Staff writer at The Atlantic and author of Girl Land
In 1940, in the second month of the Blitz, the announcer of a BBC Radio program called Children’s Hour told listeners that they were about to hear the most important episode in the show’s history: Princess Elizabeth was going to address the children of the empire.
Fourteen years old, her voice clear and piping, Elizabeth told the evacuated children of England that she, too, was away from her family: “My sister, Margaret Rose, and I feel so much for you, as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all.” She reminded England’s children that they were engaged in something noble: “We are trying, too, to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war.” But more important, “we know—everyone of us—that in the end all will be well.”
In the final, desperate months of the war came an announcement from Buckingham Palace: “The Princess wishes to throw herself heart and soul into the job,” said a spokesman, and for once you could hear someone’s voice in an official communiqué: Elizabeth, now 18 years old, was about to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she was given a new title, Second Subaltern Windsor, and where she learned to drive and repair ambulances and trucks.
Elizabeth’s responsibility during the war years was the same as that of her parents and also of every Englishman, woman, and child: to be unbroken. Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory read one of the famous posters created by the Ministry of Information. Germany had tried to demoralize the English people, but their morale would not be broken. In the fetid Underground stations, they put children to bed in hammocks suspended between the tracks, they passed around cups of tea, and they sang music-hall songs and songs from the Great War: “What’s the point of worrying? It never was worthwhile.” In Buckingham Palace—which was shelled on 16 occasions—the King waited impatiently for the air warden to sound the all clear so that he could go out to the streets to inspect the damage and to console and inspire the people of London.
It was not sangfroid, exactly, because there was no bravado to it. It was simply the real thing: courage. “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me,” goes the famous opening sentence of George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn. His was an appeal for a socialist state, not exactly what Her Royal Highness called for on the Children’s Hour. But the two were united by a habit of mind that once defined the British character: a willingness to face great hardship with equanimity.
“I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip,” Meghan Markle said in the fall. “I tried, I really tried. But I think what that does internally is probably really damaging.”
“I’ve said for a long time to ‘H’—that’s what I call him—it’s not enough to just survive something, right? Like, that’s not the point of life.”
This was not courage, cheerfulness, resolution. This was the therapeutic mindset, feelings, California.
Here is Elizabeth Windsor, age 14, telling the children of the empire: “In the end all will be well.”
Here is Meghan Markle, age 38, explaining her worldview: “Like, that’s not the point of life.”
Meghan made these remarks in a documentary released in Britain on October 20 of last year. Although Harry and Meghan: An African Journey was nominally about the couple’s recent tour of Africa, it was principally about their shared misery. Just over two months later, they announced Megxit: their intention to reshape royal life so that it conformed to Meghan’s definition of thriving and happiness.
But don’t blame Meghan for bringing Hollywood levels of self-involvement to a country devoted to courage, cheerfulness, and resolution. Her desire to get out of the hard parts of life could be the most English thing about her. Or at least the most modern-English thing about her. The Queen is one of the last members of a remarkable generation, and Meghan has come to her great fame in an almost entirely different culture. With her chin trembling—and her simultaneous determination to grab hold of exactly what she wants—she fits right in.
When Lady Diana Spencer’s engagement to Prince Charles was announced in February 1981, I was home from college and working on the tenth labor of Hercules, a transfer application to the University of Virginia. My parents had read about the engagement in that morning’s New York Times (“Prince Charles to Wed 19-Year-Old Family Friend” it said below the fold, her very last day on Earth of being less famous than her husband), and that night we all watched the interview that the palace had released.
Newly appraising eyes fell on me. Both of my parents had occasion to say to me—several times each, or so it seemed— “She’s your age!” This wasn’t like when they noted that Nadia Comăneci (five Olympic gold medals) was “your age!” or that Jodie Foster (nominated for an Academy Award at 14) was “almost your age!” Here was a girl who hadn’t accomplished anything except to exist in female form for 19 years—something I myself had accomplished. I was the Nadia Comăneci of being 19 years old.
I, however, was not interested in the news. Who would want to marry Prince Charles? I liked Tom Petty.
