Eleven years ago, Hilary Mantel - gimlet-eyed dissector of the monarchy -  scandalised the organs of the state which specialise in destroying the princesses they affect to adore. In an essay for the London Review of Books, she described Kate Middleton, then pregnant with George, as a “jointed doll on which rags are hung” and a “shop-window mannequin” whose “point and purpose” was to give birth.

The Sun, which a few weeks ago informed its readers Kate’s “arsenal of beauty and wellness tricks” included a face mask made from bee venom and bouncing on the trampoline before the school run, dismissed Mantel’s carefully-constructed critique as “a bizarre rant.”

The Express, which last July revealed how Kate positions her chin to “perfectly showcase her smile”, reviled it as “an astonishing attack”. David Cameron took time out of a trip to India to call it “misguided”, while others suggested Mantel, who suffered from endometriosis, was motivated by jealousy over Kate’s capacity to conceive.

Mantel was fascinated by Marie Antoinette “a woman eaten alive by her frock’s” and Anne Boleyn who went to the scaffold because of her failure to produce male progeny. Her essay was about the objectification of royal women, the way they exist only to be gazed at, salivated over, devoured. But if, as she suggested, princesses are like pandas: paraded for our delectation, what happens if they suddenly remove themselves from display? What happens if, one day, we turn up at the zoo to find the cage empty. What if there is no explanation from those in charge, and no mechanism for demanding our money back?


As we now know, we write our own dark fairytale; we fill the lacuna with feverish visions from our own heads. We feel we have a right to do this because the Royal Family is paid for directly from our pockets. We own them. They are in service to us. And what are they, anyway, if not a projection of our own psyches? What are they for if not to keep us entertained? 

Thus, absent Kate, who revealed her cancer diagnosis last night, was picked over as voraciously as present Kate; perhaps more voraciously, because a potentially-tragic princess is an even juicier prospect than a smiling one, or a pregnant one, or one which has produced the perfect set: an heir, a spare and a mini-mannequin.

That Kate is indeed a “jointed doll” to some became glaringly obvious once the talk was all of look-alikes and body doubles. Her head could - it appeared - be screwed off, Worzel Gummidge-like, and replaced with another, for short car trips and visits to farm shops.

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Her disembodied face could be cut out and made to float around the internet in an attempt to demonstrate how it was taken from Vogue magazine and inserted in the Mother’s Day photo issued by Kensington Palace.

That photograph has been autopsied, too; chopped into pieces, each piece ringed and tagged: Louis’ right hand, Kate’s torso, Charlotte’s hair -  all to prove it a fake: a patchwork of body parts assembled by a mystery Frankenstein to create a monstrous facsimile of a happy family.

Our outrage at the royal “fraud” was based on a misconception: that what we were being sold before was “real” as opposed to an exercise in wish-fulfilment. Earlier photos may not have been doctored, but the image they contained was; unless we believe the stylish Kate captured on camera was not the creation of an army of hairdressers, make-up artists and personal shoppers.

The Herald: Our light relief oughtn’t to come from exploiting someone else’s distress. (Getty Images)Our light relief oughtn’t to come from exploiting someone else’s distress. (Getty Images) (Image: Getty Images)

Still, if the monarchy is a projection, if it exists primarily to be stared at, then perhaps what it reflects back to us is an unvarnished portrait of ourselves. That Kate should have to navigate her condition under the glare of public speculation - that we should try to deny her a degree of control over her own illness - reveals us at our ugliest. We are - it would appear - still a nation of tricoteuses spoiling for an execution.

Our ability to “other” those in the public eye is not confined to royalty. When Nicola Bulley went missing in January 2023, she and her family were reduced to a murder mystery plotline by true crime fans testing their mettle as amateur sleuths.

So persistent was their prodding, so wild their surmising, Lancashire Police were forced to reveal details of Nicola’s mental health that were none of our damned business. When it emerged she had (as detectives always maintained) fallen into the river and drowned, there was a sense of anti-climax, as if the scriptwriters of a bingeable box-set had messed up the finale.

The Herald: We can kid ourselves that all we were looking for was transparency, but it’s hard to conceive of the circumstances that would have justified such relentless probing (Getty Images)We can kid ourselves that all we were looking for was transparency, but it’s hard to conceive of the circumstances that would have justified such relentless probing (Getty Images) (Image: Getty Images)

But the free-for-all around Kate was worse and more mainstream. Many of those who baulked at the dehumanisation of an ordinary woman from St Michael’s on Wyre had no qualms about implying Kate had been abused and/or was filing for divorce.

Or that she had undergone plastic surgery, or was in a coma, or that William was having an affair. Feminists felt able to join in the fun. Why? Because Kate relinquished her membership of the sisterhood when she married William? Because she may (or may not) have been mean to Meghan?

With so much awfulness going on in the world, we crave a diversion; I get that. It’s why we all went mental over an escaped macaque; why memes of the woeful Willy Wonka experience were circulating long after the joke had run its course.

But our light relief oughtn’t to come from exploiting someone else’s distress. That’s what they were doing, those podcasters who tilted their heads in a parody of concern before going on to remind us - nudge, nudge - of William’s temper. “We hope what the palace says is true,” they gushed. “We hope Kate really is recovering from routine surgery.” Yet what a waste that would have been of all the energy they had ploughed into suggesting otherwise. I wonder how they felt watching her heartfelt video: vindicated or repentant?

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We can kid ourselves that all we were looking for was transparency, but it’s hard to conceive of the circumstances that would have justified such relentless probing. Just because Charles and Diana lived out every cough and splutter of their lives in the public eye does not mean William and Kate should be required to follow suit. What good did the world discussing Diana’s bulimia or the couple’s waging of a public propaganda war do them or their sons, who still carry the scars to this day? What good did it do us?

If you believe  - as I do - that the country would be a better, more equitable place without a monarchy, then make that argument on its own merits. But don’t take your frustration out on a woman in crisis; a woman trying to protect her children in a way their father never was. All the speculation has achieved is to heighten the risk that the damage inflicted on William and Harry will be handed down to the next generation.

In her essay, Mantel suggested Kate had been chosen as William’s bride because she was so different to Diana “whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.”

She said Kate seemed “capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation”. But anyone can break under the right sort of pressure. How shameful that - almost 27 years after Diana’s death - we have continued to chase her successor through metaphorical underpasses. How odd and unedifying, this enduring impulse to destroy royal women so we can later anoint them queens of our hearts.