By ANDREW MORTON
Saturday, May 19, 2018
Author of Diana: Her True Story - In Her Own Words, Meghan: A Hollywood Princess and Wallis in Love: The Untold Life of the Duchess of Windsor, the Woman Who Changed the Monarchy.
During the research for my biography of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, I remember talking to a close friend of Diana's about her own weekend stay at Balmoral, the regal home in the Scottish Highlands adored by Queen Victoria and subsequent royal generations.
After a hard day tramping through the heather, she came down for predinner drinks and, after paying her obeisances to the Queen, Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and the rest, she headed for an inviting highbacked chair. As she plonked herself down, there was an audible gasp from the assembled regal throng. "Don't sit there, that's Queen Victoria's chair. Nobody ever sits there." She jumped up and moved smartly away rather quicker than a scalded cat. For the next couple of days, she was on eggshells, nervously wondering what other taboos she might unknowingly break.
I recalled this story as I pondered the unspoken rules that Ms. (but not for long) Markle will have to learn now that she is on the brink of permanently joining a bizarre and, to some, anachronistic tribe.
The girl who, as a college student, carefully followed The Rules - the famous dating book from the 1990s - will find that the complexities of budding romance are simple by comparison with the many and various unspoken royal rubrics.
As Catherine Middleton discovered, she is joining a family where who enters a room first, who sits where and who bows or curtsies to whom are part of a labyrinthine pecking order. Learning lines of legal jargon for her TV drama, Suits, is nothing on this lot. Last Christmas, I harboured the delicious comic fantasy that, during Ms. Markle's stay at Sandringham with the extended Royal Family, the Californian, bright eyed and eager, would announce that she had just finished the jigsaw that lies in wait for the unwary in the drawing room. Of course, as everyone in the Royal Family knows, the last piece of the jigsaw is always left for the Queen. The look of horror on the faces of the royals at Ms. Markle's announcement could only be imagined, perhaps matched by the wan sympathetic smile from Catherine, silently standing in the wings.
No wonder Diana couldn't wait to escape the clinging embrace of this Norfolk fastness. At least Ms. Markle, friend of designer and animal-rights activist (and possible wedding-dress maker) Stella McCartney, was spared the après-Christmas ordeal of standing in a muddy field and watching Prince Harry, one of the finest shots in England, knocking off a few dozen pheasant before supper. She has swapped her world of taste-makers, influencers and brand ambassadors for a confusing flurry of equerries, beaters and gillies.
There is a very telling photograph of the last American to marry a royal, Wallis Simpson, wearing an inappropriate white fur coat and sitting on a shooting stick, looking bored to death, as the Duke of Windsor blasted away. It was an incongruous image, the metropolitan American wincing at the noise and the unpleasantness of the country killing fields. Ms. Markle avoided this ritual last year because her fiancé was the host of the BBC Radio Four current-affairs show Today and had to leave Sandringham early. She won't be so fortunate this year.
Which brings me on to what could be called the Meghan Paradox.
For the past few weeks, I have been travelling around North America and Europe talking about my biography of the duchess-in-waiting.
The one unifying observation made by one and all is what she has given up - a successful career, a thriving social-media presence and charitable positions as ambassador for World Vision Canada and the United Nations - in order to marry into the Royal Family. This is not some shy girl from the shires fresh out of finishing school, but a divorced woman of the world who is an advocate of gender equality, women's rights and an individual being the "change" - a word that does not spring readily to mind when considering the monarchy. As Diana joked, the only thing they change is their clothes.
The Meghan Paradox cuts two ways. Feminists see her being swallowed whole by the royal system, fatally compromising her agenda as an equal-rights activist, swapping her values and principles for the appellation "Her Royal Highness" - and the chance to curtsy to Catherine Middleton for the rest of her life.