But very quickly, I became mesmerized by Diana. It was because of her beauty, her glass coach, and her endless wardrobe, of course—but it wasn’t only because of those things. It was because she stood so powerfully on the side of emotions, and because she inhabited the world of sentiment that is—or once was—the true home of a teenage girl. And it was because she refused to allow that world to be crushed. Not by her cruel and unloving husband, not by the rigidity of the royal family, not by becoming a woman, and not even by the tabloids, which she loathed and which ultimately killed her. She was a classic figure from fairy tales and folklore: the persecuted heroine, and she raged against her tormentors not with aggression, but with feelings. You knew when she was happy, and you knew when she was suffering. And this deep emotional availability combined with her kindness for anyone meek allowed her to forge an unbreakable bond with the British people.
She would walk into charity wards and shelters, trailed by her complicated, rich woman’s problems, dressed to the nines, and on her way to aromatherapy or lunch or some other diversion of the well-heeled and self-involved, and instantly—mysteriously, against all odds—connect with the people she visited. They recognized her not just as Britain’s biggest celebrity but, improbably, as one of them. She was someone who suffered, someone who was trapped.
She did not believe in the stiff upper lip. She kneeled down so that she could talk with people in wheelchairs eye to eye. She hugged children and pulled them onto her lap. When many people considered AIDS highly contagious, she visited patients ravaged by it, grabbing their hands and bantering with them. She treated them as human beings, not as carriers of a shameful disease.
And when the time was right—when divorce was imminent—she used emotion to sway the public to her side. She told every secret thing, first to Andrew Morton, for his biography Diana: Her True Story, and then to Martin Bashir for his famous BBC interview. She described her “rampant bulimia,” her episodes of self-mutilation, and becoming so desperate for love and attention that she threw herself down a flight of stairs. She described the dirty trick that Charles had played on her: telling her he loved her, asking her to be his princess, but all along in love with another woman.
She said she didn’t care that she would never become the Queen of England, because she would be instead “a queen of people’s hearts.” The press mocked her for it. When she became a single woman, they said she was over, a has-been, desperate and irrelevant.
But the press is always wrong about these things. A year and a half after she made that pronouncement, she was killed in a car crash in Paris, and all of England rose up to prove her right.
Some 900,000 Britons died in the Great War; not a family was untouched by it. The symbol of the armistice was a single flower, the red poppy of Flanders Field, and any person who wore it—that father or mother or brother or child—was understood to be someone who had suffered greatly, and whose silence, whose diminishment, were the products of a great sorrow borne bravely.
When Diana died, the sea of bouquets left outside her former home in Kensington Palace was five feet high in some places.
The flowers were offered in honor of a woman most people had never met—had never even seen in person. And yet people roamed the streets like zombies, keening and sobbing and holding on to one another. Optimistic Tony Blair optimistically said that the British people had found “a new way to grieve.” What the prime minister left out was the obvious self-involvement that the new way introduced.
“It’s something weird and strange that’s happening,” a young man told a reporter. “I’ve cried about this, and it’s partly for Diana and it’s partly—” he paused, and then located the exact and troubling truth—“for ourselves.”
Five hundred miles from London, in the green-velvet silence of the Scottish Highlands, two people for whom this disaster constituted an actual crisis were asleep in their beds when their mother was killed. William, age 15, and Harry, 12, were visiting their father and grandparents at Balmoral Castle, and when the terrible call came through, the shocked adults allowed them to sleep a few more hours before waking them. In one stroke they had to accept, as best they could, two truths: Their mother was dead, and they did not have the luxury of crying in the streets.
Twenty years after their mother’s death, the princes commissioned a documentary to commemorate the anniversary. In Diana: 7 Days That Shook the World, the young men spoke publicly for the first time about their experiences during that week.
“Both our parents had brought us up to understand as best we can that there is this element of duty and responsibility that, you know, you have to do things you don’t want to do,” William said in the documentary.
The only way to understand what happened during that week is to understand that the principals all knew they had double roles. The Queen understood that she was a grandmother and the sovereign; the boys understood that they were sons who had lost a mother and princes who would have official responsibilities; and Charles understood that he was a total ass, and that if he didn’t play his cards exactly right, he was going to be out on his ear.
