The question is: what is the question? This summer has seen a bumper crop of books all ostensibly addressing the problems of the British monarchy. The blurbs have been in technicolour: ‘the most significant work ever written on the House of Windsor’, ‘explosive and electrifying’, ‘destined to ruffle a lot of feathers’, ‘sensational’, and ‘the best-kept publishing secret of the year’. Few wanted to know it, however. Now, as autumn approaches, many of these volumes are on the remaindered shelves, and some have been pulped. So what are they for? And what did they mean?
At one level, the thinking behind them was clear enough. However bad the recession, British publishers believe firmly and mistakenly that books about the monarchy always sell. The exceptional success of Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story suggested that sycophantic royal biographies were out, and savage royal exposés were in. Hence the commissioning of a spate of Mortonesque knife-jobs. It was also supposed that what the Sun called the Queen’s bum year might be followed by an even worse year in 1993. This was naive. Like the practised survivors that they are, the members of the royal family have imitated the foxes that so many of them hunt, and gone to ground.
Yet this tactic will only succeed temporarily. As some of these books acknowledge, the monarchy’s dilemma is real and lies less in the antics of its younger representatives, which it can hope some day to resolve, than in massive changes which are completely beyond its control. There is first of all the religious issue. Since the Reformation, the English monarchs have been head of the Church. But since practising Anglicans have come to form only a tiny minority of Britons, the Church may well soon be disestablished. This would compromise the religious role of the monarchy which is part of its charisma. Future British monarchs might – just – be able still to be crowned to Handel’s anthem ‘And Zadok the Priest ... anointed Solomon King’. But future Archbishops of Canterbury would presumably have to jostle for space in the ceremony with representatives of the country’s other faiths, with Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.
And what of the Princess of Wales? Part of her continuing appeal to some otherwise staunch members of the Establishment is that she is reputedly flirting with Roman Catholicism. This inspires those like Lord Rees-Mogg to hope that the hapless Diana may finally shatter the Act of Settlement of 1701 which banned Catholic monarchs from inheriting this kingdom, and heirs to the throne from marrying Catholics. After all, even if she divorces her husband, she will still one day become King Mother, in fact if not in name. And if she does convert to Rome, her sons may convert also. So the law will have to be changed. Quite right too. But how are the loyal Protestant subjects of Northern Ireland going to react to a Catholic King Billy?
As this latter extreme example reminds us, religion and nationhood are always connected. And it is the erosion of so many of the traditional components of Britishness that is the fundamental cause of the monarchy’s current malaise. Stephen Haseler, author of one of the most intelligent of the 1993 vintage of royal books, is absolutely right that ‘the magnitude of the appropriation by the monarchy of the symbols of nationhood and authority is breathtaking.’ Her Majesty’s Government confronts Her Majesty’s Opposition in the House of Commons, the royal mace placed symbolically between them. Our money and our stamps carry the royal visage. Our army, navy and air force, our leading opera and ballet companies are all called royal. Though it was only recently that those in charge of the National Theatre stooped to adding Royal as an ungainly prefix to its name.
As a beneficiary rather than an architect of British nationalism, the monarchy is bound now to see its rationale and legitimacy under threat. At home, it confronts an ethnically far more diverse population than ever before, as well as Welsh and Scottish nationalism. Abroad, and despite the collapse of the ERM, the power of Brussels is increasing. Soon, all Queen Elizabeth II’s subjects will carry much the same kind of passport as their fellow Europeans; and that brave vestige of British self-consequence, ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires ...’, may fade from memory. The Empire has long since faded, and this means that the monarchy’s global pretensions – like its world-wide tours – are a thing of the past. Australia will soon become a republic (though, for their own and not for British reasons, New Zealand and Canada may not). Even worse, as far as the present Queen is concerned, most Britons don’t care. As A.N. Wilson cruelly remarks, ‘it is possible that the Queen is the only person in the British Isles who is interested in the British Commonwealth. Most of her subjects have some difficulty in remembering what, exactly, it is.’
Britons are therefore conspicuously in flux. They are no longer able to sink their internal differences in a broad attachment to what Sir John Seeley called ‘Greater Britain’. They are not yet sure, most of them, that they want to be Europeans. Yet many do not see themselves, or desire to see themselves, as British. Is the answer, then, for the monarchy to revive one of its most traditional justifications, and present itself as the only point of union available to an ever more heterogeneous people? Elizabeth Longford believes so. But how exactly is this to be achieved? The solutions offered by her fellow royal chroniclers are conspicuously at odds. Haseler just wants a republic. James Whitaker believes that Charles will soldier on magnificently, but only if he shows Camilla the door. Conversely, Anthony Holden and A.N. Wilson want him to step down, but disagree over who should replace him. And Dennis Friedman puts the whole Windsor mess down to bad parenting, and believes that if only future royal mums stayed at home ‘the fatal flaw which appears to run through the monarchy might well be eradicated.’
None of these things is likely to happen. A British republic is pie in the sky. Charles will not give up his claim to the throne. And royal upbringing is neither here nor there. Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII, put her in prison and cut off her mother’s head. This probably did nothing for his daughter’s happy heterosexual development, but it scarcely detracted from her capacity to rule. The Windsors’ problems derive not in the main from their private lives, but from the fact that they no longer have anything important to do. Like many of their subjects, they lack both rudder and compass. Yet the dynasty will doubtless muddle along, a steady source of bad jokes and good giggles – like the weather or politicians. Moreover I suspect that these authors know this perfectly well themselves. So why should we read their books?
