Meghan and Harry carry echoes of the Diana legend
The British royal family has a singular capacity to fascinate a huge world audience and keep renewing itself. Much has to do with celebrity, but celebrity, of its nature, is fleeting. With the royal family, there are particular stories set within a grand story.
The British royal family has a singular capacity to fascinate a huge world audience and keep renewing itself in ways that are unique. Much has to do with celebrity but celebrity, of its nature, is fleeting, almost always so.
The popular media — gossip magazines, newspapers, television and, more recently, new digital outlets — goes through cycles of total immersion in royal euphoria. We are in one of those cycles now. Meghan Markle was the most Googled name in the world last year. Free-to-air television has been flooded in the past couple of years by documentaries on the royal family, stimulated in part by the popularity of the outstanding Netflix series The Crown.
Interest is not restricted to a nostalgic older group. In Australia, support for a republic, according to Newspoll figures from last year, has fallen slightly in the past 20 years, notably in the youngest voting bracket, where the new generation of royals is very popular. Myth will always trump logic.
With the royal family, there are particular stories set within a grand story, as hinted at in The Crown. I want to reflect here on the grand story. More is going on than meets the cynical eye, seeing only fickle attention paid to fairy-floss celebrity. The level of public interest — profound and insatiable — requires wider explanation. The Seven Network recently titled a program Queen of the World. We are in the strange territory of myth, in which powerful forces move in the cultural subconscious, tapping into archetypes that captivate and enchant the public, without it knowing the how or the why.
As one indicator, the story has stimulated art of very high quality. There is the ongoing television series The Crown. There was the fine 2006 film The Queen. Above all there was an event, the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. The funeral would be tasteless to refer to as art if I didn’t mean event in the most profound mythic sense.
Meghan and Harry have triggered an outpouring of world interest, of an intensity and even excitement in some ways quite unlike anything seen since Diana. Their reception is different in tone to that received by the earlier marriage of Harry’s elder brother, Prince William, who is heir to the throne at one remove.
There are twin grand stories, I want to suggest, operating on quite different planes. One is sun; one is moon. The sunny story is clear and bright, with a simple narrative. It taps into the fairytale motif of prince and princess getting married and living happily ever after. The key event is a gilded pageant wedding such as only the British royal family can stage. In modern times Charles and Diana set the scene, to world adulation, in 1981, the event dubbed the “wedding of the century”, before their story turned dark and Cinderella was pitched back into the ashes. William and Kate attracted a world viewing audience of about two billion in 2011. Their story, as told so far, remains clear and bright, signposted by the regular birth of children.
The Harry and Meghan wedding followed in May this year, attracting a similar world audience, including four million in Australia. There are obvious explanations for fascination with this couple. Celebrity Hollywood actress who is strikingly beautiful meets wayward but unusual prince, they fall in love and get married.
Yet this reading underestimates the force of myth. It seems that the hope that directs most people’s lives, of making a successful and happy family, is shaped, even driven, by a powerful and ever-present archetype: that of the fantasy prince and princess, as choreographed by Walt Disney. What is somehow imagined is that childhood innocence and its enchanted playfulness can be reborn and sustained, free from suffering, into a glittering adulthood.
If the human condition brings fun and pleasure, joy and fulfilment, it also brings failure and despondency, suffering and tragedy. The fairytale story is shadowed by its lunar opposite.
In the British royal saga, the shadow found explicit and spec- tacular form in the person of Diana. Her mythological namesake, the Greco-Roman goddess Diana, was a lithe and brooding athletic presence of the twilight regions, linked with the moon, which she wore in a crescent form over her brow.
The death of Princess Diana swept up the world in an emotional torrent, compelling and unifying, of shock, awe, fascination, grief and the sense of being witness to a pattern of events somehow of great and fateful significance. As a cultural phenomenon, it dwarfed all others in the second half of the 20th century, including her own marriage 16 years earlier. Statistics of book and magazine sales, and above all TV ratings, show Diana to have been arguably the first truly world figure, her story much more than just a creation of the new global communications that transmitted it.