As grandsons and grieving children, the boys would stay at Balmoral until the funeral, where they could have privacy and the comfort of their family, and where they could take long walks and begin to absorb what was happening to them. But as princes, they did not break from their schedule. A few hours after learning of the accident, they appeared in a royal car, bound for Sunday-morning services, two wan faces behind bulletproof glass. The Queen called ahead to tell the minister to make no mention at all of Diana or the accident, for that would be unbearable for the boys. How could they remain composed when reminded of the tragedy?
Afterward, the car stopped at the castle gates, and the family got out to admire—in a measured, respectful manner—the collection of flowers and notes that had already been left there.
“The last thing I wanted to do was read what other people were saying about my mother,” Harry explained in Diana: 7 Days, “but at that point, I was still, you know, I wasn’t there. I was … I was still in shock.”
In Scotland, the two boys behaved in the old, formal way, but in London, emotion raged and ruled, emotion that had been uncorked from some deep place, but that also had an obvious element of performance. “Without any disrespect,” said a young man who had cried many times, “it’s like going to the movies.” The seawall breached, all of the emotions flooded in—not just sorrow for Diana, but anger at the Queen for remaining in Scotland. By staying there and focusing her attention on her grandchildren, she was unintentionally emphasizing a point of contention: that in divorce Diana had been stripped of her title, and was therefore not someone who should be mourned in the official way that a member of the royal family would be. But it was more than that; the crowd wanted something particular from her, something she was not raised to provide: a display of unbridled emotion.
“It’s a typical reaction of the royal family,” someone griped. “Stick to protocol; don’t worry about human emotion.”
“They must know how we’re feeling,” said another woman, “and we’d like to know how they’re feeling.”
“Why don’t they care about how we feel?” a woman outside of Buckingham Palace asked, in an aggrieved tone of voice. “Why don’t they care about us?”
It was impossible to believe that this was the same city that had once faced down the Luftwaffe and never blinked. The same country that had a plan for what to do if the Germans invaded by land. That plan was, literally, to “Keep calm and carry on,” as the poster said. Today it’s a reminder to go to yoga even if you can’t find your good top.
By the day before the funeral, the impulse to punish the Queen for her emotional reserve was eclipsed by the one to participate fully in one of the final stages of the Passion: the arrival of the boys in London. The brothers were brought to the crowds in front of Kensington Palace in something that seemed more like an offering than an official duty. Solemn in herringbone jackets and serious faces, they were released before Kensington Palace to do a walkabout, greeting the wild crowds pressed against the barricades. When people realized that the boys were at last among them, a kind of madness overtook them.
“It was like nothing you can really describe,” William recalled in Diana: 7 Days. “They were shouting, wailing, literally wailing at us, throwing flowers and yelling and sobbing, breaking down. People fainted, collapsed.” They reached for Harry, they pulled him toward them, and he had the impression that they didn’t want him just to ease their own grief, but to break down as they were doing. “Well, to whose benefit would that be?” he asked with some bitterness in the documentary.
Both men alluded to the obvious and outrageous imposition it had been for all these strangers to assume that they should comfort crowds who hadn’t even known their mother. But the next day was what was seared into collective memory: the sight of these two young, miserable boys walking behind their mother’s coffin, all the way from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey.
People “still talk about the silence,” Harry said of that walk. “But what I remember is every 50 yards or whatever, certain people in the crowd, just unable to contain their emotion.” Still on he walked, his small hands clutched in fists, his eyes cast down. He tried to explain it to an interviewer many years later: “I was just making sure I did my mother proud.”
Several weeks later, Charles spoke for the first time about his sons and all that they had been through. He was proud, he said, that they had conducted themselves with “courage and with the greatest possible dignity.” At the time, it seemed cold to me. Who could expect—or even want—a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old to behave themselves with dignity in the face of such intense personal tragedy? But there was something powerful and true in their reserve; whatever emotions they were confronting, they were private, not for the delectation of the grasping crowds.
As for those grasping crowds, they marked a turning point of sorts for British culture. The English people, Theodore Dalrymple wrote, had undergone “Dianafication.” The once brave and resilient “had become emotionally incontinent and inclined to blubber in public when not being menacingly discourteous.” Now “our heroes and heroines … are all as banal as the rest of us.”
