elite bodies

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading and writing about the inevitably public nature of elite reproductive bodies. Carefully assessed and monitored, these bodies were the focus of close scrutiny and court gossip and conversation. But such monitoring was also internal –  queens, princesses and other members of the elite worried about their fertility, their ability to bring forth a son, and their ability to raise this child to adulthood. In this world, reproduction was not a private affair between couples, but a public one, fully open to the often salacious scrutiny of eager gossip-mongers.

Reproduction was important to the elite. It guaranteed a lineage and descendants. Marriage, as an institution, existed primarily to perpetuate the family line and to ensure the sanctity of the bloodline. Sperm, egg, zygote, fetus, baby and presto! Reproductive obligations complete, the ‘happy couple’ could fade into the horizon. Leaving centre stage open to the new generation, the ‘parents’ were now free to pursue their own interests.

I was reminded of this as I watched the final episode of Season Three of Downton Abbey.

Those of us in North America knew, before the season even aired, that Dan Stevens, the actor playing the male lead, Matthew Crawley, wanted to pursue other interests. That’s not terribly surprising; I imagine that a series like Downton Abbey can become overwhelming. Indeed, as Stevens pointed out in The Daily Telegraph: “It is a very monopolising job. So there is a strange sense of liberation at the same time as great sadness because I am very, very fond of the show and always will be.”

But Stevens couldn’t just go. That wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t do at all.

No, as Matthew Crawley, heir and husband, he still had unfinished responsibilities. More specifically, he had the responsibility to reproduce and with it, the responsibility to ensure the succession of the Crawley family and of the perpetuation of Downton life.

And as soon as that was complete, game over.

Jace Lacob puts it nicely:

“And, let’s be honest, the minute that Lady Mary gave birth to a son, ensuring the continuation of the dynasty and a rightful succession (lest we be plunged right back into another entail drama like Season 1), Matthew was a goner. He had served his purpose, ensuring that the Crawley line would continue and that Downton Abbey—which he had absolutely and completely saved by dragging it and Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) into the 20th century—would not only remain in the family, but also turn a profit.”

Put simply, Dan-as-Matthew was the proverbial steed to Mary’s brood mare. Each had duties to fulfil, duties that went far beyond their individual dreams and desires. And both, in this way, were defined by their bodies.

Such, too, was the case for the elite women of centuries past. In the letters to Tissot, I have come across a mother concerned about the reproductive potential of her daughter’s prospective husband and a wife concerned not only about her husband’s madness, but also of the perpetuation of the family line. I have seen fathers physically incapacitated at the thought of being unable to support their children, and men so concerned about the possible lasting effects of immoderate sex that they entertained suicidal thoughts.

Lineage mattered.

It wasn’t only a conceptual ideal; it was profoundly corporeal. Lineage was in the blood, the pores, the bones, the sinews…. the body was the very essence of elite identity.

Elite selves were elite bodies. Elite bodies were elite identities. And elite identity wasn’t just a state of mind; it was – quite literally – embodied, suckled at a mother’s breast, as Madame Necker would have said.

[How ironic, then, that so many of those elite bodies were suckled at the breasts of lower class women]

All of this random thinking was precipitated by this article by Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books, posted on my usual social networking site by a friend.

I can’t do Hilary Mantel justice here, but I highly recommend that you go off and read it for yourself. She’s a beautiful writer, and in this piece, she gets to the heart of the public nature of what it means to be a “royal body”

I’ll leave you with a snippet from the first half and then, a few sentences from the last paragraph (but you should really read the whole thing!):

“And then the queen passed close to me and I stared at her. I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment. She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.

And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at.”


“It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago.”


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