Meghan and Harry carry some echoes of the Diana legend. There is the literal ancestor link. There are also distinct traces of the mother’s story, and more.
Diana was part Cinderella. A simple and ordinary girl plucked from obscurity marries a prince and is transformed into the fairytale princess. She projected an iconic force, centred on her face, its spontaneously happy yet slightly self-conscious smile, neat blonde hair with a hint of wavy flair, decked with a royal tiara with festoons of precious stones, a flashing backdrop to her teeth.
Of course, Diana’s origins were not humble. But she was a rather plainly dressed 19-year-old kindergarten teacher when first introduced to the public and had been the victim in childhood of a painfully broken family. Most significantly, the Cinderella trope found psychological valency in her insecurity, what her brother would term her “deep feelings of unworthiness”, the source of her “almost childlike desire to do good for others”. It was as if she believed that she belonged in the cinders. And she married into a “wicked family”, which the story by the time of its tragic crescendo had designated “the palace”, sinisterly faceless, doing its malevolent best to freeze her out and strip her of titles and dignity, including passing her off to the world as a neurotic birdbrain — in her own words, a “basket case” — hysterically unsound and with no serious interests. Even nine years after her death, this was the story being told in The Queen.
The title Queen of Hearts was given to Diana in the volcanic outpouring of popular acclamation in England in the week between her death and her funeral, as the whole of central London, it seemed, was strewn in flowers of mourning.
The film clips shown again and again that week to etch into the memory were of her embracing orphaned babies, hugging people in wheelchairs, breaking away from official processions to greet individual members of what her brother termed “her constituency of the rejected”, drawing on what she had called her “innermost feelings of suffering”. She did so with an obvious personal engagement that could not be feigned.
Harry and Meghan have taken up this baton, Harry claiming to have found his mission in parallel charity work — notably for soldiers maimed in war. Meghan had a moment of epiphany when at 16 she did voluntary work in a soup kitchen in Skid Row in Los Angeles. A shared interest in humanitarian causes helped draw the couple to each other — and in both cases, as with Diana, it is genuine, not just virtue signalling. Their first official overseas visit, to Australia, is primarily to open the Invictus Games, for soldiers who have returned sick or injured from battle.
What is being tapped is an English tradition going back at least as far as the Middle Ages, of the people’s king or queen. Just as mobs would riot against unpopular monarchs, they would follow in adoration those who had somehow or other moved them.
Diana was perceived to be what royalty should be, “our Queen”, unlike the stern and remote palace — guided by her heart, not her duty. In her jewels and Versace dresses she looked the most regal of all the Windsors, themselves a visually drab collection; all Germans, as one English wit put it. She was the one who most belonged among the contemporary stars of wealth, fame and status.
At the same time, it was she who had the common touch, who was convincing when she left the gilded palaces — Meghan’s life has switched for several years between refugee camps and the red carpet. Ordinary people felt Diana understood them. There was some resonance here of the old belief in the king’s touch, that a contact from the royal hand could heal the most severe afflictions of body and mind.
Notable, too, was the feminine colouring to what Diana did. The reality was that she represented a stereotypical contrast of the intuitive, sensitive, spontaneous and caring to the palace’s masculine obsession with forms, duty and the stiff upper-lip. The popularity of Meghan and Harry owes something to their openly convivial and authentic aura.
Shakespeare hinged his tragedy Coriolanus on the Roman mob’s screaming for the war hero to bare his wounds in public so it could feast its eyes on them. He refuses. After all, he has saved Rome, so why should he demean himself in front of the fickle and foolish plebs? Shakespeare here may have touched psychic chords beyond most of our imaginings, ones that help explain Diana’s extraordinary appeal.
Diana did show her wounds in public. She invited her anonymous audience of millions to hold her hand through some of the day-today traumas of her life. Her every wince was scrutinised by a vora- cious world and, in part, she accommodated the attention. Andrew Morton, biographer of Diana and Meghan, has claimed he had to temper Diana’s eagerness to spill all, his resulting book becoming more a ghosted autobiography. There was little here of the martial code of honour of Coriolanus, with its stipulations of selfcontrol, but then neither did she have the Roman’s fatal flaw, an inflexible and haughty pride.