When I first became aware of Meghan Markle, I had two immediate impressions: She was the best thing that had ever happened to the royal family, and she wasn’t going to last five years. I thought she wouldn’t last because the marriage—and princesshood—would require her to give up a successful acting career that she has worked on since performing in plays at the Hollywood Schoolhouse. I thought she would miss her work—and also her friends, her freedom, her chance to be (according to the old feminist formulation) a person in her own right.
I thought Meghan was the best thing that had ever happened to the royal family because in a diverse Britain, she had done the impossible: made the crowd on the Buckingham Palace balcony just a bit diverse. Finally the country had a princess who looked like an awful lot of young English girls—and who was willing to speak openly with them about race and belonging. In the Africa documentary, she addressed a group of South African women by saying that she wasn’t there only as a member of the royal family. She was also there “as a woman of color and as your sister.” The cheer that went up sounded to me like a possible renewal of the lease that the Windsors have on the ridiculous, outrageous, marvelous monarchy.
Meghan and Harry met when he was in the midst of a reevaluation of his life and a growing understanding of how much of it had been shaped by the profound trauma of his childhood, and by the depression that had haunted him ever since.
Like many adults who suffered a childhood bereavement, Harry survived it by shutting it away, refusing to think about it. He has said that in all his life, he has cried only twice about losing his mother. Whenever he thought about her, he would push the thought away—it would only make him sadder and it could never bring her back. He served in the army—including a deployment to Afghanistan, where he flew Apache helicopters—with the kind of courage on which military forces depend: a form of extreme, young male courage that borders on recklessness. It was, he once said, the best “escape” he ever had from royal life. He was headed for a breakdown, and it came, right on schedule, when he left active duty.
It was two years of “total chaos.” Harry kept himself from punching someone by taking up boxing in a gym. His brother was so concerned that he urged him to seek professional help and, at last, he did—during which he realized how deeply depressed he had been for so much of his life. On the other side of “Keep calm and carry on” was a secret that used to be known only within English families, something that was rarely discussed in public: the unexpressed sorrow that reshapes a life.
Therapy was a revelation to him; he began to heal. He became an advocate for ending the stigma around seeking help for mental-health problems. He began to speak openly about the problems he had suffered, and he started a charity with his brother and sister-in-law, Heads Together, devoted to that cause.
And in the middle of all this, he met Meghan Markle. Here was someone who did not suppress her emotions or put duty ahead of personal happiness. Here was the daughter of “a free-spirited clinical therapist,” who had married a Hollywood producer, but then followed her bliss to Toronto for a television show, and ultimately divorced him. Here was a person who wrote emotive personal essays and ran a website called The Tig, a combination “Song of Myself”/selfie compendium/lifestyle blog. There was no experience, product, book, or insight that did not merit a public exploration of how it touched the sensibilities, emotional life, or feeling state of Meghan Markle.
But she wasn’t an airhead—not by a long stretch. She had education and experiences almost ideally suited to her new role. She had graduated from Northwestern, which has one of the top performing-arts programs in the United States, and where she majored in international relations as well as acting. She had spent a college semester in Madrid and interned at the American embassy in Buenos Aires. She had spoken on women’s rights at the United Nations, and had served as a goodwill ambassador for the respected charity World Vision, traveling to Rwanda on its behalf.
And Meghan proved very, very good at the work required of her. As Ronald Reagan and Princess Grace had shown before her, a career in acting is excellent preparation for many of the public functions that come with political or monarchical life. She looked sober and thoughtful on Remembrance Day; patriotic and upbeat at Trooping the Color; sophisticated yet casual at Wimbledon.
