The wedding of Prince Harry, sixth in line to the British throne, and Meghan Markle, actress and former star of the legal drama Suits, is almost upon us. The cake has been commissioned from a Hackney bakery — ‘a lemon elderflower cake that will incorporate the bright flavours of spring’, according to a palace statement — and alterations are still being made to the wedding dress (the bride reportedly keeps shrinking). By 19 May, the spotlight will be firmly on the bride and groom, since William and Kate are again in the bleary-eyed enchanted zone of new parents, this time of a baby boy: Kate has thus been relieved of any formal role, save the task of turning up with the wriggling newborn at the wedding.
All is primed, yet in the run-up to the big day itself the country seems to have divided into those happily in the sparkly grip of Marklemania and the contrarian voices of what John Major once called ‘the knockers and sneerers’. Chief among the latter group recently was the 79-year-old Germaine Greer, who has — with her undiminished talent for stirring an argument — assumed the national role of an outspoken uncle on his dangerous fourth glass of Rioja.
‘I think she’ll bolt,’ predicted Greer. ‘She bolted before. She was out the door.’ Voicing similar concerns, but from a more traditionalist starting point, was the 70-year-old former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe. From her incarceration in the Celebrity Big Brother house in January, Widdecombe professed herself ‘uneasy’ about the Harry-Meghan union. ‘I think she’s trouble,’ she said. ‘Background, attitude, I worry.’
Increasingly, I find that such doomy forecasts, often borne on a few meaningfully freighted words — ‘celebrity culture’, ‘divorcee’, ‘that bit older’ — are pushing me firmly into the Markle camp. When people openly ponder just how easily she will fit into the traditional, understated, quietly dutiful culture of British royalty, I realise that the speaker has — often without even realising it — distilled their entire conception of British royalty down to just one person: the Queen. The widespread profound affection that the British public has for Queen Elizabeth is partly based on the fact that although she’s always been there, we’ve never had too much of her at any given moment: she’s a combination of cosiness and mystery, and she doesn’t get on our nerves. The Queen doesn’t over-emote or tell us every thought that passes momentarily through her head: she’s a one-woman antidote to the excesses of social media.
Please let us not pretend, however, that in marrying Harry and joining the wider royal family, Markle is entering some kind of hallowed institution stuffed with self-effacing do-gooders. Even within living memory, the behaviour of an erstwhile spare to the heir has often been riotously selfish. The late Princess Margaret, the society stunner of her era, quickly developed a powerful taste for chain-smoking, booze, fast company and late nights: ‘More and more parties,’ tartly observed her former governess Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford, ‘more and more friends, and less and less work.’
One generation later, Prince Andrew was compelled to step away from his role as a special trade envoy following a scandal involving the mysterious purchase of his house by a Kazakh billionaire at £3 million over the asking price, and his close friendship with the wealthy US sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, whom — upon Epstein’s release from prison — Andrew reportedly tapped for £15,000 to help his spendthrift ex-wife Sarah Ferguson pay off her debts.
It is to Britain’s advantage that Markle, with her social worker mother and lighting director father, has not been born with the sense of sulky entitlement so often endemic in our lesser royals and minor aristocracy. Indeed, she appears to have grafted hard all her life, not least through seven seasons of Suits, in which she played a senior paralegal, Rachel Zane. While some may carp at Markle’s background in television drama, it seems perfect preparation for royal existence: long periods of hanging about patiently on set, punctuated by moments of intense scrutiny in which one cannot afford to muff a single line or spill food down one’s front.
William and Harry, the scions of the House of Windsor, wisely decided to look beyond the skittish, thoroughbred array of double-barrelled Florences and Sophies that would once have been considered their marital hunting ground. In William’s case, that has worked out well: the Duchess of Cambridge, born to aspirational middle-class parents, appears to have the same stoic, uncomplaining work ethic as the Queen. Markle, arriving from overseas, is also likely to take the duties of British royalty far more seriously than the lissom Sloane Rangers who might once have thought themselves natural contenders to bag a prince, but are now more likely to be seen downing vodka shots with junior oligarchs on Made in Chelsea.
A royal family that remains behind glass is one that will eventually end up in a museum, gloated over by victorious republicans, and Markle brings with her qualities that speak to a changing Britain. Her mixed-race heritage — a black, African-American mother and a white, Dutch-Irish father — places her among the fastest-growing ethnic minority group in the UK and alters the public profile of the royal family. Some might say that is purely symbolic, but ordinary people understand symbolism and respond to it: witness the joyful reception that she and Harry received from black Britons on their trip to a Brixton community radio station in January. Also, with her espousal of feminism, professed dislike of Donald Trump and recommendation on Instagram of a book by the radical leftist Noam Chomsky, Markle is considerably more ‘woke’ than any previous member of The Firm. A sprinkling of wokeness over Harry is no doubt a good thing: certainly, no one wants to slip back to those unhappy days when the 20-year-old Prince Hal rocked up to a friend’s ‘colonial-themed’ birthday party dressed in the desert uniform of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
Still, that was a very long time ago, and of late he has forsworn the hard partying in favour of campaigns such as Heads Together to tackle stigma around mental health issues. Although staunch traditionalists may wax nostalgic for stuffy protocol around the royal family, the institution needs occasional blasts of air for continued health, and Markle’s combination of Hollywood glitz and campaigning zeal will help to inoculate it against criticism in a changing age. Recent polls show its current popularity to be in good shape.
Markle will, no doubt, be discreetly advised by palace advisers to rein in any overtly political pronouncements. Already she has erased her inoffensive lifestyle blog ‘The Tig’, which provided a ‘hub for the discerning palate — those with a hunger for food, fashion, travel or beauty’. The blog was mostly an uncontroversial collection of tips on the virtues of self-care, kindness, mindfulness and how to make your bedroom feel like a boutique hotel by putting a cucumber slice in the water jug, but its contents would no doubt have been manna to cynical British hacks at any point when they decided to turn vicious: look at the wicked fun they had with Pippa Middleton’s party-planning book.
Which brings us to the only real Markle-related challenge I can think of: her necessary adaptation of tone, to fit in with the mindset on this rainy, sarcastic island. In real life — away from the pious semaphoring of social media — our public generally bristles at overstatement. Markle’s 2015 UN Women’s Conference speech, in which she legendised her own childhood outrage at a sexist advert for washing-up liquid, was hard-going for many British viewers. But she’s sharp as a tack and I’m sure she’ll learn fast: the gloopy stuff goes down better in the US. She doesn’t need to sell us her virtues because we’d prefer to figure them out over the long haul.
I wish Ms Markle good luck. She has a lot going for her. She must remember, however to take a long-term lesson from the most successful senior member of The Firm: dial the drama down a notch and Be More Queen.