I am a fan of Hilary Mantel's books, and even sent her a congratulatory email when she won her second Booker Prize last October.
What she has said does not take away from her talent, but I was surprised when I read in the papers her so-called "venomous attack" on the Duchess of Cambridge. The speech, which Mantel gave earlier in the month, and which was reprinted in the London Review of Books, described the Duchess as "a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own" who has "appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile".
Hilary's comments instantly became a talking point, with even the Prime Minister weighing in. They really hit me in the face, too. The terminology and words were unkind and perhaps thoughtless, even though they were very well thought out. Her observations are more subtle than has been reported - I think Mantel is really giving a critique of the press and how they view royals, and therefore how they are presented to us. Nonetheless, some of the language she used was cruel.
Kate is a young woman who is about to have a baby. Wouldn't you feel unnerved doing a charity event, as she did on the same day, her pregnancy visible in public for the first time, when the papers were full of this story? Still, there she was, with her head held high, and she went out and did her job.
Personally, I do not view the Duchess as a plastic person. I think she is naturally beautiful and appears to be gracious and caring. You see her on television and she is very sweet with everyone she meets and, in particular, with children, very pleasant. She is a godsend to the Royal family, after the years of trauma they have suffered, the divorces, the scandals, Diana, Princess of Wales's tragic death.
Just before the Royal wedding, I wrote a piece for this paper on the life stories of Kate and William and how they ended up together. I knew a lot about William, but I did not know a thing about Kate. So I did a massive amount of research and discovered she was an excellent student. She had 11 GCSEs, three A-levels, as well an upper second-class honours degree in art history from St Andrews. She was a great athlete and generally well liked. I couldn't help thinking that the Queen must be relieved that Kate Middleton, as she was then, was normal. Normal! What's wrong with being normal? A pleasant person who is polite, who doesn't want to rock the boat. That is a point on which I agree with Mantel - Kate is without "oddities", and thank goodness for that.
I read Mantel's lecture several times because I wanted to be sure I hadn't missed anything. The lecture is mostly about Henry VIII and his first three wives, two of whom kept having miscarriages. So, in essence, the piece, however you want to play it or say it, is actually about dead royals and dead babies. Why, then, are we bringing the Duchess into that equation, especially since she is pregnant and had terrible problems at the beginning of her pregnancy with morning sickness?
That piece, which was very intellectual and a little highfalutin in the way it was written, was always likely to be misunderstood. Most people skim through these articles. It was 5,800 words long, after all. I can understand, as it was originally meant to be a speech, that the Duchess may have been referred to in order to keep the audience interested, and make the subject matter current. But when you write about a living person who the world actually rather likes, and who is very popular with average people, you run the risk of getting your head chopped off.
Talking of which, the other thing I thought peculiar were the references to Anne Boleyn being a power player, and comparing this with the Duchess of Cambridge and her alleged lack of character. Kate must be a strong, young woman. After all, she was courted by, and lived with, the future King of England for nine years, before they were married. She was also in the media spotlight the entire time, which would be tough for anyone. They had their ups and downs, their quarrels, he wanted some space, she let him have space. She went out on the town, he got jealous, they got back together again. That took as much determination and willpower as that of Anne Boleyn, who waited seven years, I believe, before she slept with Henry VIII.
So to say that Kate has no character (as Mantel does), to be dismissed as being a blank, is not correct. She is not a blank. She persuaded William not to leave St Andrews University after his first term because he was homesick, for instance. She came up with ideas for other courses he could take that would interest him.
She was tremendously supportive and became a confidante. They became great friends. They shared a love of the outdoors and sports and this brought them closer. She was a good influence.
And in that nine years of waiting, Kate never put a foot wrong. That must have been so difficult when she was called Waity Katie, when his friends muttered "doors to manual", and all the bitchiness about her middle class-ness. I think it's great that one day we will have a Queen of England who is from the people.
I was looking at a picture book of the wedding the other night. And when you look at the photograph of her in that white lace wedding dress, the radiant face, the smile in her eyes, she is beautiful! And I think most of Great Britain would agree with me.
I will fully admit to being a monarchist. Kate is a fantastic ambassador for this country, which she has demonstrated with her overseas tours. She wowed them in Canada, she wowed them in America. She wowed them in the South Sea Islands.
As for not being a great role model for women, which some commentators have said, because she has not had a career, I don't think that matters. Not everyone has to be a role model. She is supposed to be a royal princess. She has been trained to be like the Queen, which is to smile for photographers and be gracious and say nothing. Royalty shouldn't show their character or share their opinions. They're doing a job, which is to earn their keep by being patrons of charities and going to events. In other words, they are carrying out national duties, important work in the areas of public service, and helping to strengthen national unity and stability.
Kate has been helped in a way that Diana, Princess of Wales unfortunately was not. The Royal family has learnt that you can't fling a young woman into an entirely different lifestyle without giving her guidance. And I think they've done that well.
Many years ago, I wrote a book called A Woman of Substance, and half the women in the world took Emma Harte, a fictional character, and made her their role model - but that's not what I intended when I wrote the book. She was simply a character who made it to the top on her own.
Is Kate a woman of substance? I think she will be when she's older, since she has all the qualities. The strength, the stamina, the self-control, the dedication, and the graciousness. And she has that bit of steel in her backbone.
Hilary recommended that Kate read Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. I don't know what Kate has read. It is making assumptions, of course, that she hasn't read anything. On the other hand, here is a woman who has a good education and was an excellent student. So I wouldn't presume to suggest Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Gone with the Wind or, indeed, Wolf Hall. It's making an assumption that Kate has not read books. That is the awful thing we do - and one of the points Hilary was making.
Hilary Mantel took a risk, and one might say it played out very well for her because she has had an enormous amount of publicity. But does she need the publicity? She is very successful and she has won all these prizes.
I honestly don't think she expected this firestorm, although I just read that sales of Wolf Hall increased 100 per cent on the day the story broke. So you never can tell, can you?
Barbara Taylor Bradford was talking to Charlotte Williamson
Barbara Taylor Bradford's new book, 'Secrets from the Past', will be published by Harper Collins on 28 February