Meghan’s openness to the emotional life, so much like Diana’s, was surely attractive to Harry. It also meant that she was equally ill-suited to the relentless attacks of Britain’s tabloid press, which, in addition to its usual, forensic-level campaign to discover every secret thing about a subject’s private life, had a new saw: racism. One of the intentions of those papers—which are historically conservative, entirely mainstream, and widely read—became reminding the public that a woman of mixed race had gained entry to the royal family. The papers considered the effect of her “exotic DNA” on the Windsor bloodline; they informed readers that she is a descendant of “cotton slaves,” that she is almost “straight outta Compton” because her mother now lives in Crenshaw, which is no closer to Compton than it is to Beverly Hills. Her mother—the one family member to whom she seems close—has been described as a “dreadlocked African American lady from the wrong side of the tracks.”
No one could blame her for wanting to take her baby and her husband and get the hell out of there.
In the Africa documentary, Meghan said that she was blindsided by what the tabloids have done to her. “I’m an American,” she said, her eyes wet with unshed tears. “I didn’t get it.” Was she implying that if she had known this, she might not have married Harry? “When I first met my now husband, my friends were really happy because I was so happy. But my British friends said, ‘I’m sure he’s great, but you shouldn’t do it. Because the British tabloids will destroy your life.’” Vulnerable and clearly hoping to present a sympathetic portrait, she said simply that she was naive.
That isn’t quite true. Meghan had hardly begun dating Harry when the tabloids launched their campaign. Long before the engagement, Harry issued a stern rebuke to the press: “It is not right that a few months into a relationship … Ms. Markle should be subjected to such a storm.” Of course, it did nothing to solve the problem, and of course she went through with the engagement and marriage anyway. She was in love, and she wanted to be a princess.
But the biggest font of her suffering seems to be not the racist innuendo, but the collaboration of the tabloid press with her father and two half-siblings, a trio seized by Shakespearean levels of malice and envy. Dad, the King Lear of Rosarito Beach, caused Meghan so much trouble at the time of her wedding that three months later she wrote him a now notorious letter, a salvo in the ongoing war of top-my-emotional-meltdown.
Her father eventually gave it to the Daily Mail, which published large parts of it. It was a classic of the form: a youngest daughter eager to reestablish herself as the darling of the family, and the dramatic tone was heightened by the intentionally lofty style befitting a newly minted princess. “Daddy,” it began, “it is with a heavy heart that I write this, not understanding why you have chosen to take this path, turning a blind eye to the pain you are causing.”
Understandably mortified that her father would give this letter to a tabloid and (presumably) that the whole world would know she had used the phrase “it is with a heavy heart that I write this,” Meghan and Harry seem to have made the decision that enough was enough.
On October 1, while the couple were still in South Africa, Harry announced they were suing the Mail on Sunday; he published a genuinely heartrending statement that included, “I lost my mother, and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.” On October 20, they said they’d be taking a previously unscheduled six-week sabbatical from royal life. That night the Africa documentary, with its enumerated discontents, was broadcast in England.
It seemed clear that at the end of that time, something dramatic was going to happen. I assumed it would be an abdication—and who could blame them? The brave little boy who had walked so solemnly behind the casket, wanting only to make his mother proud of him—he should be allowed to live the life he wanted, with his beautiful wife and their baby son in some place far away from the cameras and daily gossip of London. Who would not have wished them well?
Instead, it was … Megxit.
Megxit is the most complicated, self-involved, grandiose, half-assed, high-minded, shortsighted, greedy-graspy, swing-for-the-fences, letter of partial, fingers-crossed resignation in history. When Edward VIII abdicated in 1936, he announced it to the government on December 9, and was on his way to Austria three days later. But Edward didn’t want to do voice-overs for Disney.
The foundation of the plan was sound: They would step back from being “senior” royals, which is a sort of HR designation indicating members of the family who work full-time for the Crown. And they would forfeit all public money and pay back the government for the renovations they had made to their English home, Frogmore Cottage. All of this might have provided them some small protection from the British tabloids. It would free them of the Royal Rota, a pool system for covering the family that includes the tabloids, and also allow them to make a case that they were not the sort of state-funded public figures whose doings were therefore a matter of public significance.
But everything else about the plan was focused on making them more famous than ever—so they hardly planned to lower their public profile. Moreover, they clearly saw their royal status as a value proposition that they could exploit to become independently wealthy. They had filed papers to trademark the term Sussex Royal on more than 100 consumer goods, including pajamas, hoodies, and pencils. Just how long can you be understood as royal when you’re hawking pencils?
