Oh no! … Oh please, anything but that! … Good Lord, we beseech Thee! … Not another Royal Wedding! … It’s only three decades since the last one.
Well, that was my initial reaction, to the announcement from Clarence House in Westminster: “The Prince of Wales is delighted to announce the engagement of Prince William to Miss Catherine Middleton.”
I am a staunch monarchist, and social-conservative advocate of those “family values.” I am, thus, not against marriage, per se, especially among royalty. It is surely the most decent way to produce an heir. Royal weddings have been occurring at generational intervals for many centuries, now, and until this moment I have never questioned them. Nor, in principle, do I question this one. For all we know, from the tabloids, Kate Middleton is a perfectly decent girl; and Prince William is unquestionably heir to the throne.
The view, nay the tone of marriage itself, has changed through the generations. The notion that the Royal Family should provide an exemplary model of family life—indeed, that the private lives of royals should be put on public view—is quite a recent one, in grand historical terms. Juxtapose, if you will, the more frivolous attitude at Court after the 17th-century Restoration, in which it was held that marriage was a very important institution—because without it, adultery would be impossible.
One thinks of Nell Gwynne, mistress to his late majesty, Charles II, whose carriage was stopped in the streets of Oxford, not because the mob thought she was sleeping illicitly with their king, but rather, because they had confused her with her rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth—a Frenchwoman, and thus reviled as “the Catholic whore.”
And how Nell—who was in fact a brilliant comic actress—saved the situation by leaning from the carriage and addressing the mob: “Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore!”
Needless to say, it was not an age of “family values,” as we conceive of them at present. From the Tudors, through the Hanovers, I could regale my reader with unedifying, though entertaining anecdotes of a similar kind. Yet heirs were produced, for the most part legitimate, and the monarchy rolled along.
What we have today, though transformed by secularization, is the inheritance from the reign of Queen Victoria. The long ascent of Puritan ideals, and the evolution of humbug alongside with them, is wonderfully captured in an anthology by Hugh Kingsmill from the 1930s entitled, The Worst of Love. By some strange coincidence I was perusing it, just as news of the latest royal wedding broke through upon the airwaves.
In a wonderfully apt choice of excerpts from English literature and semi-public life, Kingsmill revealed the historical ascent of romantic insincerity, among “those flexible spirits who say what they do not feel, and feel what they do not say”—to a pinnacle of tommy-rot and taradiddle at the height of the Victorian Age.
Of course it is not all posturing, for as Kingsmill allows, “Here and there, interspersed among these specimens of humbug from Lyly to Oscar Wilde, there rings out, fresh, spontaneous, and sincere, the pulsing cry of the mentally deranged.”
Which is what we, in turn, enjoyed through the 20th century—that Puritan and Romantic inheritance, Harlequinized into an entirely secular ethos, powered by Hollywood mass publicity, and gone completely mad. So that today, even bourgeois Christian notions of “family” are at least partially rooted in fairy tale—and of the most sterile kind.
The great outpouring of fairy tale fantasy that came with the Royal Wedding of 1981 left such a scar, in light of later events, that we might reasonably hope for non-repetition. Even pray for non-repetition, of the sort of hysterical mass-media spectacle that can do neither institution—marriage or the monarchy—any eventual good.
To be fair to the Royal Family, and especially to our Queen, they did not choose to be born into an age like this, in which the wedding cake plows so promptly into the face of easy divorce. Her Majesty and Prince Philip came from a generation that understood duty. Theirs was among the last of the truly “valid” marriages, from which divorce was not an option.
Their children were, however, born into my generation, from which the last bonds of duty, and even civility, were slipped; and for whom the hypocrisies of bygone ages remain only an inspiring memory. Our children, in turn, come mostly from broken homes. What can we reasonably expect of them?
Again: I am in favour of monarchy and the family—of reconstruction—just as much as the Queen in her Christmas messages. In retrospect, it would have been better had she avoided the topic, however. Or rather, kept it in the family, where it belongs.