How long do you give it?
Conversations about Harry and Meghan are among the most popular in the U.K., jostling for the number-one slot with conversations about (a) Trump and (b) Brexit. There is talk of Trump, but no debate. He is a unifying subject, like the weather. A right-wing Conservative MP told me recently that he could think of no British politician, in any party, who would have voted for Trump. So, in Britain, if you want to feel the warm glow of solidarity, you have only to say the word Trump and everyone starts singing from the same song sheet.
But Meghan Markle, like Brexit, seems to divide people. Some argue that she will have a rejuvenating influence on the House of Windsor, dragging it into the easygoing, classless, color-blind world of the 21st century. When the engagement was announced, a friend of mine, a veteran royal biographer, was dubious. But he has since been won over. “I got my first glimpse of the bride at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday night,” he emailed me, having seen her at a concert to mark the queen’s 92nd birthday. “Wow — the surge of excitement from the entire audience when Harry and Meghan came in. I was amazed … The whole hall erupted with one of those loud ripples of approval, with a few cheers … I haven’t met her but those who have say she is delightful — and she is very lithe and beautiful. And bright.”
Others, like Germaine Greer, adopt a more skeptical line. “Why would a girl born in poverty marry a man worth 53 million quid?” she asked on Australian television in April. She went on to make a prediction. Referring to the royal life’s creating “vistas of boredom that are unbelievable,” she added, “I think she will bolt.” Of course, in recent years Greer has become a sort of human jukebox of random opinions, whether on Proust (“Time wasted”) or cuddly toys (“Truly hideous, beyond kitsch”). But there are many who share her suspicions about Meghan Markle.
Jan Moir, a columnist at the Daily Mail, thinks that she should learn restraint. “It seems far, far too early for Meghan to go into full Diana mode and unfurl any fondly imagined royal superpowers. Or to start believing that she can change the lives of troubled citizens merely by bequeathing a megawatt smile and a consolation hug around their luckless shoulders … Perhaps she doesn’t mean to, but in public she frequently slips into glutinous actress mode, as if she were rather hammily playing herself in some future episode of TV’s The Crown … Too many layers of the custard of compassion on this particular royal trifle is going to make us all feel a little bit sick.”
Will their cynicism prove justified? There are, it must be said, clear cultural differences between the Markles and the Windsors. “I was born and raised in Los Angeles,” Markle once blogged, “a California girl who lives by the ethos that most things can be cured with either yoga, the beach or a few avocados.” This is a long way from the worldview of Her Majesty the Queen, who would probably treat an avocado with deep suspicion, prefers tramping in the wind and the rain through the gorse of the Scottish Highlands to basking on a beach, and has never been spotted in a yoga leotard. Many of the royal family only really come alive in the company of horses. “If it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she’s not interested,” Prince Philip once said of their only daughter, Princess Anne.
Her Majesty has never confused being famous with being interesting. In 92 years, she has never appeared on a chat show or talked about herself to an interviewer. Some time ago, she was speaking to two members of the public when the woman’s mobile phone began to ring. “You’d better answer that,” the queen said. “It might be someone important.” The charm of this story lies in the fact that she probably wasn’t joking.
There is an almost Andy Warhol–style blankness about her. Her age, energy, and position in life probably mean that she has been introduced to a greater number of people than anyone else who ever lived, but few can remember a single word she has ever said. It is almost as though her conversation was written in disappearing ink. She tends to ask questions (“Do you live nearby?” “Have you been involved for long?”) and then reply “Really?” before moving on.
How strange, then, that this most outwardly unremarkable of women should have such an electrifying effect on those with whom she comes into contact. It has been said of her that she must think that the world smells of new paint, because redecoration so often precedes her arrival.
But the people she meets are altered, too: “Before the royal arrival, there is a heightened sense of expectation: nervous laughter from those due to be presented, repeated checking of watches, self-conscious straightening of ties, last-minute visits to the loo,” writes Gyles Brandreth. “When the royal party appears, a sudden hush descends, the atmosphere a mixture of excitement and awkwardness, interrupted by sudden bursts of laughter. When the queen says to a hospital orderly, ‘You work here full-time? Really?,’ for no good reason we all fall about with merriment. In the presence of Her Majesty, nobody behaves naturally. And the moment the royal visit is over, the relief is intense.” Brandreth goes on to quote one royal observer who noted, “When royalty leaves the room, it’s like getting a seed out of your tooth.”