And Meghan’s Hollywood dreams loom large over the project. They are rumored to have looked at Malibu rentals for a summer of A-listing it at the beach; they monetized Harry’s depression (a surprise speech about it to some bewildered JP Morgan heavy hitters at a Miami conference; a docuseries on mental health that he is executive producing with Oprah Winfrey); there was talk of a Netflix deal. This is what it means, apparently, to carve out “progressive roles” within the monarchy.
The whole scheme depended on the public’s understanding that the couple remains tightly braided with, and utterly essential to, the Royal Family. The lavishly beautiful website Sussex Royal shows three prongs of their endeavor:
Supporting Community: Connecting with the people and organisations that make the world a better place. [In a photo, we see Harry striding delightedly along a beach in the company of two people of color, one of them elderly]
Serving the Monarchy: Honouring the reign of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II [Harry and Meghan in an open coach, him in the frock-coat uniform of the Blues and Royals, her in a peach dress and matching hat]
Strengthening the Commonwealth: Supporting the Commonwealth and its role in our shared future [Harry and Meghan smiling beneficently at a child in traditional clothing]
They make it clear elsewhere on the website that these plans would not interfere with their solemn commitment to “fully support Her Majesty The Queen”; to “honour our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages”; “to collaborate with Her Majesty The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Cambridge, and all relevant parties.”
How does the Queen feel about all this? At the time of the announcement, she issued a rare personal statement: She gave her blessing to the young couple, who would now be free “to create a new life as a young family … while remaining a valued part of my family.” As for the deal points, she said, “These are complex matters for my family to resolve, and there is some more work to be done, but I have asked for final decisions to be reached in the coming days.”
But the Queen has had one main objective for all of her seven-decade reign: protecting and preserving the monarchy for future generations. When the final deal points were announced, the couple learned what Oliver Cromwell and others might have taught them: There is no such thing as a “progressive role” in a monarchy. Meghan and Harry lost out on almost everything they had presumed was theirs. They were forbidden from performing any royal duties; they were not to represent the Commonwealth in any way; they were not to use the term royal on anything they were selling or branding; their Buckingham Palace office would be closed; and they were not to use their highest titles, Royal Highness.
The couple’s future isn’t certain. They are hugely appealing and glamorous. Everyone in Hollywood is eager to host them. The first few years of this plan are going to be heady. But—as Harry has often said—as soon as William’s three children become old enough to emerge as individual figures, the klieg lights will immediately turn to them.
Harry and Meghan, it seems, have overplayed their hand severely. The Queen doesn’t need them, not at the price they were asking. Even in a Dianafied world, she still believes in certain ideals, foremost among them dignity and duty. And even now, when almost all is lost, she is still able to inspire it.
More than 1 million people lined the streets of London on the day of Diana’s funeral. It was the last day of the Passion and they wanted to bear witness to the still unbelievable sight of her coffin. “As flowers rained down onto the cortege from bystanders,” said an early report in the Independent, “the sound of shrieks and wailing filled the air.” “Diana!” they shouted. “God bless you!”
In Hyde Park, masses of people had camped out to get a good spot from which to watch the funeral on the giant screens that had been installed. They sat on the grass and clung to one another and, as they watched Diana’s coffin projected on the screens, they sobbed. They sobbed as they saw it arrive at Westminster Abbey, and they sobbed when her two unbearably sad boys walked behind it, into the church.
And then they heard the first sound of the service—several notes played on the grand organ that had been installed for the coronation of Elizabeth’s father, George VI. At first these notes were merely blasts of sound, but after the first measure, they organized themselves unmistakably: “God Save the Queen.”
Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
She has never once put her personal desires ahead of her duty; she has presided calmly over the end of the empire, accepted change with equanimity, and—against all odds—kept the monarchy a vital institution in modern Britain.
In Hyde Park, the national anthem poured out of loudspeakers, and there was a moment in which the Dianified mourners seemed not to know what to do. But suddenly—following some instinct that was older than feelings—everyone in that massive crowd scrambled to their feet, and for that one minute, they stood tall, and they did not cry out. For that one brave and decent minute, they remembered who they were.