I have a friend who was probably among the last women in the world to be given marks for posture, manners, and deportment in her end of term school reports.
She’s only 40, but one of the classes involved walking from one side of the room to the other with a book balanced on her head. Another memorable class was a staged dinner party—the girls were taught to work through their cutlery from the outside in, talk to the person on your left during the first course and your right during the second course (the opposite applies for men), and to keep the port moving.
Such lessons were once a natural part of a posh British girl’s education, designed to render her marriageable if an available duke or marquess came along (my pal married a scruffy artist, but hey) and a safe dinner invitee if not.
So it could be argued that, Meghan Markle, an American with little experience of aristocratic British society, has some learning to do, following the announcement she is to marry Prince Harry.
The official stuff will clearly be easy for Meghan. The two appearances made so far—her sit down interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain and her visit on Friday by Harry’s side to Nottingham—have been widely interpreted by the domestic and international media as promising harbingers of great things to come.
The interview with Harry showed Meghan the polished media performer. Undoubtedly, her media grace and on-camera affability is a happy quality for a 21st-century royal to possess (the difference between the accomplished Meghan and the desperately shy Kate on-screen is the difference between watching a school play and West End theatre).
And on the walkabout in Nottingham it was Meghan’s enthusiasm which shone through. Unlike some other members of the royal family—and William and Kate must be mentioned here—who have an unfortunate habit of making their job of engaging with the public en masse seem all too much like a duty which must be borne, Meghan was clearly having a ball.
Although she said in her joint interview with Harry that she had “never been a part of pop culture” it seems reasonable to conclude that someone who had previously devoted their life to being an actress was not going to mind being insanely famous. And so appears to be the case: She was beaming from ear to ear as she glad-handed the well-wishers in Nottingham.
Meghan appears unlikely to be intimidated by the position which awaits her.
This is not necessarily all good news for the Kensington Palace team headed up by the youthful Canadian Jason Knauff, now charged with helping Meghan transition from private citizen to public princess.
It will be very different from the way it was done with Kate.
The process of easing Kate into the royal family—in a series of lessons sometimes referred to as “Princess Academy”—was the crowning achievement of the old guard KP team, all of whom have now left royal service.
Kate’s initiation was led by Prince George’s godfather Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton and Miguel Head, a former Ministry of Defence press officer with a passion for accurate expectations and clarity, who were both personal private secretaries to William and Harry at the time.
Pinkerton, in particular, was known to be unafraid to say, “No” to either of the brothers, and it was he and Head who masterminded the “slow and steady” approach that governed Kate’s incredibly gradual assimilation into the royal way of life—including living out of the public eye in Wales for over a year while making only intermittent appearances.
As frustrating as that strategy may have been for the British media, who were hungry for news and appearances, it has served Kate very well.
It’s safe to say that neither Pinkerton nor Head would have considered it a good idea to launch Meghan straight into a public-facing walkabout of the type she undertook in Nottingham on Friday in the same week the engagement announcement was made. Nor would they have endorsed the notion of Meghan giving an interview to Vanity Fair several months before an engagement announcement was made.
The exact details of how that interview got authorized are murky. That Harry agreed with Meghan doing it is beyond doubt, but it is thought that while Knauff was informed, outside press consultants (such as the former editor of the Daily Telegraph Charles Moore who has been called on before) were not asked for their input—as Harry likely knew what their recommendation would be: Don’t do it, you’ll make yourself a hostage to fortune, you’ll never be able to argue for your right to privacy again.
Robert Jobson, the veteran royal correspondent and author of the books Harry’s War and The Future Royal Family, was in Nottingham on Friday to see Markle’s first public appearance.
“I think she did a terrific job,” he told The Daily Beast. “She was charming and relaxed with the general public, totally composed when talking to people and it looks like nothing will faze her,” he said. “But there is no ‘princess boot camp’—she is a capable human being and will simply learn on the job.
“She will ask and learn from Harry. She will be allowed to find her own feet. She may read the odd book. She will read up on the British constitution but I doubt she will be tutored on it. There are no manuals for being a princess.
“She is a professional actress, and, from what we saw in Nottingham, I am sure she will pick it up very quickly and perform with aplomb.”
However Jobson does suggest that Markle will be cautioned “by Harry and others to avoid political intervention or “speaking out against one party or for another.”
As Jobson says, “She can show compassion but not be overtly critical of government policy or a foreign government. Outbursts on Trump, for example, are not part of the remit of the royals—that is for the elected executive of Her Majesty’s government.”
Does Jobson suspect that someone may in due course have a quiet word with her about not doing any more interviews with Vanity Fair?
“With regard to media she will have to defer to the Kensington Palace communication team. So in that area she will have to accept being managed.”
Interestingly, however, Markle did reportedly decline selfies in Nottingham with the words: “We’re not allowed.” But whether she was truly motivated by rules or simply found an expedient excuse to avoid delay is debatable.
When Kate Middleton married Prince William in 2011 she was given one-on-one lessons to ensure she had a thorough knowledge of the Establishment.
But as Christopher Andersen, author of the best selling e-book The Day Diana Died tells The Daily Beast: “Kate had one huge advantage over Meghan in the princess training department: 10 years of practice. Throughout their very long courtship, Waity Katie got an up-close-and-personal look at what was expected of William and by extension what would be expected of her once she joined the Royal Family.
“On the other hand, Meghan has a singular advantage that Kate didn’t have: Harry’s future wife is an accomplished actress, and, after all, the role of Princess is just that—a role.”
As part of her new position in British society Meghan will already have been given intensive security briefings. Whether or not we should believe a report in the Daily Express which claimed Meghan would be put through a simulated kidnap rescue attempt—“She will be tied to a chair and members of the SAS with sub-machine guns and live ammo will fight their way into the building and rescue her”—is an open question, but that the royals are always a tempting target for fringe extremists as well as deranged stalkers is unquestionable.
So while there will be some practical guidelines made available to Meghan, these will mainly take the form of factoids on some of the more arcane elements of protocol—who to curtsy to and when, how to address “blood princesses,” the correct direction to pass the port—which could be mastered by an intelligent 12-year-old in a couple of days.
Harry is a free spirit who has always bridled at the palace’s attempts to rein him in and Meghan, who is 36, is unlikely to be open to the kind of spiritual mentoring a 28-year-old Kate Middleton received (or a 19-year-old Princess Diana so bitterly complained of not receiving).
Among the thirtysomething generation, the days of having to observe formal rules are at an end, even in the very upper echelons of society. Conversations at dinner parties increasingly involve four, five, or even—gasp—six people sitting at one corner of the table.
Walking across a room with a book balanced on her head will not be necessary—although Meghan should take note that starting with the cutlery at the outer edges of your place setting remains a very good idea.