This is the world that Meghan Markle is joining. Even though Prince Harry is a member of a more relaxed and open generation, he retains a strong sense of the royal family as a team, dedicated, above all, to its own survival. It is interesting to compare the vocabulary used by Harry and Meghan in the BBC television interview to mark their engagement.
Meghan uses the soft language of Californian mindfulness: She speaks of a “learning curve,” and “nurturing our relationship,” and being “focused on who we are as a couple.” Describing their first meeting, she says, “So for both of us, it was just a really authentic and organic way to get to know each other.” Later, “when we realized we were going to commit to each other … we knew we had to invest in the time and the energy and whatever it took to make that happen.”
Harry, on the other hand, speaks of Meghan’s entrance into his family almost as though it were some sort of military operation, a successful call for reinforcements. “For me, it’s an added member of the family,” says Harry. “It’s another team player as part of the bigger team, and you know for all of us, what we want to do is to be able to carry out the right engagements, carry out our work, and try and encourage others in the younger generation to be able to see the world in the correct sense.”
But the world is moving Meghan-ward. While countless other royal families — French, Russian, Iranian, Italian, etc. — have fossilized and then fallen, the British royal family has survived by constantly adapting to the demands of the modern age. Back in 2002, the queen’s Golden Jubilee was marked by a so-called Party at the Palace, which kicked off with Brian May of Queen playing “God Save the Queen” on his electric guitar on the roof, and continued with Her Majesty enjoying — or at least enduring — performances by, among many others, Brian Wilson, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Paul McCartney, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
This is one reason why the royal family has welcomed Markle with such enthusiasm. From her blog and her tweets and her interviews, it is clear that Thoroughly Modern Meghan makes no distinction between networking and philanthropy, humanitarianism and self-promotion, each skill shading into the other. This is the way the world is going, and the royals are, as ever, anxious to remain onboard. She is media-savvy, maneuvering deftly between old and new, between the professional and the private. In June 2016, she spent an afternoon at Wimbledon, watching her friend Serena Williams playing tennis. During that trip (she was still living in Toronto at the time), she had contacted the media blabbermouth Piers Morgan, with whom she had corresponded on Twitter, and arranged to have a drink with him at a bar in Kensington. He recalls that they spoke of Suits, gun control, and women’s rights. She was, he concluded, “fabulous, warm, funny, intelligent and highly entertaining.”
And, he failed to add, discreet: As they said good-bye, Meghan neglected to tell him that she’d also be visiting a smart private members club for her first meeting with Prince Harry.
There has recently been a lot of talk in Britain about the Uninvited. Every day, it seems that new members of the Markle family pop up to complain that they haven’t had an invitation to the Wedding. Meghan’s uncle Michael and her uncle Fred have both been left off the guest list, and so has her uncle Joseph. “We as a family are very saddened that we won’t be there to witness her beautiful celebration,” said her first cousin Trish Gallop.
Meghan’s half-brother Tom Markle Jr. is furious not to have been invited. “She’s torn our entire family apart. She’s clearly forgotten her roots … Meg likes to portray herself as a humanitarian, a people’s person and a charitable person, but she is none of those things to her family.” Meanwhile, Meghan’s half-sister Samantha produces fresh grievances on Twitter regularly, calling her “selfish” and a “social climber.” She is currently touting an autobiographical book to publishers. Its title is The Diary of Princess Pushy’s Sister. (It should be noted that Samantha has also fallen out with her mother, her brother, and her former husband.)
Far from being put off by such feuding, it is likely that the royal family will treat it as valuable experience. After all, at any one time half of them are on non-speaks with the others. Writing my new biography of the queen’s difficult sister, Princess Margaret, I discovered that the princess never once addressed a word to her cousin’s wife, Princess Michael, even though they lived in the same building.
