My finest hour as an American with an English parent occurred some 50 years ago when I argued down a bevy of unliberated girlfriends who insisted that the newly married Princess Margaret should be called Mrs Jones. ‘After all,’ said one, in the smirkishly solemn tones of the feminine mystique, ‘it’s her husband’s name.’ ‘No!’ I burst out. ‘She is Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowden.’ As my own tones hung in the air I realised that I sounded just like my father. Warming to the subject, I went on. ‘And don’t forget the the. That keeps it from sounding too familiar.’ My Anglophilia got its start early on, honed and polished by the cultural tilts between my English father and my American mother. One concerned the dying philanderer Edward VII. ‘Queen Alexandra sent a car for his mistress, Mrs Keppel, so they could say goodbye,’ said my father. ‘She should have sent a car to run over her,’ said my mother. I wasn’t even sure what a mistress was, but it was my first inkling of the difference between the two countries: Americans are generous but not magnanimous, because the grand gesture is too aristocratic for comfort.
They had another set-to over the abdication. My father patiently explained the constitutional issues that prevented Edward VIII from marrying Mrs Simpson but they went in one American ear and out the other. ‘Baloney! He was the king, he could do anything he wanted. If anybody didn’t like it he could throw them in a dungeon and chop off their head!’ said the great democrat.
My mother would doubtless be cheered by the news that Prince William is to marry Miss Kate Middleton of the ‘aspiring’ middle class. I can hear her now: ‘She’s just what that family needs to bring ’em down to earth. She won’t go around thinking she’s better than everybody else.’ Oh, really? It was the late Princess Diana who did her best to bring the royal family and the entire panoply of monarchy to its knees. Given a choice between the starched collar of respect and the rump-sprung britches of love, Diana’s fashion was never in doubt, but Kate may opt for the style of the greatest middle-class aspirer of all time, and we all know who that is: ‘The Windsor residence! The lady of the house speaking!’ Diana used to pull people up from curtseys but if Hyacinth Bucket ever got hold of the monarchy she would bring back the kow-tow.
Being an English-American can be depressing. For years I thought about giving up my American citizenship and becoming a Brit to get my blood and my nationality lined up without the interference of a hyphen, but then something made me change my mind with a vengeance: Princess Diana’s funeral. I spent three stunned days staring at the TV screen and thinking My God, they’ve turned into us! It wasn’t England any more, just a sceptre’d loony bin set in a sea of rotting flora, a UK of Utter Kitsch where the crud de la crud built teddy-bear temples to a gilded hysteric who resembled nothing so much as Judy Garland with a title. I told myself that if I must live in a country where people who once tipped their hats now tipped the scales, I might as well stay home and save myself the trouble of remembering to look right instead of left to avoid an oncoming hug speeding up the wrong side of the road. My hyphen, right or wrong.
I now get my England fix from ‘Masterpiece Theatre’. I am as hooked on Downton Abbey as everyone else on both sides of the Puddle but I have bones to pick with the first series. Carrying the corpse of the Turk through the corridors in the middle of the night stopped just short of unintentional comic relief. Didn’t Julian Fellowes remember that the same thing happened in Fawlty Towers when Basil and Manuel put the dead guest into the wrong laundry bin? Then there is Countess Cora’s maid, O’Brien. Thinking she is to be discharged, she places a bar of soap — soap! — on the bathroom floor so the pregnant countess will slip and have a miscarriage. Which is what happens. And of course the foetus was male. That long arm of coincidence and the self-parodic touch of soap in a soap opera were jarring. Some predictions for the rest of the plot: Lady Mary will become the Florence Nightingale of the first world war, earning the respect of Mrs Crawley if not the love of Matthew, and Lady Sybil will become the consummate Bright Young Thing, modelled on the real-life avatar, the tragic Elizabeth Ponsonby.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 12, 2011