Similarly, what Shakespeare had condemned as the plebeian vice of prurience was softened in the modern case by public pity for its suffering goddess, laced with guilt over voyeurism. All in all, here was something else she shared with her public, a love-hate ambivalence towards the popular media, dependent on it, cultivating it when it suited her, while outraged and persecuted by its shameless rapacity. In the end, the medium responsible for deifying her would kill her.
In a 1995 BBC Panorama TV interview, a new Diana appeared, eloquent: dignified, winning over most of the public with her poignant recounting of her marriage ordeal. By her own example she quashed the palace’s “neurotic birdbrain” aspersion in one decisive hour. In the week after her death the segment of that interview to be replayed was her pained revelation of there having been three in her marriage from the start, making it “a bit crowded”.
Harry and Meghan have revived this intimacy with the public, in frank and very personal interviews, ones cast with a quite different tone to Diana’s lament. They have been happy to speak about their love for each other, with Harry glowing in his adoration. The wedding that followed was relaxed in comparison with the stiff formality of Charles and Diana’s, the occasion exuding an infectious happiness that spread across the world, including into the tens of thousands of Australian homes that held royal wedding parties on the evening. As the symbol of a racier style, the couple drove from Windsor Castle to their reception in an E-type Jaguar.
This couple is outside the royal mould, most visibly so in the multicultural bridging of racial, class and cultural differences. There is the freedom from convention, even waywardness, that Harry’s mother injected into the family she married into. Mind, any potential discord is smoothed out by the fact Meghan looks more Italian than half African-American, is eloquent and speaks with a mellow accent, and has wide intellectual interests — more akin to those of Prince Charles than Harry.
Meghan blends a worldly maturity with the glow of a seemingly unselfconscious and spontaneous happiness — she is virtually the same age as Diana when she died, in fact slightly older. Watching Diana’s funeral in 1997 had reduced her to tears; she had, at the time, been struck by Diana’s humanitarian mission. One of her childhood friends went as far as to observe that Meghan wanted to become “Diana 2.0”. Harry has commented that Meghan and his mother would have been “thick as thieves”; she wore one of Diana’s rings on her wedding night. And Meghan, like Diana, comes from a dysfunctional family.
Diana’s Panorama interview confirmed the picture of Charles as the traitor in the story, the wicked prince who had betrayed innocent trust, and from the outset of their marriage. But two decades have passed, with Charles remarried; he walked Meghan down the aisle to the altar; and he is reported to have spoken at Harry’s wedding reception about his son with great warmth and delight. The tragic past is finding some reparation. The biblical “sins of the fathers” may be being metamorphosed, in this case, into the redeemed shade of the suffering mother.
Mind, there was much to atone, as the emotional force of Diana’s funeral attested. The script on September 6, 1997, was not to predict but eerily conclusive once played out. As the gun carriage carrying the coffin approached Westminster Abbey, a tenor bell sounding dolefully every minute, it was joined by five “family” mourners on foot. Diana’s brother was in the centre, flanked by her two sons, Charles on his far left, and the former father-in-law, Prince Philip, on his far right, sometimes dropping behind, as if signalling his awkwardness in being there at all.
The boys’ presence was marked less by their own uncomfortable walk than a white envelope on a small bunch of white roses on the front of the coffin, reading simply: Mummy. Harry was 12, and according to royal observers would show deep long-term symptoms of mourning at the shock loss of his mother.
The service began, an introduction by the dean, readings by Diana’s two older sisters, some music and singing, all lacklustre, as if events had sunk back into the stifling culture of the cold procedural establishment dignity that the story blamed for her misery.
It was only when Elton John began to sing that spirit began to breathe through the medieval hall and out into the streets and parks, where the troubled, ill-at-ease crowds finally were stilled, at last given a call to which they could respond.
