“And they lived long and prosper,” affirm the stories we tell our children about a beautiful commoner marrying Prince Charming. Just make sure your kids don’t see last Thursday’s headlines in the London dailies.
“Cold War as Harry & Meg Quit the Royals,” screamed The Sun. “The Queen’s Frenzy as Prince Harry and Meghan Say: We leave,” blared The Daily Mail in a “Royal Bombshell Special Issue.” “They Didn’t Even Tell the Queen,” lamented The Daily Mirror. Any other news, from the drums of war in Iran to passage, at last, of a Brexit bill in Parliament was swept away for Megxit, as the tabloids promptly called the decision by Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, to “step back” from the ribbon-cutting, kindergarten-visiting and foreign-traveling duties they’ve been assigned as their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. They will try, they said in a statement posted on Instagram Wednesday, “to become financially independent” and to balance their lives between Britain and North America.
How that will work is hard to predict. No one has ever resigned from the “Firm,” as the British call the royal clan, though some have been exiled or fired — most notably Edward VIII, who had to renounce the throne and leave Britain to marry an American divorcée, and most recently Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth II’s second son, over his connections to the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
In accordance to the acute attention the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have attracted since their marriage in May 2018, the press was quickly filled with stories about their finances and anticipation, and about how the queen, the prince’s grandmother, would handle the defection. Small number of articles actually showed sympathy for a couple trapped in a gilded cage that exposed them to constant scrutiny — and, in the duchess’s case, virulent racism.
Sarcasm and exaggeration come easily when writing about royals, and the story of Prince Harry, the rambunctious second son of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, reaching across the Atlantic to marry an American actress was custom-made for the tabloids — and, yes, for serious papers like this one. Their espousal at Windsor Castle and the birth of an adorable son, Archie, a year later was grand copy, a morality tale of a changing world, a fairy tale updated with diverse millennials. But as the children’s stories fail to warn unsuspecting youngsters, being royal isn’t all about living happily, and certainly not ever after.
Almost from the outset, a parallel line of nasty stories spread in the tabloids about Meghan’s difficulties with her American family and purported rifts among the royal family. Instead of adopting the British tradition of a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, as Queen Elizabeth has so admirably done throughout her long and crisis-riddled reign, Prince Harry and Meghan proclaimed that they did not intend to play by the old rules. The prince, who lost his mother to a horrific car chase through Paris, spoke openly about his emotional struggles; the duchess made no secret of the difficulties of her new role. “Not many people have asked if I’m O.K.,” she told one interviewer.
In October, the couple struck back, filing a lawsuit against The Mail on Sunday over the publication of a private letter from Meghan to her father. In a statement explaining the suit, Prince Harry assailed the tabloids and the suffering they caused his wife. “Such select media this is a game, and one that we have been unwilling to play from the start,” he wrote. “I have been a silent witness to her private suffering for too long. To stand back and do nothing would be contrary to everything we believe in.”
Given this background, the couple’s decision to withdraw from the Firm should not come as a surprise, though it appeared to be just that to the queen and the heir apparent, Prince Charles. Reared in the tradition of monarchy as the symbol and mainstay of the nation, they have stoically carried on in their duties even as their world, and their family, has been battered by the winds of change, discontent and scandal, as dramatized in the Netflix series “The Crown.” Evidently they expected the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to do just that, and to rear children who would as well.