Meghan and Harry carry echoes of the Diana le­gend

The Weekend Australian - - THE NATION - JOHN CAR­ROLL AP, AFP

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.