This, however, was to be an occasion on which, much to almost everyone’s surprise, the music was overwhelmed by the spoken word. It came from Earl Spencer, the brother, in his tribute to Diana. Breaking free of ceremonial and social conventions he spoke with passion and conscience, telling the story of his sister, her strengths and weaknesses, and how her spirit and her goodness had prevailed despite a wretched personal life. Her “blood family” would tend the flame and watch over her boys.
Harry appears to share characteristics with his uncle, including ginger hair. Most important, he injects the Prince Hal archetype into the story. Shakespeare immortalised the trope, in his Henry IV and Henry V plays. Hal spends a wild youth of low-life adventures in the company of petty thieves, whores and pompously witty drunken cowards, led by the grotesquely fat Sir John Falstaff. Hal, however, changes from the moment his father dies and he assumes the role of Henry V; he changes character, relinquishing his past life and developing into the ideal king — wise, shrewd, just and courageous. The moral is that broad and worldly life experience makes for the best political leadership.
The modern Harry not only shares the name but also the earlier image of a wild, irresponsible youth with shades of the black sheep, to the extreme of driving relatives to despair, and attracting the judgment “a national disgrace”, who then matures into a serious young man of character, projecting some gravitas. Harry’s manner, which is martial, signals a very different persona to that of his father. Appearing at ease in military uniform, which he wore at his wedding, his carriage is erect, his head squarely set and his look direct. He speaks with quiet, candid confidence. He served with the army in the Royal Horse Guards for 10 years, including two stints in Afghanistan, reaching the rank of major.
The maturing of his great predecessor, Henry V, was climaxed by gaining the throne. Harry’s equivalent seems to have been army service and the experience of war, followed, in a quite different key, by engagement and marriage. It is as if he completed the finding of his way in meeting Meghan, and he knows it.
Harry is complemented by his wife’s easy and articulate yet modest charm. Her charm, combining with her beauty, is not to overstate. When on show, she has a way of engaging the public gaze with a soft and attentive smiling presence, even charisma, which is at the same time assured and measured. She has her Hollywood experience to draw on and a more relaxed American manner. Also, she continues the line of singularly remarkable women — first the Queen, then Diana, and now possibly Meghan — which must have contributed to the appeal of the modern royal story, especially among women, over the long period of ongoing, rocky struggle to correct gender imbalance.
Diana emerged, in our postchurch era, as a spectre rising out of the fog where the lamps of faith have dimmed, her cult some sort of beacon, the contemporary attempt to find a tragic myth that it might be able to take seriously and believe in.
Everybody carries traces of her Magdalene persona within, of character flaws amid messy life episodes, with the consoling hope that suffering not prove just profane, absurd and pointless. Magdalene, from the Jesus story, offers the hope of some kind of life metamorphosis. It is understandable that the Diana myth would generate a yearning for some kind of rejuvenation, to keep the spark of enchantment alight.
The British royal family has had a run of extraordinary luck. It had the unwitting good fortune to discover Diana, who brought with her incalculable popularity and single-handedly modernised an increasingly drab and musty institution. The family proceeded to do its clumsy best to turn fortune into disaster but somehow survived the ruin it contributed to. Twenty-one years on, it has the boon of Diana’s two sons. The necessary restraint and propriety of William and Kate, as heirs, is perfectly balanced by the greater freedom and flair of Harry and Meghan.
Harry and Meghan have the potential to take this singular story in untold new directions. The Diana traces give it a potential depth of interest entirely lacking in the fairytale version. On the other hand, the story may well turn mundane, with the couple having children, building a reasonably happy family, making public appearances from time to time and, in short, coming to stand as little more than glamorised normality. Whichever way, the world is certain to stay tuned. John Carroll is professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University. He recently has published Land of the Golden Cities: Australia’s Exceptional Prosperity and the Culture that Made It (Connor Court).
Just as mobs would riot against unpopular monarchs, they would follow in adoration those who moved them
The necessary restraint of William and Kate is balanced by the greater freedom and flair of Harry and Meghan
Left, Harry and Meghan leave the chapel on their wedding day, the fairytale myth firmly in place
Diana receives flowers from admirers in 1995; the family mourners at her funeral in 1997; Diana with sons Harry (centre) and William at a VJ Day commemoration in 1995