Few people understand my Royal Family thing. Oh, I can always count on my sister and my mother-in-law for in-depth conversations about the Windsors. But my husband doesn’t get it. A lot of my friends don’t get it, and the ones who never knew this about me probably won’t get it, either. I have to admit, sometimes I don’t even get it.
But I keep calm and carry on, monitoring What Kate Wore (surely the greatest, most useful blog in the history of the Internet), and hunkering down on Sunday nights to watch dusty PBS documentaries — or as I like to call them, “royal crack” — about Queen Elizabeth II and her family and forebears. Last Sunday night, for instance, I watched “Royal Memories: Prince Charles’ Tribute to the Queen”, in which the marble-mouthed, pink-cheeked heir to the throne (heh, good luck with that, Chuckles) showed heretofore private home movies from his childhood. (The Prince and I both teared up.) I followed that with a cruise around BBC America’s On Demand menu, which yielded more gems from the vaults — a greatest hits reel marking Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee , followed by a William and Kate wedding special that I’d seen parts of elsewhere, but watched anyway. I can’t get enough of that wedding. Kate’s poised elegance, William’s happiness, Pippa’s magnificent ass swaying like a pendulum as she carried her sister’s train up the steps — ah, memories.
So now you know that I’m one of those people. And I wear it proudly. I refuse to call this a “guilty pleasure”. It’s more like a hobby. Well, fetish, maybe. But I make no apologies for staring at the live stream of the front door of St. Mary’s Hospital for two hours last week waiting for the first glimpse of Wills, Kate and their newborn prince. Some people knit, some people play Fantasy Football, I fangirl over the British Royals. Is that so wrong?
There was a time when I hid my secret passion. In 1981, when everyone in my office was swooning over Charles and Diana’s wedding, I put on a sneer of boredom and berated them for supporting a superfluous monarchy while London was boiling over with economic inequality and racial tensions. But later, in private, I watched the wedding highlights and devoured photos of Diana in her cream-puff dress and glittering tiara. Forgive me Joe Strummer, for I have sinned.
I came out as a Royals-watcher during the course of Charles and Diana’s marriage. Diana was an irresistible cyclone of high fashion, maternal perfection, spousal betrayal and dangerous neuroticism. I gave in and got caught up in the greatest reality show of all. Yup, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The story of the Windsors — actually, the story of the whole British monarchy throughout history — has all the drama, sex, tragedy and triumph you could ask for, and it’s all unscripted. Even Shakespeare couldn’t make this stuff up, he had to borrow it from them.
My obsession with the British monarchy has many facets, some of them even scholarly. (Almost.) I will never forget feeling disoriented with surprise when I first saw Buckingham Palace, for real. It was exactly as it looks in pictures, yet somehow much smaller and unassuming against the stuff you don’t see on TV: the tourists, the traffic, the sounds of construction and modern life. And it’s a humbling thing to be standing in Queen Victoria’s childhood bedroom in Kensington Palace, looking at her old dolls and crib. The Royals are the past and the present (and the future) converging, preserving the chain of British history even as they’re forging new links. I know there’s a compelling argument to be made that the Royals are obsolete freeloaders. But it seems to me that there is value and substance to what they bring to England and the world. The best of them, the Queen and, by all indications, Prince William, take their responsibilities as caretakers of their country’s past seriously, and they perform their duties, largely symbolic as they are, with humility.
I’m not saying that the Royals’ personal behavior has always been up to snuff. In the past century alone, the Windsors have given us abdication, infidelity, politically incorrect gaffes, divorce, toe-sucking, topless sunbathing and strip poker, to name but a few. But look at what we Americans have in comparison: Politicians sexting pictures of their penises. You can’t tell me that “Carlos Danger” is more absurdly entertaining than Prince Charles caught on tape telling then-mistress Camilla that he wished he could be her tampon.
But I’m not really in it for the scandal. My particular weakness is the fashion iconography. At Kensington Palace a few years ago, I lingered at an exhibit of Diana’s evening gowns, moist-eyed and trembling, like a religious pilgrim before a shrine. It was one of the most intensely wondrous experiences of my life. What can I say? Yes, I am that shallow.
What hooks me the most, though, is the thing that drives Royal-haters the craziest: I love the the pomp, the pageantry, the etiquette, the arcane rules. And the hats. Can’t forget the hats. “Preserving the old ways from being abused/ Protecting the new ways for me and for you,” sang the Kinks, only half sarcastically, on “The Village Green Preservation Society,” their ode to an England of “little shops, china cups and virginity.” OK, clearly that England doesn’t exist anymore, but those peculiarly English ways of doing things, the manners, the protocol, all of that hangs on in Royalworld. And I think that’s what makes it so fascinating to onlookers, especially Americans. There is a correct way to address the Queen, there is a correct way of setting a banquet table at Windsor Castle, there are only a few suitable names for a newborn heir to the throne (“North West” is not one of them). Far from being a colossal waste of time and money, I see all of this as a comforting example of order and civility in a mad world that otherwise seems governed by the rule that there are no rules.
And Queen Elizabeth II has been the exemplary embodiment of constancy, decorum and tradition. Yes, Diana humanized the Royals, but she almost destroyed them, too. And the Queen picked up the pieces. She accepted that she, as head of the Royal Family, needed to change with the times, become more emotionally open and relevant, if the monarchy itself was to survive. And she did change, in large ways (it’s widely believed that she pushed for the recent rewrite of the law of British succession, to end discrimination against girls in inheriting the throne) and small (but no less exciting) ways — she poked fun at her image by parachuting out of a helicopter (via stunt person) with Daniel Craig as James Bond to open London’s 2012 Olympics.
Will the British monarchy endure? I hope so. But I realize that there are natives of the U.K. who feel strongly otherwise, and it is their opinions and votes that matter, not those of some American Anglophile. But, may I make a modest proposal? If the monarchy is dissolved in my lifetime, could PBS please just take the logical step of turning the Royals into a reality show? And if Lord Grantham from “Downton Abbey” could narrate it, I’d be ever so grateful. Cheers, and God Save the Queen.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2013