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6 April 2022

From the NS archive: The secret of “royalty”

25 February 1922: Royalty means more to the English than monarchy. To them it is a romance and a dream.

By S Magee

Royal weddings often inspire the public to give into their ideas of fantasy and fairy tales – and the wedding of Princess Mary of York to Viscount Lascelles in February 1922 was no different. In this article S Magee argues that the real fantasy is the idea of royalty: “Royalty means more to the English than monarchy; it is to them not a convenient arrangement, but a romance and a dream.” The concept of the royal family is bound up in individual projections of wish-fulfilment because in a world where “enchanted palaces in which the Fairy Prince and Princess live their fairy lives”, it offers the public the promise that “fairy stories somewhere come true”.  For Magee, this belief in the fantasy thwarts any argument to dissolve the monarchy, a conversation still ongoing a century later, because royalty remains “as a dream, a compensation, a wish-fulfilment, as something which, if it ceased to be, would leave [the public] desolate in themselves and their own routine”.


Many reasons are given why the monarchy should be preserved but, whether they are good or bad, they do not explain the facts of Royalty as they can be observed in this country and at this moment. You might hold, for instance, that a King was a better head for the British Empire than a President, but that cool, practical, opinion would not cause you to read with delight whatever the papers might state or conjecture about the arrangements for the marriage of Princess Mary, nor would it fill you with a desire to give her a wedding present on any pretext or on none.

Royalty means more to the English than monarchy; it is to them not a convenient arrangement, but a romance and a dream; and, though now and again the arguments for the monarchy are stated, most Englishmen are impatient even of hearing them stated. They know, in their hearts if not in their brains, that these arguments are not the real reasons why the monarchy persists; they know that it would be easy enough to find arguments against it; but they are not interested in arguments either way. They do not, in fact, preserve the monarchy as a form of government which they think the best, for it is not in England a form of government at all; but they do preserve Royalty, not as an institution, for that word is far too cold and matter-of-fact to express their feelings about it, but as a dream, a compensation, a wish-fulfilment, as something which, if it ceased to be, would leave them desolate in themselves and their own routine.

All dreams, the Freudians say, are compensations and wish-fulfilments, and that is true of some dreams, if not of all; but the Freudians, like other sects of all kinds, are hindered by the narrowness that comes of a desire for over-simplification, from seeing the full import of their own doctrine. For, in the first place, our wishes and our dream fulfilments of them are not all sexual; and, in the second, these dream-fulfilments do not occur only when we are asleep. We shall not understand our behaviour, especially our collective behaviour, until we become aware that we often pass into a dream life of wish-fulfilment in our waking hours, and that any person or institution which can help us to do this is sure of popularity. But there is this difference between the sleeping and the waking dream, that we can be utterly convinced of the sleeping dream by ourselves, whereas, usually, we need to share the waking dream with others if we are to believe in it.

In a sleeping dream we are cut off from external criticism, as from the whole external world. There is no one to tell us that something we say is not funny; on the contrary we create, ourselves, an audience to roar with laughter at it. And only, if we remember it when we wake, do we see that it was not funny; for then we criticise it by the standards we have learnt from contact with others, and find it wanting. So, if we are to be convinced by a waking dream, it must be one that we can share with others, one which by a common, unconscious conspiracy we are agreed not to criticise; and the most potent, because most widely shared, of these waking dreams is Royalty.

Royalty means the kind of life that great masses of people, thwarted and suppressed in their own lives and without the power of artistic expression, think that they would like to live. It is for them a wish-fulfilment, vicarious indeed and so a pis aller, but more convincing than any other wish-fulfilment they can achieve in their waking hours. They cannot live that life themselves, yet they are comforted by the feeling that real human beings are actually living it in Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace. It means to them that life is not necessarily everywhere and always of the same nature as their own lives, that fairy stories somewhere come true; and they can see the outside, at least, of the enchanted palaces in which the Fairy Prince and Princess live their fairy lives, can even sometimes see the Fairy Prince or Princess themselves driving in their fairy carriage through the streets of dull reality. More, they can read in the papers actual facts about this dream-life in which all wishes are fulfilled and in which a bride, with all the gifts from all the good fairies and none from the bad, has an illimitable trousseau and presents, not merely from her friends and relations, but from everybody in the British Empire and from many outside it.

