Is Kate a 'plastic' royal?

The controversy sparked by bestselling author Hilary Mantel about the Duchess of Cambridge ultimately points to a larger question: Can the public ever really know what Kate — or any royal — is actually like?

Lecture by author Hilary Mantel sparked firestorm around Duchess of Cambridge

Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, smiles as she leaves Hope House, a safe, secure place for women to recover from substance dependence in London on Feb. 19. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

The British tabloid media were at their unsubtle best this week when they shouted for all to see that the Duchess of Cambridge had apparently been subjected to a "vicious" and "venomous" attack from an unlikely source: a bestselling author steeped in royal nuance.

Hilary Mantel, the Man Booker prize-winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, accounts of Henry VIII's England, had, according to the reports, called into question Kate's character — or lack thereof.

The 31-year-old wife of Prince William, who is expecting her first child in July, was described as a woman with a "perfect plastic smile," someone "designed by committee" and seeming to resemble "a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung."

Hilary Mantel won her second Man Booker Prize for Bring up the Bodies. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

The reaction was swift. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron, otherwise engaged on a trip to India, weighed in, saying the comments were "completely misguided and wrong."

But as with so much else in life, reality isn't quite as simple as the tabloid headlines first suggested.

Mantel's defenders point to the fact that she was largely talking about how the media and the royal family, throughout history, have tended to objectify prominent royals, women in particular, so that their true personalities are never really known.

And, ultimately, the debate around what Mantel said — and meant — points to that larger question: Can the public ever really know what Kate or any royal is actually like?

"It's interesting that if you looked at the initial press coverage, you would assume the entire speech was an attack on the Duchess of Cambridge when it's actually a very small part of a much longer speech that starts with Marie Antoinette and goes on to discuss Anne Boleyn and Princess Diana," notes Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and blogger.

Mantel's lecture, given earlier this month at the British Museum, but only reported publicly this week, was entitled "Royal Bodies" and is ultimately a discussion of her views of monarchy itself.

It goes on, at some length, on the topic, and includes Mantel's impressions of seeing Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and what it is like for royalty to be perpetually on show.

"Is monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation?" Mantel wonders at one point, before concluding, "I don't know."

Just an object

In Mantel's descriptions, however, she falls victim to the same behaviour she is calling into question concerning Kate, Harris suggests.

"It's a shame within the context of Hilary Mantel objecting to the Royal Family being objectified that she, too, has in a sense treated Kate as an object and has said she appears to have no discernable character."

Kate has been criticized recently for a perception that she doesn't recycle her wardrobe enough. (John Stillwell/Associated Press)

Ninian Mellamphy, a professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ont., and a long-time royal watcher, says Mantel's thesis "seems to have been a very sound one," and she "seemed to want to make positive points about the Duchess of Cambridge, but did it in a very negative way.

"That's very, very poor rhetoric. That's exactly what the Daily Mail and the other guttersnipe papers are actually looking for, so [Mantel] walked herself into trouble even though she might have been saying interesting things about Henry the Eighth and his strange sexuality, and the fragility of someone like Marie Antoinette and Princess Diana."

Still, the dust stirred up by the Mantel comments wasn't the only negative attention coming the duchess's way in recent days.

"It seems that within the United Kingdom, expectations of the duchess have increased and there's far more criticism this year than there was in the first year of her marriage," says Harris.

"It's a real contrast from the first year of her marriage when the consensus was she had not put a foot wrong and had integrated very well into royal life."

Kate has been taken to task recently for everything from her relative silence in public to a perception that she doesn't recycle her wardrobe enough.

Guarded image

Still, though, how much can the public really know of what Kate thinks or feels?

Her image has been carefully moulded and guarded by Buckingham Palace. She rarely speaks officially in public, and while she can seem warm and approachable to members of the public, it is hard to make conclusions about her views or personality.

Of course, if she were to make speeches and express her views, that could be problematic too. 

"As we know, Prince Charles has come under criticism for making his opinions known about a wide variety of subjects from organic farming to architecture," says Harris. "So it's a very delicate situation for a member of the Royal Family to be in."

Kate often makes an effort to speak with children during her public engagements. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

Mantel has remained silent since the storm about her speech broke this week, but she did become the focus of both criticism and praise in the media.

"Mantel was discussing how the royal family and the media manipulate women; it is of little surprise that the media would attack her back," wrote Hadley Freeman, a columnist and features writer at the Guardian.

"But this nonsense highlights how it is still, apparently, impossible to be a woman and put forth a measured opinion about one of your own without it being twisted into some kind of screed-ish, unsisterly attack.

"As Mantel has learnt to her cost today, it's not only royal women who are expected to stay quiet."

Waiting for baby

Harris expects the headlines will drift away from the current Kate controversy, particularly when she gives birth to the third in line to the throne this summer.

"I think the arrival of the royal child is going to deflect attention from all this," says Harris.

But that birth will bring its own new scrutiny on Kate.

There's a "long history of royal wives and mothers being critiqued on the upbringing of their children," says Harris.

And the tabloids will have a lot to say about that, too. Whether it's true remains to be seen.