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Kate’s Two Bodies

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Catherine, then Duchess of Cambridge, and William, then Duke of Cambridge, at Buckingham Palace on their wedding day, London, April 29, 2011

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Catherine, then Duchess of Cambridge, and William, then Duke of Cambridge, at Buckingham Palace on their wedding day, London, April 29, 2011

“Is the monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation?” asked Hilary Mantel in “Royal Bodies,” an incendiary 2013 essay for the London Review of Books. “We are happy to allow monarchy to be an entertainment, in the same way that we licence strip joints and lap-dancing clubs.” The royal family are like pandas, Mantel wrote, “expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment.”

“A royal lady is a royal vagina,” she added. Witness the six sacrificial brides of “King Bluebeard,” and the exhausted Windsor women. Monarchy means gynecology: the reproductive capacities of the wives of Henry VIII are as familiar to students of English history as the Battle of Hastings and its aftermath. At least five of Katherine of Aragon’s pregnancies ended in miscarriage or neonatal death; her surviving daughter, Mary Tudor, had two phantom pregnancies, during which she ceased menstruating while her belly grew, but after nine months nothing happened. When Anne Boleyn promised Henry a son, the nation turned Protestant so he could divorce Queen Katherine. Anne’s three pregnancies produced one daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, who staked her power on remaining a virgin. It was Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, who provided his sickly heir, Edward VI, dying herself twelve days later.

Queen Elizabeth II’s four pregnancies were referred to in the press as “an interesting condition”—photographs of which were forbidden. Diana, Prince Philip hoped, would “breed in some height” to the stocky Windsors, which she did. Kate Middleton—who was blandly polite, and pregnant for the first time when Mantel wrote her essay—was, Mantel supposes, “designed to breed in some manners.” Off with Mantel’s head, cried the right-wing press when her “astonishing and venomous attack” was published. Say what you like about Anne Boleyn, but Kate is the tabloid’s toy, the unimpeachable alternative to the inflammatory Meghan Markle.

Two royal bodies have entertained us this year. The first is that of King Charles, who was admitted on January 26 to the London Clinic, a private hospital in central London that offers a range of services from body sculpting to stem cell transplantation. Elizabeth Taylor was a patient following a fall during filming, and General Pinochet, after back surgery, was arrested there for crimes against humanity. Charles, we were told, had an enlarged prostate; ten days later he revealed it was cancer. “He remains wholly positive about the treatment and looks forward to returning to full public duty as soon as possible,” said Buckingham Palace. “His Majesty has chosen to share his diagnosis to prevent speculation and in the hope it may assist public understanding for all those around the world who are affected by cancer.”

The second body is that of the Princess of Wales. Kate Middleton, as she is generally known, was admitted to the London Clinic on January 16 for “abdominal surgery,” which was serious enough, Kensington Palace stated, to require up to two weeks of recovery in the hospital and keep her from making public appearances until Easter. Like two halves of the same royal body, the king and his daughter-in-law left the same hospital within hours of each other on January 29. Pictures showed Charles waving and smiling, with Queen Camilla by his side; Kate, meanwhile, went unseen and unapplauded. 

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Medieval theologians believed in the king’s two bodies, a Body natural and a Body politic—a theory that symbolized the nation-state. The Body natural, explained the sixteenth-century lawyer Edward Plowden in his Commentaries or Reports, is “a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age.” But the “Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled…and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to.”1 The two royal bodies were referenced by Queen Elizabeth I when she rallied her troops before battle: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” King Charles can have cancer in one body because he has an immortal body, too: “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

But what about Kate Middleclass, as she is known, whose solidly bourgeois background has endeared her to the nation even as the tabloids determinedly describe her as semi-divine? Does Kate have the body of a weak and feeble woman, or the heart and stomach of a king? Being the daughter of a former flight attendant and a British Airways flight dispatcher, she cannot have both. Whether her sick body should be presented to the world as mortal or immortal is at the heart of the mess the Palace PR machine has got itself into.

