As you and the rest of the world know by now, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry broke the international news cycle by announcing a retreat from their senior royal status.
One of my least favorite phenomenons in the world is when a global event happens and everyone suddenly assigns themselves an expert on the subject. There have been so many bad takes surrounding this announcement from critics and supporters alike that I’m going to sit the discourse out entirely. I do not know enough about the monarchy because I keep falling asleep during season one of The Crown and anyway, my interest in the Duke and Duchess of Sussex is more as a romantic than a royal watcher.
Over the last week, I’ve read a few compelling articles on the subject of Meghan and Harry’s decision. Although their experience is entirely singular, they’ve thrusted the world into the consideration of familial loyalty, duty, and how race compounds these components against the backdrop of a royal monarchy.
Afua Hirsch’s op-ed in the New York Times, Black Britons Know Why Meghan Markle Wants Out discussed Harry and Meghan’s decision as unsurprising to those acquainted with the double-standards Black Britons face in public society.
“In Britain’s rigid class society, there is still a deep correlation between privilege and race. The relatively few people of color — and even fewer if you count only those who have African heritage — who rise to prominent success and prosperity in Britain are often told we should be “grateful” or told to leave if we don’t like it here.”
I have followed Megan’s journey in the the House of Windsor only passively, but Hirsch’s article does a dutiful job outlining the racist scrutiny that has hounded Meghan in the British press, evoking the same mocking ghouls that chased Harry’s mother to her untimely death. In Heavenly Bodies, Hilary Mantel discusses the singular experience the women inducted into the monarchy must fold or steel against. Femininity is not to be individually possessed but occupied by The Crown, and subdued in any respect that it falls beyond this occupation.
“Antoinette as a royal consort was a gliding, smiling disaster, much like Diana in another time and another country. But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished.”
“Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture. Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. Kate seems capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation.”
On the subject of Diana’s death,
“Her death still makes me shudder because although I know it was an accident, it wasn’t just an accident. It was fate showing her hand, fate with her twisted grin.
Diana visited the most feminine of cities to meet her end as a woman: to move on, from the City of Light to the place beyond black.
“She went into the underpass to be reborn, but reborn this time without a physical body: the airy subject of a hundred thousand photographs, a flicker at the corner of the eye, a sigh on the breeze.”
I was haunted by Mantel’s observations, particularly in how accurately she describes how a royal must abandon their personhood to fulfill the myopic identity regarded worthy of the Crown, or face hell otherwise. This same conflict is illuminated by Alyssa Rosenberg’s in a Washington Post op-ed, The Dark Side of Harry and Meghan’s Fairy-tale Escape.
“The House of Windsor is spectacularly privileged, but its members are also under tremendous pressure. Those of us on the outside might sigh over the decor and imagine what we might do with 20 million pounds a year (about $26 million). But I’m not sure most of us could name the actual salary we’d like to be paid for surrendering our personalities, performing an endless array of ceremonial but crushingly dull appearances, and doing it all while submitting to pantyhose (the female royals) and exhaustingly personal media criticism (both genders, but it’s worse for the women) every day.”
“A surface reading might present Harry’s desire to break away from the parts of royal life he finds stultifying as a victory his mother could have been proud of. But, as Tina Brown noted in The Diana Chronicles, Diana’s definition of victory was not always reliable. “She thought this deafening public scream would solve the matter once and for all,” Brown wrote of Diana’s decision to collaborate with Morton on a tell-all book. “It was her pattern, the belief that a single volcanic act could fix everything.”
I don’t know what to say all of this except that something in the feral side of my being understands the seductive nature of this idea that if we would only expose the wincing gnarled animal of our pain out into the streets then surely, we’d find some compassion in the masses, some modicum of comfort. Women like Diana and Meghan who have faced scrutiny and criticism the likes of which I will never know have learned otherwise.
I hope that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are able to find peace, as I hope that any other person might—royal or not. As I consider how common their experience of family dysfunction and disappointment is to the human experience, I am reminded of Rosenberg’s noteworthy conclusion:
The thing about riding off into the sunset is that, depending on the terms of your departure, it means leaving your once-beloved brother, father and grandmother behind. The folly would be in forgetting what kind of story this is, and refusing to see that another word for “drama” is “pain.”