The world Meghan Markle entered when she married Prince Harry is unlike any other. But, as a black American woman married to a member of Britain’s upper class, I have caught just a glimpse of it, from a roughly similar perspective.
For a while I lived in London and, through the man who would become my husband, I was introduced to some of the ancient class dynamics that permeate British society. He went to Eton, the elite boys’ boarding school attended by Prince William, Prince Harry, and many prime ministers.
Once, I went with him to the christening of an old classmate’s child. At the event, I sat across from David Cameron, an Old Etonian—or OE, as Eton’s former students are called—who was then the Tory party leader. His wife and my partner were both godparents to the new baby. If I were British, the christening and subsequent lunch with a gaggle of OEs and their equally posh wives would likely have made me nervous, angry, and uncomfortable. But I was somewhat insulated by the fact that, as an outsider, I didn’t have negative associations—or really any associations—with their traditions and ways of expressing themselves.
“Toffs,” as members of the upper class are sometimes called, have a language of their own that by turns obsesses and infuriates Britain’s middle class. More than once, my husband has leaned over during a film and whispered, “They’re speaking Etonian.” I’ve picked up some jargon over the years. Students call the residents of Windsor, where the school is located, “plebes.” They speak of “messing,” or of teatime prepared by the “boys’ maid.” When they say someone was in “Pop,” they are referring to the Eton Society, an elite club. Membership in the Eton Society comes with strange privileges, such as permission to wear decorated waistcoats under your tailcoats and keep your umbrella unfurled in class. I also came to know more than I ever wished about the King’s Scholars, the 14 or so people who score the highest on their entrance exams each year. They live in a separate residence house and are given distinctive gowns to wear over their uniforms. My husband is a firm member of the Labour Party, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s superiority as a King’s Scholar is etched into my husband’s memory and seemingly that of other OEs his age, regardless of their party affiliation.