“What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
So mused Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine after a feisty spat with her husband, Peter O’Toole’s Henry II, in “The Lion in Winter.” I haven’t seen it in years and couldn’t locate the specific clip on YouTube, but if memory serves, Eleanor’s rhetorical query comes after a row in which she calls out the king for sleeping with his daughter-in-law, and then goads him: “do you wonder if I ever slept with your father?” The story also features ample brotherly discord.
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Eight hundred-plus years later, another queen called 1992 an “annus horribilis,” Elizabeth II referring to a year of Windsor woes, including two of her sons’ very public marital problems.
Oh, the times may be a-changin’ but not that much when it comes British royal family drama. Since Wednesday, the world has been riveted by Megxit, the announcement by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle that the couple intends to “carve out a progressive new role within this institution” of the British monarchy.
In response, Princes Charles and William are, according to a source first quoted in The Sun (whose usage of language should make every journalist at least a little envious), “incandescent with rage.”
Oh, so much material here, issues of honor, personal independence, family loyalty and public responsibility all playing out, with a good old subtext of airing the family laundry. At least to those with only a very foreign notion of monarchy, the fraught storyline at first registers as more comedy than tragedy: A real-life, multigenerational mess that could swing Shakespearean or Hallmark Channel, depending upon one’s telling. Either way, it distracts from the world’s larger woes — brink-of-war fears, ongoing climate change anxiety, the Western World’s capitalism vs. socialism struggle, the hyper-polarized state of American (as well as British) everyday life. And by the way, jury selection in the Harvey Weinstein trial is a bitch.
With their announcement, Harry and Meghan have shone a light on one of the fact-of-life wonderments of royal life. “We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty the Queen,” the statement read. Work to become financially independent. He’s 35; she’s 38. Apart from the mega-trust fund set, in what other world could that even be a goal? How many people pushing 40 have the luxury of working toward financial independence? Even given that their expenses are extraordinary, including such essentials as security, the wording amuses.
According to first reports, the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William were blindsided by press accounts of the announcement. Was the method intended to upset Grandma and Pops? If so, the lack of a heads-up by Harry and Meghan sounds like an act of petulant adolescent defiance. Subsequent reports have said that family learned of the announcement 10 minutes in advance, and that Harry approached his father before Christmas to discuss his and Meghan’s desire to spend more time in North America.
Whatever the particulars, there’s a flip side to the disrespectful-Harry-and-Meghan take. Considering that, the comedic edge dulls considerably. Why did Meghan and Harry make their announcement the way they did? What forces led them to this point? There’s been much ado about the fact that Harry “disobeyed” the Queen’s order to not announce anything until the details of their “stepping back” could be worked out. The word “disobey” implies absolute buy-in to the notion that Harry is fully answerable to the Queen regarding his life choices. But if he’s grappling with practical and existential questions about the monarchy and his and Meghan’s roles in it, he may reject the idea that it’s Grandmother’s birthright to call the shots for his life.
As for Meghan, the vitriol directed at her seems over the top, Piers Morgan’s diatribe but one of many. We don’t know these people; we can only infer what they’re really like and imagine the path to their choices. The Duchess of Sussex might be a saint; she might go home and kick the cat. We just don’t know. We do know that after the briefest of honeymoons, the British press took to assaulting her every move, and a wild social media campaign accusing her of faking her pregnancy with a pillow. We know, too, that the adolescent Harry was deeply affected by the press’ disgusting and ultimately deadly treatment of his beloved mother Princess Diana, and has been media-wary ever since. Is it a shocker that he’s unwilling to look away when another woman he loves is attacked?
So what’s next? Chances are that, at least in the short term, the couple will find an open-arms welcome in North America, in either or both of their most likely settling points, Canada and Los Angeles, where Archie’s maternal grandmother resides. How the couple will ultimately achieve the financial independence to which they aspire, who knows, although they’re likely to field a range of offers. If successful, their application to trademark “Sussex Royal” would provide countless branding possibilities, including for the development of all kinds of merch.
Thus, the Sussexes might prove themselves brilliant marketers with a shared gift for opportunistic (dare one say American) entrepreneurialism. Conversely, critics have already labeled potential branding efforts as tacky, and maintain they would bring shame to the monarchy and Windsor name. Yet, lest the prospect of Windsors working for a living further stoke the angry incandescence of those traditional senior royals, they might more prudently redirect that emotion elsewhere, perhaps toward the alleged sexual predator in the family.