‘The thing is,’ said my friend, after the broadcast of the engagement interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, ‘you can’t imagine actually bowing or curtseying to her, can you?’ That is pretty well the crux of the engagement issue: can you see yourself doing either in the case of the newest prospective member of the Windsor family? Personally, I would curtsey to the Queen and I have done to Prince Philip; I would draw the line at Camilla, and I wouldn’t dream of curtseying to Meghan.
My friend was in fact A.N. Wilson, biographer of, inter alia, Queen Victoria. It was a blessed relief to talk to someone who wasn’t swimming with the tide of inutterable drivel that’s been spoken and written about the engagement since it happened. ‘It was like being in a bloody Hollywood movie,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ Mr Wilson said. ‘A very bad one.’ His view, one that I heartily subscribe to, is that in happier days, the royals would find their marriage partners from a pool of about 150 people, most of them relations of Queen Victoria. Chosen by their parents.
The more I think about it, the more I reckon we are, in fact, in the middle of a really bad version of Love Actually, only with Meghan a bit more of a Julia Roberts figure: same dewy look, same lips, same borderline goofiness cut with inner steel and an adorably wonky nose.
The improbable union of an American actress with British royalty has, in fact, a horrible congruity to it. Ever since Princess Diana, royalty has elided with celebrity; with Meghan Markle, we’re now in Princess-theme territory. It’s like that grisly Disney film Enchanted, where fairytale princess meets contemporary America: you’ve got all the trappings of monarchy only with white teeth, a glossy manicure and a Hollywood accent. Oh, plus the corgis. Meghan got on well with them, apparently.
Anyway. The tide of drivel that has greeted her arrival among the royal family does need unpicking, and you can select pretty well any pundit from the commentariat as a case in point; their views are identical, though some columns are prefaced with the face-saving formula: ‘as an instinctive Republican…’
First off, Meghan Markle’s ethnicity hardly seems relevant. Her mother is African-American. So? It ought not to be an issue. If anything it’s a positive, but it isn’t a big deal.
The more interesting notion is that she’s a feminist. She has spoken about women’s rights. She campaigns about tampons and menstruation and writes about ‘how periods affect potential’ in poor countries. This is an important issue, but the notion that feminism is a brave and forward-looking mindset rather than a reflexive and conventional one is nonsense. There are indeed royals who try to advance the condition of women: Mary Donaldson, the Danish crown princess from Australia, has spoken well on female genital mutilation — but others know more about it.
Is it really doing young women any favours to suggest they aspire to the condition of a Netflix actress in Suits? A role in which looks are everything; where the ability to look good in size-eight clothes is the sine qua non? I’d have more patience with the line that she is an independent career woman if the career in question were plumbing or accountancy. But for little girls to be sold the notion that the route to success is to be groomed and glossy isn’t doing much for ordinary girls. It’s to underpin the cult of celebrity, here by eliding two sorts of it: royalty and Netflix.
Then there’s Prince Harry, who has been ill-served by the contemporary cult of emotional openness. He seems a pleasant person, if not particularly bright; the old, Prince Andrew, model of royal duty would have served him better.
The point remains that Meghan Markle is unsuitable because she’s divorced, and Anglican canon law suggests that the remarriage of people with living former spouses should not happen if the marriage would bring the Anglican ideal of lifelong marriage into disrepute.
As this does, and as Prince Charles’s second marriage does. Funnily enough, Mishal Husain did not raise the question of Meghan’s first husband, the film producer Trevor Engelson, in her TV interview with the couple, but Engelson has successfully pitched a proposal for a series about an American who loses his wife to a British royal. We’ll have to see how that plays out.
I’m all for marriage. I’m just not sure this one is entirely good news for the monarchy. Or for that more important institution: matrimony.