In most important respects, the royal family is a branch of show business, covered by the media as such. “You could equate it to a soap opera, really,” said Princess Diana, in her controversial secret interview with the BBC. “It goes on and on and on, and the story never changes.”
All members of the royal family are playing a part. They are actors in a pageant, a sort of historical re-creation, in which they are expected to submerge their own characters beneath traditional roles. Like an actor, the queen mother knew that, in public, she was playing a role. “Her engagements, whether private or public, were like performances,” observed her biographer Hugo Vickers. “Privately, there was less going on, since between these performances she rested.”
Problems begin to arise when they confuse their private and their public lives and start to think that the public is interested in them for who they really are, rather than what they represent. Then things go really haywire when they go off-script and start to perform the lead role in their own psychodramas. The most obvious example is Princess Diana. Originally cast as Mary Poppins, after a few years she instead took on the role of a free-form Hedda Gabler. Others of her generation of royal brides have also come a cropper, not least the Duchess of York. Six years after her “fairy tale” wedding to the queen’s second son, Sarah Ferguson was staying at Balmoral when a newspaper carried photographs of her having her toes sucked by her “financial adviser.” Oddly enough, her subsequent fall from grace has served only to boost her self-absorption. Her books of wisdom include What I Know Now, Reinventing Yourself With the Duchess of York, Dining With the Duchess, and Dieting With the Duchess. Latest among a stream of autobiographies is Finding Sarah: A Duchess’s Journey to Find Herself, which includes a checklist of pieces of “Wisdom From the Duchess.” One of them is “Listen to Your Heart,” another “Free Your Mind and Your Bottom Will Follow.”
The queen was the last member of the royal family to marry another royal: She and her husband, Prince Philip, are cousins, both being great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria. The next generation spread their nets a little wider, but both Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson had definite royal connections: Diana’s grandmother Ruth, Lady Fermoy, was a close friend of the queen mother and, for over 30 years, a Woman of the Bedchamber; Sarah’s father, Major Ron, was the Prince of Wales’s polo manager.
Both marriages ended in tears. Small wonder that today’s generation has decided to ditch royal tradition and look further afield. Meghan Markle’s biographer Andrew Morton describes her as “the first divorced biracial American to take her place in the House of Windsor,” which is true as far as it goes, though few Britons seem to regard any of these characteristics as a hindrance. After all, in 2004, Prince Harry’s cousin Lady Davina Windsor, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, married a Maori former sheepshearer called Gary, who had an 11-year-old son from a previous relationship, and no one batted an eyelid.
People seem much more suspicious of Markle’s success as an actual actor, worrying that it calls her authenticity into question. When she looks so lovingly at Harry on television, how can we tell she isn’t acting? On television, hasn’t she just walked down the aisle with another man, looking every bit as adoring?
In the early ’80s, Harry’s uncle Andrew courted another actress, Koo Stark, and may well have been allowed to marry her had she not made the mistake of appearing topless in a shower scene in the low-budget film Emily.
Markle has certainly taken on some sexy roles — she appeared in 90210 as a girl who had just given a young man oral sex in a car, and she snogged Russell Brand in Get Him to the Greek. She also played a serial killer in a crime show and pretended to snort coke in a TV comedy. YouTube carries a handy medley of her sexiest moments on Suits. In one, she is straddled between filing shelves, abandoning herself to an eager colleague. But, miraculously, she keeps her bra on. Her caution paid off: Actresses hoping to follow in her footsteps should remember to keep their tops on at all times.
It’s important to note that Meghan Markle is not the first actress to turn royal. On the day of her wedding to Prince Rainier in April 1956, Grace Kelly turned, as if by magic, into the most titled woman in the world: twice a princess, four times a duchess, eight times a countess, and nine times a baroness. But she was soon to find that, for all its pomp, her new role had its limitations, not least its insufferable dullness. At only 500 acres, the entire country of Monaco would fit comfortably into Central Park. Moreover, her stocky, mustachioed husband lacked a certain sparkle: When he proposed to her over a pudding of pears poached in wine, he passed her a pictorial history of his family with the words “If you are to be at my side, then you may need this.”