On the other hand, traditionalists fear she is a well-groomed stalking horse, her values and lifestyle inimical to an 1,000-year-old institution that is studiously hierarchical and encourages deference and acceptance of the existing order. No cool designer cycling monarchy wanted here.
Of course, the ultimate irony is that, even though Ms. Markle was successful in her own right, we only take notice of her - Meghan was the most googled name of 2017 - not for her own achievements but because she is marrying a man whose place in society is secured by virtue of his birth rather than his abilities.
Perhaps the reason why the Meghan Paradox holds good is that she is marrying into a family - and an institution - defined as much by its contradictions and incongruities as its position at the apex of society.
It doesn't make sense, but that is why it makes sense. As Thomas Paine, author of the 18th-century tome Rights of Man, observed: "A hereditary monarchy is as absurd a position as a hereditary doctor or mathematician."
Since then, European monarchies have withered on the vine and these days it could be argued that Britain is less of a monarchy and more a "crowned republic," its political importance and authority largely irrelevant to the workings of government.
It was noticeable that at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) last month, the Queen expressed a "sincere wish" that Prince Charles be named as the next head of the Commonwealth. Although her request was unanimously granted by the assembled political leaders, it was telling that it was a royal invitation, not a decree.
As the Queen no longer undertakes long overseas flights and as CHOGM will not be held again in London for some years, this was her last appearance as head of this organization. That Harry was appointed youth ambassador sets the stage for the newlyweds to spend their days turning left at the plane door and settling in for endless visits to projects in Africa - Harry's second home - the Caribbean, Australia and of course, Canada, the adopted home of the newly minted duchess.
The decision at the conference was a reminder that the country is entering into a period of genuine change. Within the next decade or so, it is facing a transition from one reign to another, at a time when Britain, still undergoing post-Brexit convulsions, ponders a future without the security blanket of the European Union.
It is Ms. Markle's fortune - or misfortune depending on your viewpoint - to enter the Royal Family when the political and social tectonic plates are genuinely shifting. In a few years time, Britain will no longer be the country it is today.
Nor will the Royal Family. Time will have taken its toll and members of the younger generation will have expanded their influence. Kensington Palace - home of the so called "Fab Four" - will become the competing centre of authority when Prince Charles moves to Buckingham Palace.
Like President F.W. De Klerk in South Africa and President Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, Prince Charles is often described as a "transitional" figure until the reign of William and his son Prince George set the tone and style for the monarchy for the next century.
Not only is Ms. Markle beginning her royal adventure at a critical moment in regal and British history, she is entering a very different institution and world from when the Queen came to the throne. For a start, as a divorcée, she can marry into the family. In the first years of the Queen's reign, her younger sister Princess Margaret had to renounce her relationship with the King's former equerry and divorcée, Group Captain Peter Townsend. And we all know what happened when David met Wallis.
This was a time when divorce was contrary to the teachings of the Church of England, then a powerful institution.
The waning of its influence coincided with tugging away of the many strands that bind the public to the Crown: the presentation of debutantes at court, the singing of the national anthem in cinemas and theatres, the Queen's decision to pay tax and the disassociation of the monarchy from the old aristocratic ruling class, at least in the public's imagination. The days are long gone when, as one poll reported, four in 10 members of the public believed the Queen, who referred to her position as Sovereign as a calling, was "especially chosen by god."
In this age, William talks about doing a job - which hints at retirement - while Harry tells people to call him "H" or "Spike." No bowing and scraping here.
Apart from the immediate family, there is a distinctly proletarian feel about the makeup of the House of Windsor. Every new recruit, with the exception of Lady Diana Spencer, has been a commoner, ranging from a public relations executive and society photographer to daughter of Prince Charles' polo manager. Kate Middleton would be the first commoner to become queen for 400 years. Their arrival has always been presaged by the communal feeling that they were a "breath of fresh air" who would in some way reinvigorate the Royal Family. Of course, the good ship Windsor simply sailed serenely on its settled course.