It is like the last scene in The Sleeping Princess, so popular because it is a wish-fulfilment in music and decor; but how much better than that performance, which we all know to be make-believe, since Royalty is not a performance at all but something actually happening to a Princess who is always a Princess and on whom the curtain never drops. Is it any wonder that the dreamers should wish to increase their sense of the reality of it all by themselves giving real presents to this real fairy Princess? It makes them feel, for the moment, as if they, too, were real fairy godmothers and actually present at the wedding.

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I do not know, perhaps no one knows, what are the feelings of Royalty about it all. Do they believe in their own fairy life, while wondering why it is not more amusing; or do they nerve themselves to endure it with the thought that they are performing a useful function as the objects of a great collective waking dream? Do they just go through with it from a sense of duty which never questions why, taking what compensations they can get from a passing half-belief in their own magic and from a natural enjoyment of their clothes and presents and popularity? It is curious how inarticulate Royalty remains. People have written books about them – Mr. Anthony Hope wrote The King’s Mirror, the best of his books, about a King without illusions – but, so far as I know, no Royalty has ever eased him or herself by writing frankly about Royalty.

Yet, what a chance for a masterpiece, if there were a royal master to write it! I do not mean a book of royal scandal or gossip, but one which would express clearly, and without disguise or ill-nature, the royal attitude towards Royalty, the attitude both of clever and of stupid princes. Probably there is some professional code of honour that prevents it; but a prince of genius, and still more a princess, would not be hindered by that. If she were able to go through her own wedding she would for her own compensation insist upon her right to describe it afterwards. She would know that she was a member of a unique species which had never yet uttered the truth about itself; and she would utter that truth, not for notoriety, but for the sake of uttering it, and as the mouthpiece of all her mute fellow princes and princesses.

Nor would she be guilty of any cruelty to all the dreamers about her fairyland, for she could say nothing that could shatter their dream. They would believe that she was not a born princess but a changeling, a mistake, who out of perversity had exiled herself from her fairyland. They might dislike her and resent her apostasy, but she would not shake their faith, which never is shaken by the artists, the philosophers, the saints – all those who will not seek a wish-fulfilment in dreams.

It is strange that the artist should commonly be called a dreamer, for that word describes exactly what he is not. If a princess were born an artist, she could not play the part of a wish-fulfilment; for artists hate dreams as providing all those counterfeits of art which are its worst enemies. To turn away from reality to a phantom world thrown up by your own unconscious is to refuse, in a vague passivity, all those activities by which art is produced; it is to be a medium or to listen to mediums. In fact all bad popular artists are mediums without knowing it; they get their popularity by expressing collective wish-fulfilments, which are also their own. Or, if their nerves are disordered and they write for a public of disordered nerves, they express nightmare fear-fulfilments, a kind of counterfeit very popular now and no nearer to art than the wish-fulfilment. Hence the two sides to the Grand Guignol which, unknowingly, illustrate an important fact of the mind: namely, that those who give themselves up to wish-fulfilments are at the mercy of fear-fulfilments; any dream of delight may turn into a nightmare by its own caprice.

From this slavery to the unconscious it is the function of the artist to deliver himself, and us, by a passionate intercourse with reality; he does not need to dream of what he wishes to be, because he can do what he wishes to do. Making a further, more intense, experience of reality in his art, he has no need of wish-fulfilments in the cinema, on the stage, in the Royal Academy, or at a Royal Wedding. The very word Royal, used so lavishly as a prefix to everything which professes excellence or distinction without possessing it, has no magic for him; his business is not with magic at all, but with exact and reasoned achievement. Meanwhile, the world cannot get on without its dreams and its wish-fulfilments; and to these all the human beings who compose the order of Royalty are sacrificed, though

              Like a heathen sacrifice,

With music and with fatal gifts of flowers

they are led smiling to the temple of unreality.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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