Stifled by the clammy, claustrophobic atmosphere of the court of Monaco, Grace had begun to pine for her Hollywood days. So when Alfred Hitchcock — who had directed her in To Catch a Thief — suggested she should return to acting, offering her the title role in Marnie, she was tempted.
“Princess Grace has accepted an offer to appear during her summer vacation in a motion picture for Mister Alfred Hitchcock, to be made in the United States,” ran a palace announcement issued on March 18, 1962. “It is understood that Prince Rainier will most likely be present during part of the filmmaking depending on his schedule and that Princess Grace will return to Monaco with her family in November.”
Five years from now, will Meghan Markle feel the same sort of tug? Or will life as the Duchess of Somewhere-or-Other hold sufficient appeal? Will she be content unveiling commemorative plaques at schools and hospitals, smiling through welcoming pageants in national costume offered by C-list countries, engaging in polite conversation with foreign dignitaries of a similar status at Buckingham Palace? Or will she yearn for something less dogged and dutiful, something with more zip?
“A princely marriage,” said Walter Bagehot, the Victorian constitutional historian, “is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and, as such, it rivets mankind.” He wrote this in 1863, the same year the future King Edward VII wed Princess Alexandra of Denmark at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are also due to be married.
If mankind remains riveted by a princely marriage, it is as much for its jeopardy as for its brilliance. In the old days, it was only royal insiders who were party to the possible pitfalls in a royal engagement, and they would dutifully keep the information to themselves. For instance, the royal expert Hugo Vickers concluded the Charles-and-Diana tie-in Debrett’s Book of the Royal Wedding (1981) with the judgment that Prince Charles was “indeed fortunate to have found in Lady Diana Spencer somebody who is, in his words, ‘pretty special.’ ” Yet nearly a quarter of a century on, in his 2005 biography of the queen mother, he revealed that he had recorded his misgivings about their compatibility in his private diary. “The Royal Wedding,” he wrote, “is no more romantic than a picnic amid the wasps.”
Recent history has taught the queen’s subjects to be more savvy. After all, the queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, married Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960; they divorced in 1978. The queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, married Captain Mark Phillips in 1973; they divorced in 1992. The queen’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales, married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981; they divorced in 1996. The queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, married Sarah Ferguson in 1986; they, too, divorced in 1996. And so today’s royal-wedding conversations keep returning to that question: How long do you give it?
In years to come, Markle may look back on her wedding day as the high point of her life as a royal. At the moment, she imagines that she will then be in a position to espouse causes close to her heart. Interviewed by the BBC, she said that one of the first things she and Harry ever talked about “was just the different things that we wanted to do in the world and how passionate we were about seeing change.” But the royal family maintains its position by keeping well away from politics or anything remotely radical. This is not the life for someone who dreams of changing the world.
Furthermore, as the years roll by, Harry and Meghan will become increasingly marginalized. With the birth of Prince Louis at the end of April, Harry dropped from fifth to sixth in the royal succession. If Prince William’s three babies all have three babies of their own, he will drop a further nine places. For younger siblings and their spouses, the royal progress tends to be downhill all the way.
Soon after the announcement that Princess Grace was to be starring in Marnie, Alfred Hitchcock was asked by a reporter if there would be any love scenes. “Passionate and unusual love scenes,” he replied. He added that the sex appeal of the princess was “the finest in the world.”
Monaco went into meltdown. The Monégasques did not like the idea of their princess being filmed kissing another man — little did they know that Hitchcock also had plans for him to rape her. Grace’s mother-in law led the outcry, scoffing, disdainfully, “C’est une américaine!”
Princess Grace stopped eating and had trouble sleeping. Even the announcement that she would be donating her $800,000 fee to Monaco charities did nothing to appease her opponents. Eventually, she was obliged to announce that she was dropping out of the film.
“It was heartbreaking for me to have to leave the picture,” she confessed in June 1962 in a letter to Hitchcock.
“Yes, it was sad, wasn’t it?” replied Hitchcock. But, on reflection, he considered it all for the best.
“After all,” he told her, “it was only a movie.”
Craig Brown’s Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret will be published in August by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
*This article appears in the April 30, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!