Like most people who live in England, I don’t see much of the British Royal Family apart from the odd regal wave and the sudden hush of traffic when the Queen’s car—no licence plates—drives through London. But being in the media does make access a little more possible. A good friend of mine, Sir Robin Day, a distinguished political interviewer, spends a bit of time with Princess Margaret. Sir Robin recently went back to Kensington Palace for an after-dinner drink with the Princess only to find himself having a hearty kitchen chat with her. The conversation was engaging and lively, but etiquette prevented him from sitting down until the Princess offered him a chair. She did not Sir Robin is in his late sixties and at about 2:30 a.m. he managed to tactfully mention to the Princess that he was interviewing Prime Minister John Major at eight that morning. “How interesting,” said the Princess, undeterred. Sir Robin had to be carried into the television studio the next day, but Princess Margaret who in physique is a teeny, frail woman, was up and about opening a hospital early that day with the astonishing energy she, her sister and mother all possess.
The Queen Mother is 92 years old, takes on a heavy schedule of activities and rarely uses reading glasses. The Queen, 66, is not as strong as her Scottish mother, but is far more robust than her late father, King George vi, who died of lung cancer at 56. Princess Margaret 61, has had lung problems herself, but she smokes like a chimney and looks better each year. In Andrew Morton’s controversial book on Princess Diana, Diana: Her True Story, published in June, the only anecdote that raised some sympathy in me for the Princess of Wales was the account of a stiflingly hot day at a Buckingham Palace garden party. When a friend offered her a fan, the Princess refused. “I can’t do that,” she said. “My mother-in-law is going to be standing there with her handbag, gloves, stockings and shoes.”
One has great admiration for people who
do their jobs well, whether they are typists or sovereigns—and the Queen of England is a high achiever. All the same, her record as a mother is pretty dismal: among her three married children, not one has a successful marriage. Charles and Diana seem to loathe each other so much that they cannot even bear to travel in the same car (or carriage). A popular view in Britain is that the Queen will simply have to hang onto the throne until the Wales’s eldest son, Prince William, is old enough to become King. Behind this view lies the notion that the British people would simply not tolerate a sham marriage or a divorced King on the throne.
How did this all come about? A formidable member of the British aristocracy explained quite seriously that the entire problem is due to the notion that the sons and daughters of the sovereign could be sent off to boarding schools and then re-enter the royal world. “They sit on their dormitory beds,” she said, “having midnight feasts and discussing sex and parties with people bred for a quite different life. They get the notion that they have a right to happiness. The Queen ought to keep them all at home and give them tutors.”
This is nonsense, but it has a kernel of truth. Our notion of marriage has evolved over time,
and by now we all pretty much subscribe to the idea that marriage is predicated on mutual happiness. The concept that a marriage may have a higher function than assuring the happiness of each of the partners has disappeared. A spouse can say, “I quip” for reasons ranging from incompatibility of musical tastes to a partner’s need to “find themselves” without the slightest moral disapprobation.
Being sovereign of England has obvious perks, but ever since Henry vm, keeping a stable marriage has been part of the job. People can act arbitrarily and quit their jobs in some fields of endeavor without hurting anyone but themselves, such as a stock clerk who may resign and hurt no one but himself. But other worlds are different if you are an actor and quit in the middle of the performance or are an airline pilot flying over the Atlantic, quitting in the middle of your job creates more than personal inconvenience. The point is, noblesse oblige still remains operative in lots of ways. Noblesse oblige, which is part of the job description for membership in the Royal Family, does mean wearing stockings and gloves in 35° C heat and it also means that happiness may have nothing to do with your marriage; to think otherwise is falling down on the job.
All the same, falling down or not, the British monarchy will probably survive its current discomfort. Everyone in Britain has a solution to the latest problems of the “family firm,” as the Windsors call themselves. Some advocate cutting down the civil list—those members of the Royal Family who get allowances from Parliament—to include only the Queen and her immediate heir. This, say proponents, would mean that when lesser royals, such as the Yorks, divorce or play up, ordinary taxpayers wouldn’t feel they were financing the frivolities. Others want the Queen to pay income tax, although how this would solve disillusionment with the monarchy is a mystery to me.
The truth is that the Royal Family is a rather accurate, if old-fashioned, mirror of the nation. Throughout the ages, whether in medieval times or in the Victorian era, royal families have behaved pretty much like the society they ruled. In the era of enlightenment, for example, Catherine the Great had a friendship with Voltaire that would have scandalized her grandmother. In today’s world, where our expectations of marriage have changed, it seems only natural that that change should have caught up with the royals and that the next King of England might well be a divorced and remarried man.
Many of us have fallen down in our own lives when it comes to marriage, but that doesn’t prevent us from seeing this as our own shortcoming and allowing us to be critical of contemporary standards. Obviously, we can’t be holierthan-thou about self-indulgence when both thou and I have behaved in ways that leave a lot to be desired. Knowing this is small comfort and, personally, I mourn the end of a world in which the question to Queen Elizabeth II, “Is your marriage happy?” remains as utterly irrelevant as gloves, stockings and handbag are to tine mass of us on a hot summer day.
Being sovereign of England has obvious perks, but keeping a stable marriage has always been part of the job
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