The arrival of Toronto's most famous adopted daughter may, for once, jolt the royal direction.
Not because of anything she does or says but because of the symbolism of her ethnicity and, as important, her international appeal.
Already her mixed-race background - her mother, Doria Ragland, is an African American and is descended from slaves who worked in the cotton fields of Georgia; her father, Tom, now famous for having a fitting for his wedding-day suit in front of the cameras, is white and from Pennsylvania - has created debate in Britain about ethnic tolerance. At the very least, a biracial royal bride makes the Royal Family, if not the country, seem more inclusive and relevant. The enthusiastic reception she and Harry received when they visited Brixton in south London, a traditionally Afro Caribbean community, was testament to her appeal to people of colour. There is also anecdotal evidence that Ms.
Markle's arrival has sparked interest in the monarchy among the country's ethnic minorities.
Then there are those who argue that, farther down the line, her presence in the Royal Family will eventually encourage the royal household to employ more ethnic minorities so that the institution whose job it is to represent the best of British is not a laggard in gender and ethnic equality.
Where she is indeed following in Diana's footsteps is giving the House of Windsor an international appeal. Although she is from California, she does not seem especially American. If anything her gloss, glamour and, to use a Markle word, "layered" allure are more reminiscent of a poised Parisian. Her look is from everywhere and nowhere.
Not since Diana's day has the arrival of one person given the House of Windsor such renewed global appeal. It is doubtful that the media pouring into London for the wedding from such unlikely countries as Chile, China and Poland would have been so excited had Harry chosen a nice upperclass girl from the county set.
Not only has the majestic pageantry of this last royal wedding for a quarter-century proved magnetic, but the puzzle remains of whether this ambitious, intelligent, modern and successful woman will stay the course.
While she has given up her humanitarian work with the United Nations and World Vision Canada, what historian Frank Prochaska calls "the welfare monarchy" will soon harness her energy and commitment. Whatever she chooses to focus on - probably women's issues and gender equality - will have the backing of the institution, ensuring she has worldwide appeal and impact.
There is concern that her liberal political views - her dismissal of
U.S. President Donald Trump as a "misogynist" and her avowal on a late-night chat show that if the property tycoon won the presidency she would emigrate to Canada - will compromise her work inside the Royal Family.
Again, Diana's legacy proves instructive. The late princess took up causes, notably AIDS and landmine eradication, which at the time were controversial and encountered opposition both inside and outside the palace. However, she stuck to the mantra that she was a humanitarian, not a politician, a perspective that will serve Ms. Markle well. In reality the monarchy was an agency of social empowerment, although in rather more restrained hues, long before Diana joined its ranks.
Although Ms. Markle will trip over some of the more arcane tribal rules, she is no longer becoming a cheerleader for a rigidly hierarchical institution in a country of forelock-tugging subjects.
This is a country of citizens who show respect, not deference, to their Sovereign; the Queen is seen as a neutral, unifying figure. Britain today is a republic with a crown worn rather lightly.
Now, if Canadians want to see an ancient regime monarchy in all its overblown, corrupt glory, just head south across the border.
There you will find an elected tyrant issuing royal decrees like confetti, surrounded by a fawning court made up of family, friends and sycophants. Only the wigs and pomade are missing from this tableaux.
In a curious way, Ms. Markle has made good on her pre-election promise to leave America, bidding farewell to a government that echoes an absolute monarchy reminiscent of the Sun King for a democratic if crowned republic.
How did we get to this state?
Pull up a chair and I will tell you.
No, not that one...
Meghan Markle greets well-wishers at Birmingham's Millennium Point in March.
PAUL ELLIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGESAFP/GETTY IMAGES
At Madame Tussauds in London, visitors can meet a new wax model of Meghan Markle alongside Prince Harry and other members of the Royal Family.
ED/JWLED/JWL/CAMERA PRESS/REDUXCAMERA PRESS/ED/JWL