Fairytales are potent, even if modernity has a tendency to catch up with them and blow their delicate outlines to sharply serrated pieces.
Princess Diana’s life as a royal bride and wife is the ultimate get-real parable about what any amount of time in the royal family can do to an outsider’s psyche. (And she was aristocratic, so not as much of an outsider as her sons’ two female partners.)
Her marriage to Prince Charles almost drove her mad until it drove her to get even, and finally independence. And then she died. Diana’s fairytale not only exploded, it exploded gruesomely.
And yet, even knowing what Diana told us about the dark underbelly of that rarefied world of privilege and tradition, we still love the fairytale—and what gets more fairytale than a royal wedding between handsome prince and American commoner?
This morning the media has once again put its gauzy spectacles on once again, as the engagement of Prince Harry and Suits star Meghan Markle is announced. They make an attractive couple, and who doesn’t want a pretty distraction from a world in ugly freefall?
Markle is an even more of an “outsider” than Diana and the resolutely upper middle class Kate Middleton. She is mixed-race, a long-overdue first for the royal family in 2017, and also American, which immediately touches a British royalist’s nerve as so was Wallis Simpson, twice-divorced paramour of King Edward VIII. He abdicated the throne for her in December 1936. She has been characterized as everything a reserved British royal female wasn’t: far from meek, and extremely pushy, and assertive.
These were considered bad things. It wasn’t that aristocratic women couldn’t be pushy, it was just verboten to be seen acting that way. Appearance, and not just of the clothed variety, is vital for a royal woman.
Just look at the queen. She has mastered the art of not saying much at all in public, bar a yearly speech on Christmas Day, which is tightly scripted and the classy equivalent of those Christmas cards catching the recipient up on all the family news.
Markle is herself divorced, and has opinions of her own (although her blog is now shut down). She has called out President Trump’s misogyny. She seems, outwardly at least, more spirited than Kate, just as Harry is more spirited than his brother. Of course, Harry and Meghan do not have the pressure of the imminence of throne-dom pressing down on them as William does.
But the very presence and seniority in its ranks of Markle is its own palace revolution, and it will be fascinating to see how vocal and assertive a presence Markle will be. If the traditional royal wife has been merely decorative and barely heard, as Kate Middleton has settled into being, it has been because the institution itself has moulded her that way. Wifely capitulation and polite suppression do not seem to be Markle’s modus operandi.
Her greatest ally in finding the role and right public image for herself will be Harry himself. He and his brother know what their mother endured—both within Palace walls and at the hands of the media. While we know how the latter have shaped their wariness of cameras and reporters, it is not known how they have sought to recast the structures of the former to help ensure the mental well-being of their loved ones.
There is much talk of what Markle will do now, as if the only option, the only deadset inevitability, is that she will take on a title like the Duchess of Sussex and open hospices, or do valuable work with kids. For somebody so eloquent and independent, who campaigns with real voice and heart, one hopes she resists being put through the royals’ Stepford Wife-mincer.
If Mrs. Simpson represented the royals’ greatest fear, Markle’s may be its best hope. Her personality couldn’t seem further removed from her much-benighted American predecessor, and her position in the family—she isn’t after all, causing a constitutional crisis by her mere presence—considerably stronger.
Before the scandal of Mrs. Simpson, the British upper classes had been saved by rich American female patronage. As the Smithsonian’s documentary series, Million Dollar American Princesses related in 2014, there were around 200 rich American heiresses who married hard-up British lords at around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
“The guilty secret of the British aristocracy is how much American blood runs through its veins,” Elizabeth McGovern, who played Lady Cora in Downton Abbey, said during the documentary.
That “guilty secret” comes with irony on the side, as the aristocracy is also known for its snobbery never more evident than around Americans. Add racism into the mix, as Markle has experienced, and you have something even more poisonous.
Meghan Markle's entry into the royal family comes at a point of momentous change. The advanced ages of the Queen and Prince Philip necessitate it. In time, the crown will pass to Prince Charles, who is much less popular than his two sons, and whose wait for the throne has already encompassed a significant passage of his own lifetime.
Then come William, and his children and Harry, fifth in line to the throne. Harry is probably the most popular royal right now, and the heartfelt way he conducts his charity work makes him seem at least acquainted to the real world and its denizens. But still, in 2017, the role of royal wife still seems a gilded cage, with not too many other options.
That may suit the desires of fans of The Princess Diaries and even older fairytales, where the goodly princess is rewarded with the hand of a studly, morally upstanding prince.
But the better example, and the one which Markle may find a way to customize for herself, would be to allow a royal woman to work and function in society however she so desires, and to combine that role with the demands of a royal one. To ensure theirs never explodes as tragically as Diana’s, Meghan and Harry may want to rewrite the fairytale.