Kate’s body is to the British press as Marie Antoinette’s was to Edmund Burke. When Burke first saw the young French queen at Versailles she seemed barely to touch the earth: “I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in, glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy.” “She is forty-two,” wrote Richard Kay in the Daily Mail on January 17, when the news broke that Kate had been admitted to hospital, but “given her toned and trim figure that she keeps supremely fit running in Windsor Great Park, she could pass for someone ten years younger.” We can see her in lycra leggings, just above the horizon of the park, glittering like the morning star, hardly breaking a sweat. “People are reeling,” Kay suggested, as though Kate had been led to the scaffold rather than to a private room in Marylebone. “The bulletin about Catherine has sent a collective shiver down the spine of royal fans.”

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The coverage of Kate’s operation demonstrated the survival of what Burke called “the age of chivalry,” with its “generous loyalty to rank and sex…proud submission…dignified obedience,” and “subordination of the heart.” Today’s royal commentators, with nothing to go on during Kate’s stay at the clinic, praised her neat figure and sense of duty: “Everything she does seems to take no effort at all…she is as celebrated for her beauty and her poise as she is envied for her smiling, vibrant energy. A youthful mother whose willowy frame and lustrous hair seem the very essence of good health.” 

Because Kate, unlike the king, did not immediately share her diagnosis, online speculation played out to the point of collective insanity. Every possible explanation, except that of cancer, was posited for a procedure that required two weeks of convalescence. Kate’s marriage was in meltdown; she was anorexic and in need of “refeeding”; she was detoxing from alcohol; she was having plastic surgery or a nervous breakdown or a colostomy bag fitted; William had impregnated his mistress—rumored to be Rose Hanbury, Marchioness of Cholmondeley, wife of a much older husband and often pictured on a chaise longue—and Kate needed space to cry. Again and again these theories were said to come from “inside sources.” Even TikTokers livestreaming from the American Midwest claimed to have direct lines to the palace.

A Mother’s Day photograph of his wife and children, taken by William, showed once again her “smiling, vibrant energy.” But what was intended to reassure the public intensified speculation when news agencies, including AP and Reuters, announced that the image had been digitally manipulated. The lines of the zipper on Kate’s jacket did not line up, nor did the cuff of Charlotte’s sleeve; the leaves on the trees belonged to the wrong season; there was no wedding ring on Kate’s left hand; her right hand looked blurry. It was, Kate said, all her own fault: “Like many amateur photographers,” she had touched up the image.

But had the “real” Kate, people wondered, who had momentarily disappeared from public view, even sat for the picture? Had she airbrushed herself in or out? ‘“Where TF is Kate Middleton?!?!?!” asked the podcasters Lauren and Chan on March 11, in a social media post that as of March 20 had been viewed 6.1 million times. The hashtag #whereiskate proved, wrote an American blogger, “that the British public is no longer willing to grant carte blanche to the royal family.” There is no hashtag #whereiswillwhenyouneedhim that I know of. Then again, if he wanted to stop the rumors, why was he behind and not in front of the camera?

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My own WhatsApp group—four royal-watching friends investigating the case of the missing body—scoffed at the suggestions that Kate was dead, that the woman photographed by The Sun outside the Windsor Farm Shop carrying groceries was her body double (the Tiktok video “Do you believe this is Kate Middleton?” had by March 20 been viewed 3.5 million times), or that there was anything nefarious in the Mother’s Day photo. We were struck, however, by the suggestion that Kate was aborting the child of Thomas Kingston, the husband of Charles’s second cousin Lady Gabriella Windsor, who took his own life less than a month after the princess left the clinic. How long would she need to recover, we wondered? Were two weeks too long or not long enough?

