tudor Machiavelli Thomas Cromwell, have achieved the seemingly impossible and raised the tone of London dinner table conversation above the usual dross about box sets and gay marriage. Mantel has rather brilliantly taken one of history’s blackest sheep and humanised him to the point that we understand and empathise with the character. In Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel makes us willing accomplices as Cromwell completes his task as architect of Anne Boleyn’s downfall.
When Bring Up The Bodies was published I devoured the hardback in one greedy sitting and have since gone back to the book goggle-eyed at the artistry of the writing. Other authors must be thinking ‘where do I go to surrender?’ and hoping that after the third and final book in the trilogy is published that Mantel won’t find another leading man as inspiring. The BBC is already in pre-production on a dramatisation of the first two books and the RSC is staging them. It can only be a matter of time before the film is cast with Damian Lewis as Cromwell.
Ms Mantel’s currency is justifiably high which is why her London Review of Books lecture at the British Museum stole the headlines this morning. In her lecture Undressing Anne Boleyn, Mantel performed a verbal beheading of the Duchess of Cambridge branding her ‘a shop window mannequin with no personality of her own (and) entirely defined by what she wore’. She dismissed the Duchess as a plastic smile whose only point and purpose is to give birth. Comparing the Duchess unfavourably to Anne Boleyn, Mantel inferred that she was not a power player or a clever and determined woman.
I disagree. Kate and Pippa Middleton are echoes of Boleyn girls Anne and Mary. Like Anne, the Duchess of Cambridge was a commoner who caught the eye of a Prince and held his fascination for a decade while never taking her eye from the ultimate prize. She met opposition from courtiers, the popular press and the general public and overcame all. Also like Anne, she is celebrated for her lustrous dark hair, her eyes, her elegance of deportment and her fashionable dress. Anne Boleyn and the Duchess of Cambridge are handsome rather than classically beautiful women who forged a career dependant on the men they married.
Ms Mantel criticised the Duchess’s portrait in the NPG as have I but not as a reflection on her character. I remember discussing the NPG portrait of Anne Boleyn with David Starkey. It is enigmatic rather than enchanting. As Dr Starkey said, ‘Anne Boleyn had sex appeal’. This the portrait doesn’t capture. Put a double deck of mascara on Anne’s NPG portrait and imagine a cascade of dark hair hanging loose beneath the French hood and you’re not a million miles away from the Duchess of Cambridge. Both ladies clearly have hidden depths.
I was also struck by how closely the Duchess resembles Nathalie Dormer who was in turn sexy, intense and bewitching as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors. Dormer isn’t a classic beauty but she has what Eleanor Glynn called ‘It’. So too does the Duchess of Cambridge. I find it rather uncharitable of Ms Mantel to criticise the Duchess of Cambridge’s smile. It is part of her job description and compared to Anne Boleyn she has an awful lot to smile about. All royal brides are under obligation to provide an heir. But Anne Boleyn’s life depended on it hence the risk of her rise to power and her ultimate fall. One can’t call the Duchess a weak character because she didn’t have the ‘fortune’ to be married to a despot who considered female fruit of the womb a failure.
The Duchess is perhaps an easy target for novelists such as Ms Mantel who understandably feels closer to the 1530s than she does to the royal court in 2013. The job description for a royal consort has changed considerably. Anne Boleyn had to remove incumbent wife Catherine of Aragon (a Spanish princess), tear down the Roman Catholic faith in England, destroy enemy factions and all the while keep a sexually incontinent king dangling on a string like a helpless kitten…and all this only to ‘miscarry of her saviour’ a male child.
So no, Kate Middleton remaining on the arm of Prince William for a decade while seeing off the sirens of Boujis and Klosters does inevitably pale into insignificance compared to the blood-soaked rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. What I adored about Bring Up The Bodies was the suggestion that the Tudor court was a lethal chess game in which the queen is captured and killed. How could this period in history not enchant, excite and horrify in equal measures? More to the point how could a character in the national soap opera today compare?