~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, February 27th 2013

In the brouhaha stirred up by Hilary Mantel’s "Royal Bodies" talk, controversy focused so intensely on Mantel’s comments about Kate Middleton’s physique ("designed by committee", "perfect plastic smile") that gems were overlooked. 

Take, for example, Mantel’s confessions about the violent confusion she's experienced when she has met members of the royal family in the flesh. The first time she saw Prince Charles, at an awards ceremony, she was knocked sideways by his "sublime tailoring", and by the flawless orchestration of the evening. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a pile of stacking chairs. The mundane overwhelmed the magnificent. This was just a charade, she realised, played out on a cardboard stage-set.

Perhaps what Mantel needs to counter her disillusionment is a spell in the royal archives. Earlier this week, Jane Ridley and William Shawcross appeared "in conversation" at the Royal Society of Literature to discuss the writing of royal biography. Ridley, quick-witted and irreverent, presented Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as bullying monsters in "Bertie", her riveting new biography (right) of Edward VII. Shawcross, hand-picked by the Queen as the official biographer of the Queen Mother, is a self-confessed royalist who struggled to find any fault in his subject at all. Very different authors, then. Yet they agreed that the royal archive at Windsor is an enchanted world. 

After passing through security checks at the Henry VIII gate, and climbing 89 steps to the Round Tower, researchers are settled at mahogany desks in rooms of understated grandeur, and given one-to-one supervision. A bell rings for coffee at 11am, and simultaneously the guard changes to the stirring music of a military band in the Lower Ward below. Once a week, a man comes to wind the clocks. And once a manuscript is in draft form, archive staff work through it as if with nit-combs, checking every quotation and reference and date. 

But there are pitfalls. An "innocent looking" form signed by authors on entering the tower gives archive staff the right to excise any hint of speculation, anything that cannot be fully substantiated in writing. For Shawcross, this was no problem—he was asked only to correct the names of two racehorses. But Ridley—or rather Bertie—"lost five mistresses" before her book was allowed to go to press. 

Shawcross was invited to follow his biography with an edition of the Queen Mother’s letters: a thumbs-up. "Bertie" has been received with a royal radio silence. But Ridley is not short of responses from other quarters. In addition to rave reviews, she continues to receive regular emails from people desperate to prove that they are descended from Edward VII. Hilary Mantel understates the case, Ridley argues. It’s not just that we are obsessed with Royal bodies, but that an unhealthy number of us want to be Royal bodies. 

Maggie Fergusson is our literary editor and director of the RSL. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Orkney's shortest day and He won't be filmed praying.