It wasn’t until March 22 that Kate broke her silence, confessing her secret to the nation by video:

In January I underwent major abdominal surgery in London, and at the time it was thought that my condition was noncancerous. The surgery was successful. However, tests after the operation found cancer had been present. My medical team therefore advised that I should undergo a course of preventative chemotherapy and I am now in the early stages of that treatment.

She had said nothing in public until now, Kate explained, because she wanted to tell her children first. Her statement, or rather the official statement which she may or may not have been advised on, clearly took her a great deal of effort to make, but it seems implausible that Kate had much say over what she revealed or when she revealed it. Kate-gate is the work of a palace committee puzzling over the problem of how to talk about a body that symbolizes the health of the nation but also has a frightening and once unspeakable disease. In order to elevate the reliable Body politic over the unpredictable Body natural, they made Kate’s life an official secret; even her return to public duties after chemotherapy is described by Kensington Palace as a “top secret project,” as though she were embarking on undercover work.

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“I am also thinking of all those whose lives have been affected by cancer,” Kate said at the close of her broadcast. “For everyone facing this disease, in whatever form, please do not lose faith or hope. You are not alone.” She looks lonely as a cloud herself, sitting on a park bench in a Breton top without lipstick, her hair in waves and a host of golden daffodils behind her. She looks, in fact, as lonely as Diana did on that other bench outside the Taj Mahal on February 11, 1992, when her marriage was imploding. What are we to make of the fact that William once again was not with her?

It was generous of the Palace to allow the world two months of freewheeling entertainment, when disclosing Kate’s diagnosis earlier would have saved both her and her family a good deal of misery. We still, however, know nothing about her cancer—where, for example, it is. (Has Kate even got cancer?, the conspiracy theorists are already asking.) Nor, for that matter, do we know what form of cancer the king has, but no one seems too concerned with that. Had Diana been diagnosed with cancer, she would have over-shared the details in the same way that she shared her bulimia with Martin Bashir in her notorious Panarama interview, and her five suicide attempts, through intermediaries, with her biographer Andrew Morton; like Saint Sebastian, Diana wore her arrows with pride. She liked to suggest that she had the divine royal touch, but her own body was as visceral as the one mourned by Alexander Pope in his epigram on Queen Caroline’s death, from complications from an umbilical hernia, in 1737: “Here lies wrapt up in forty thousand towels/The only proof that C*** had bowels.”

In 2013 Mantel described Kate’s body as “designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished.” This isn’t entirely true. In preparation for royalty Kate designed her own body, modeled on the famous photograph of “Shy Di” at nineteen, when she was working in a kindergarten and rumored to be dating Charles, a toddler on each hip, the sun through her skirt illuminating the silhouettes of her legs. It was then that Diana’s stardom became apparent—so when Kate, at the same age, strode down the catwalk at a charity fashion show at the University of St. Andrews wearing a see-through dress, William knew that his fate was sealed. And so was Kate’s: having caught her prince, she traded her Body natural, “subject to all Infirmities,” for a Body politic “that cannot be seen or handled.” Since January 16, the representation of her body has been trapped somewhere between the two.

“Long before Kate’s big news was announced,” argued Mantel, referring to her first pregnancy, “the tabloids wanted to look inside her to see if she was pregnant.” There might, as with Mary Tudor, be nothing to see but air. For all three of her pregnancies Kate suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum, or severe morning sickness, which proved that her committee-designed body had a flaw. In the aftermath of this latest announcement, we want to open her up again and find the other flaws; the employees at the London Clinic who allegedly tried to access Kate’s files (and are now being investigated) took this quite literally.

Kate is our doll, and we are taught from childhood to anatomize our dolls: take out their stuffing, twist their necks, pull out their eyes, and bash them against the wall. We do this, Baudelaire explained in “The Philosophy of Toys,” to find their souls, the absence of which “marks the beginning of stupor and melancholy.” Diana willingly bared her soul, but Kate has yet to do so. Until she can reverse her Faustian pact and reclaim her Body natural, she will remain on the bench reciting prepared statements, alone of all her sex.

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