London: It is not often that sophisticated literary discourse is the topic of banner headlines on the front page of one of Britain's hell-raising tabloids. And still less common is it for a prime minister to weigh in with his own stiffly reproving critique, turning the affair into dinner table talk all across the country.
So it was on Tuesday, when The Daily Mail, a tribune for right-wing causes, set out after Hilary Mantel, one of Britain's most celebrated historical novelists. The tabloid was angered about what it characterized as "an astonishing and venomous attack" on the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton - cynosure of the tabloids, and regular front-page copy - in an article published in the current issue of The London Review of Books.
Mantel was writing less about who the 31-year-old duchess may actually be than about the idealized, objectified way the author sees her as having been cast for her starring role in the spectacle of royal life - a distinction mostly lost in the furor that followed The Daily Mail's headline splash.
Mantel described her, among other things, as a "machine-made princess" and "a shop window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore."
Comparing her with two royal consorts of other times - Marie Antoinette and Princess Diana - Mantel said the duchess, unlike them, was no "gliding, smiling disaster," but a character seamlessly suited to the role thrust upon her.
"Kate Middleton," Mantel wrote, "appeared to have been designed by committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindle of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished."
The duchess, she added, "seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of emergence of character."
"She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana, whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture," the novelist continued, "capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation."
Read in their full context, a 5,800-word essay that Mantel originally delivered as a lecture at the British Museum two weeks ago, the remarks took on a quality of sympathy, albeit somewhat condescending, rather than contempt for the duchess, who is expecting her first child in July. She married Prince William, Princess Diana's older son, in 2011.
Mantel wrapped her views in an elegant but haughty style, at one point comparing the British royal family to pandas in a zoo, "expensive to conserve and ill adapted to any modern environment" but "nice to look at" and an object of pity for their "precarious situation," constantly stared at and living out their lives in a cage.
Those words invited a populist response, which they earned from Prime Minister David Cameron, among others.
"Well, I think she writes great books," Cameron told reporters during a visit to India, where he is leading a trade delegation. "But I think what she said about Kate Middleton is completely misguided, and completely wrong. What I've seen of Princess Kate, on public events and the Olympics and elsewhere, is that this is someone who is bright, who's engaging, who is a fantastic ambassador for Great Britain, and we should be proud of that rather than these rather misguided remarks."
The mass-market tabloid controversy was a long way from Mantel's usual milieu of literary festivals and book signings.
She achieved an improbable double by winning the coveted Man Booker Prize twice in the last four years, most recently in 2012, for the first two books of a planned trilogy about intrigue in the court of Henry VIII. In The London Review, she chose as a platform for her royal views a discreet, bimonthly journal of literary and intellectual essays with a circulation of less than 60,000, normally spared the glare of front-page controversy.
Cameron's criticism was joined by a chorus of similar comments. Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, told the BBC, "These are pretty offensive remarks." He added: "Kate Middleton is doing a brilliant job in a difficult role."
Ingrid Seward, the editor in chief of Majesty, a glossy magazine that chronicles the activities of the royal family, said Mantel's remark about the duchess's lacking character missed the point. "Royalty aren't meant to show their character," she said in an interview. "They're meant to do a job." She added, "I don't think Kate's put a foot wrong, and maybe it irritates people that she seems to be so perfect."
But others supported Mantel, who drew a wave of endorsements on Twitter. Caitlin Moran, a Times of London commentator, described Mantel's comments as "sane and beautiful," while Jemima Khan, an author and socialite, defended the author with a post saying, "Interesting on how The Mail misread Mantel on Middleton."
As for the duchess, the fuss seemed only to augment her soaring popularity. Many in Britain see her and her husband, who is second in line to the throne after his father, Prince Charles, as the couple who can secure the future of the monarchy - often questioned in recent decades - after Queen Elizabeth II dies.
As the front pages and the airwaves were blanketed on Tuesday with stories about Mantel's remarks, the duchess appeared in her role as patron at an addiction center in London, drawing cheers from a waiting crowd. Royal spokesmen, seemingly content to let the public approbation speak for itself, offered no comment.
Lark Turner contributed reporting
© 2013, The New York Times News Service