Even in 2018 the desire to believe in fairy tales persists, as witnessed in frenzied excitement mounting before Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s wedding on May 19. This 2018 fairy tale, of course, has nothing to do with Prince Charming-saving-Cinderella or the romantic miasma that surrounded the doomed 1981 marriage of Harry’s parents, Charles and Diana. This time out, the future princess—an intelligent, accomplished, charismatic 36-year-old who defies palace protocol by being a divorced American actress —is the one doing the rescuing, not only of a lonely prince but of a post-Brexit monarchy requiring rebranding.
Certainly the details doled out about their upcoming nuptials suggest it’ll be the antithesis of the epic blow-out at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1981 that joined Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in holy matrimony. We now know how that fairy tale detonated, with another woman waiting in the wings. (The foreshadowing was loud and clear in their 1981 engagement interview, in which the two were asked if they “were in love.” Then-Lady Diana Spencer replied “Of course,” shyly. “Whatever ‘in love’ means,” Charles responded caustically with a laugh as Diana giggled nervously.) Over time, Diana’s gilded wedding carriage transmogrified into a cage, her wedding veil into a shroud. We now know that 19-year-old Diana, apparently the last blue-blood virgin in the U.K., had been slotted into the position like someone sent from personnel. Her fatal mistake was in not knowing her new role, like all roles, came with a script. It’s a narrative she chose to defy, for which she would dearly pay.
Lessons were learned in the wake of Diana’s tragic death, as the British royal family walked that tenuous tightrope between upholding tradition, constancy, continuity and being forced to evolve or die. Thus it was a breakthrough of sorts when Kate Middleton, a lowly “commoner,” was allowed to marry into a notoriously inbred family. Meghan’s Markle’s acceptance into the fold represents a new benchmark. Where 80 years ago, a British king’s love for an American divorcée triggered a constitutional crisis, Markle is seen by many as the princess from central-casting: a worldly, glamorous humanitarian—ironically Diana’s identity just before her death—practised in following script and using social media to build a brand.
This time around there’s no doubt about the “in love” part. The clearly besotted couple have forged a public identity, engaging with the people to the people’s delight, with a shared commitment to social betterment. Such heart-warming shows make it easy to forget that the British royal family exists literally as the embodiment of that country’s class system and “entitlement,” ground zero for a class divide that sees people spoken of as “commoners.” The union of Meghan and Harry reflects a new structure of privilege, one based on celebrity, beauty and connections. Let’s not forget their love story began at London’s exclusive Soho House.
Based on details doled out by the palace, their wedding has been designed to telegraph inclusivity. The small guest list of some 200 highlights charities selected by the couple. The edict that no head of state will attend removes the risk of Donald Trump throwing a hissy fit for being shut-out. Creative young women who operate their own businesses were chosen to provide the flowers and the cake. And in a bold departure from tradition, that cake will not be fruitcake, which everyone hates, but lemon elderflower.
There’s more. Gospel music will reverberate for the first time in the 14th-century St. George’s chapel, with The Kingdom Choir led by Karen Gibson; 19-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician of the Year award, will play. This sends an important signal: Markle’s mother, it has not gone united is African-American; Meghan’s arrival on the royal scene provided a horrible reminder that racist bigotry still rages within the family—and the nation at large.
While guests will be transported to the chapel by practical bus coach, the royals know their subjects require pomp: the couple will ride a carriage through the streets of Windsor, a town festooned with bunting and banners straight out of a Jane Austen wedding. In a politically correct 21st-century move, they’ve chosen to forego an immediate honeymoon to attend work engagements.
But the wedding also serves as reminder of how the royals have to colour within proscribed lines. The fuss over Markle’s minor flouting of wedding protocol, only reflects how calcified bridal traditions can be. For one, she won’t have a “maid of honour,” a practise that made Pippa Middleton the star of her sister’s wedding; instead, she’ll be accompanied by adorable children. Markle was also praised for including her mother, Doria, in the proceedings: she’ll accompany her daughter in the car ride to the chapel. Earlier, they’d been rumours she might even accompanying her daughter down the aisle.
That would have been wonderful. But no. By definition, a royal wedding can never completely eliminate feudal trappings or the traces of an institution originally conceived as chattel transfer. Markle’s father, who hadn’t met the groom when the engagement was announced, has been enlisted to walk the bride—and hand her off to her future husband. (In one mark of Markle’s absorption into The Firm, as the royal family is known, she converted to the Church of England.)
Nor is there any question that Markle will reject the virginal white bridal uniform—a tradition begun with Queen Victoria that now sees women paying thousands of dollars for a dress worn once. Markle’s choice, invariably, will be knocked off by designers within hours and become an instant conformist bridal trend.
Thinking about royal tradition for too long serves as a reminder of how archaic its roots are. Take the much-discussed fact that Harry will have far more freedom than his father or brother, who were both required to have a queen beside them on the throne who could produce heirs, preferably male, to inherit it. Diana and Kate Middleton had birthing written into their wifely job description, ideally “a heir and a spare.” Pressure to procreate—a phrase no one should write in 2018—will not be as intense for Markle given Harry’s distance from the throne. But there’s no question her uterus will become the subject of media speculation with a grotesque “baby bump watch” beginning after the wedding.
That she’s taking on a job along with a husband is not in doubt. In the couple’s engagement interview, the prince referred to his future bride as “another team player as part of the bigger team.” And on May 19, Markle will officially suit up in her bridal lace and tiara. When she does, don’t forget that fairy tales always end with the wedding.
MORE ABOUT PRINCE HARRY AND MEGHAN MARKLE:
- In the beef between Prince Harry and the royal photographers, no one wins
- Who’s invited to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding?
- Take a look back at royal weddings through the ages
- Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: What happens after the wedding?