One answer is that they are often very funny, most of all perhaps when they are unintentionally so. James Whitaker dishes out predictably amusing sleaze. (We are told, for example, that Camilla is the kind of woman who wears a pair of knickers more than once.) But far more subtle pleasure can be derived from A.N. Wilson’s solution to the Royal Family’s social isolation: ‘It is simply essential that they be sent to Eton.’ While, in Dennis Friedman’s description of the Prince Consort’s affection for his eldest daughter, one reaches very close to unholy joy: ‘Albert displayed his preference for Pussy.’
Such gems help to explain, of course, why books about the Royal Family and their friends so often arouse disdain among more sophisticated readers. Yet simply to ignore these books (as distinct from approaching them critically) is a mistake. It’s not just that they illumine Britain’s past and present political mythologies – the books by Wilson, Haseler and Holden are particularly valuable in this respect. Very often, they also throw light on quite unexpected places: in the case of these works, for instance, on the paradoxes of certain kinds of female power.
Ostensibly, Britain’s monarchy, like its aristocracy, is unapologetically patriarchal. The eldest son always inherits the kingdom or the family estate, irrespective of how many sisters he has or how old they are. ‘You start off life very much a tail-end Charlie [sic],’ Friedman quotes the Princess Royal as saying, ‘at the back of the line.’ Traditionally, too, royal and patrician women receive less education than their brothers. Charles went to university: Anne did not. Diana never passed an O level. This is not stupidity, but custom and conditioning. Diana’s stepmother Raine, a far more astute woman, was just as educationally-deprived. ‘No man wants a clever woman!’ her mother, Barbara Cartland, told her. She also seems to have indoctrinated her daughter with the belief that bubbles merrily out of all her novels: that only men matter in the game of life, and that women only fulfil themselves through men. ‘Never forget,’ declared Raine, when Countess of Dartmouth, ‘that the real power of women lies in their power to influence men, and through them, the world around them.’
Since Victorian and Edwardian male politicians cried up the importance of women’s ‘influence’ as an excuse for not giving them equal political rights with men, feminists often regard it with scepticism. Yet both the career of Lady Diana Spencer, and Angela Levin’s study of the Princess’s father and stepmother – a classic of its kind – demonstrate that, at this level at least, female influence deserves analysis.
Raine Spencer (recently transformed into a French Countess) was the last of three remarkable generations of women who all ran unremarkable husbands. Her grandmother, Polly, was a colonel’s daughter who managed to lose her unsatisfactory spouse in the Great War, and then set up a shop. Her mother was a professional virgin who accumulated fifty proposals, married two pale men, and then made a fortune writing pulp romances. But Raine did best of all. She married the man who was to become her first earl, Gerald Legge, at eighteen. ‘Left Legge’, as he was called, was the meal-ticket which allowed her to become, first, a television personality, then a Tory London County Councillor, and finally Chairman of the Historic Buildings Board. But Raine wanted a big house: and along came the heir to the earldom of Spencer. ‘Very nice but very stupid’ (his former SCO), ‘boring beyond belief’ (a relation), Johnnie finally inherited Althorp in 1975. Raine promptly moved in, and they married the following year.
The most lively contention of Levin’s book is that Raine proceeded to sell off hundreds of Althorp’s old masters, family silver, old furniture and historic manuscripts. Not just to pay death duties or to repair the house, but to provide for the Spencers’ glitzy lifestyle, and for her own (brief) widowhood. If true, this points to the pliancy of the regulations protecting Britain’s art heritage – the then Norman St John Stevas, a close friend, was Minister for the Arts for much of the time, and anyway Raine was just too close to the Crown to be stopped. But her conduct also demonstrates her distinctive brand of assertiveness. Raine says and possibly believes that ‘men are better than women.’ She paints, she prinks, she moues, and hangs herself with jewels. But, just like Thatcher, she also believes that men are for using. When push comes to shove, they do what they’re told. They always pay the bill. And they enjoy it.
Diana is from the same mould, another uneducated, outwardly unemancipated, physically luscious woman, weaned on Barbara Cartland, and hard as nails. ‘A manipulative little madam’, says one of her relations; ‘always gets her own way’, said her father. So why didn’t Charles, too, roll over and do what he was told? Possibly because he never loved her. Possibly because he’s too much the eternal chauvinist bachelor. (Friedman suggests that the Prince likes the cello because it’s shaped like a woman’s body but ‘passively’ echoes his tune.) But perhaps, too, Diana was either not shrewd enough, or simply too grand to butter up her husband in the approved manner. At heart, most of the great aristocratic families still regard the Royals with amused contempt for the jumped-up German parvenus they are. ‘My family go back to the Saxons’, Earl Spencer remarked when asked to comment on his daughter’s marriage to the heir to the throne. So the standard argument that the marriage broke up because Diana was ‘a commoner’ couldn’t be wider of the mark. It may well have been she who felt she’d come down in the world, despising Highgrove, James Whitaker tells us, because – after Althorp – it seemed so small.
Even at this pampered level, then, the British monarchy is always about social class. It is about gender roles. And it is about the appropriation and vicissitudes of nationalism. That’s why, as a subject, if not as an institution, it must be taken seriously, not one question but many questions cunningly interwoven.