That’s not what I meant at all …

… it was a matter of taking the words completely out of context, twisting the context …

Hilary Mantel, interview on “Night Waves”, Radio 3 (Thursday 7 March)

Hilary Mantel, award-winning author of Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies, found herself at the centre of a media frenzy when ‘sound-bites’ were taken from her 5,500 word lecture and published in the daily newspapers.610px-Holt_Renfrew_Mannequins

a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung

a shop-window mannequin with no personality of her own, defined entirely
by what she wore

a mother-to-be

her only point and purpose being to give birth

These noun phrases were splashed across the front pages of the tabloids. Her comments were described as “an extraordinary and venomous attack” by the Daily Mail; as “misguided … wrong”  by David Cameron ; as “pretty offensive” by Ed Miliband. What no-one bothered to do, however, was to look at the phrases in context.

Mantel’s lecture, ‘Undressing Anne Boleyn’, was the first of the Winter Lecture series organised by the London Review of Books. We 505px-Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Anne_Boleyncan see immediately that the context was formal and academic (the lecture took place in the British Museum). Her content focuses on royal bodies: the appearance, the role and perceptions of royal women. And this too is formal and academic, setting the modern against the historical, the personal against the public. Her lexical choices and her tone are appropriate – there is no evidence that she intended to challenge the linguistic expectations of her audience, purpose and context by making a malicious attack on a public figure. 

Out of context, the complex noun phrases may seem judgemental.  In context, it is clear that this was an appeal for clemency rather than a direct criticism of the Duchess of Cambridge. It was an analysis of the ways in which the press and public opinion shape the way we think about the Royal Family rather than a deliberate act of discourtesy.

For anyone who reads carefully, these widely publicised noun phrases reflect Mantel’s central argument.  They represent the perceptions created by the media – they are the masks imposed upon a royal wife. The head words doll and mannequin emphasise the passive role Kate Middleton is expected to play, smiling sweetly, or picking up a hockey stick and obligingly running a few paces.  The imagery is pitch-perfect: the media analyse her clothes, her body shape (is she thinner? is her ‘bump’ making her ‘radiant’?), but we never hear what she thinks. She is presented to us by the press as a puppet … her personality irrelevant. 

Mantel is a skilled craftsman. Her words are chosen precisely and her effect is considered. We can see this in the complexity of the noun phrase structure. Each example here contains a modifying clause (relative: on which certain rags are hung; non-finite: defined by what she woreto-bebeing to give birth) which provides additional information. This information is crucial to the image represented by the head word. References to clothing and to the absence of personality reinforce the general point Mantel is making  in her lecture about media representation:718px-PAUL_DELAROCHE_-_Ejecución_de_Lady_Jane_Grey_(National_Gallery_de_Londres,_1834)

We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them.   

Her text is a skilful and intelligent piece about the power of the media to shape public attitudes.  If the phrases quoted above are to be understood as their author intended them – go to the original and see them in context!

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