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Yanks and the royals

<strong>The Eagle and the Crown</strong>

Frank Prochaska

<em>Yale University Press, 239pp, £25

"No Cross, no Crown!" declared the rebellious American colonists. Yet, for more than two centuries, Americans have been imploring their government to defend religion and have been making sheep's eyes across the Atlantic. Frank Prochaska deals with the latter of these irrationalities, which in the past few decades has become increasingly intense, though hardly more reverent.

American unease at the lack of a king manifested itself at the birth of the republic. Fearing that George Washington would, without an exalted form of address, sound shabby to the rulers of Europe, the founders pondered "His Mightiness" and "His Elective Majesty" before bravely deciding that "The President of the United States" was a match for any title.

By combining the executive and the ceremonial functions in one head of state, Americans have always, like someone whose arm has been amputated, felt an absence. While the presidency appeals to the nominally rational processes that end in the voting booth, the emotional side of citizenship, except for such unusually appealing presidents as Franklin Roosevelt or Lincoln - called, in one northern Civil War hymn, "Father Abraham" - has no focus. The lack was more discomfiting in the early days of the republic, when nearly all Americans were Christians and regarded a king or queen as the Lord's anointed. And if a hereditary monarch remains a symbol of continuity in a time of turbulence, the need for such reassurance was greater in the new country as it embarked on one of the most daring social experiments in history.

The notion that monarchy represents something nobler and sweeter than politics has deep roots in the American psyche. Embarrassed by their lack of history, and socially insecure in a society with no official hierarchy, many Americans would anticipate insult from titled Brits but genuflect to the monarch, who, being above class distinction, was seen as both superior and democratic. Indeed, from the start of her reign, Queen Victoria was advised by her ministers to be especially gracious to Americans, who struck them as nervous provincials or resentful puritans. Some of those disposed to worship, however, sometimes found that as distance dissolved, so did enchantment. Prochaska notes that one of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, before performing for Queen Victoria in 1873, was in awe of "the grandest and noblest queen of them all". He does not mention, however, that, after the concert by the famous black chorale, several of them former slaves, the Queen ordered one of her courtiers to tell them, "We are pleased." One of the singers asked, "Why doesn't she tell us herself? We're right here."

Victoria, of course, encouraged and justified the American love of lords. As a loving wife, prolific mother and bereft widow, she inspired a torrent of sentimentality in the US long after Britons found her remote and self-absorbed, her protracted mourning a gloomy bore. To strengthen ties across the Atlantic, the Prince of Wales was in 1860 sent on a goodwill tour which cost each country $2m and stirred up an Anglomania that was not equalled until the past few decades. The tumult may have sold more than souvenirs: Prochaska says it is possible that, in making it unfashionable to dislike England, the tour may have swung the election to Lincoln, whose party had been too pro-English for many voters.

But, while his material on the earlier years of the transatlantic romance is interesting, as Prochaska draws nearer our time he outdoes Victoria in being remote and prim. The Duchess of Windsor, he claims (on the authority of her memoirs) never slept with the duke before their marriage, and he even quotes an unnamed confidante who says the duchess was a virgin on the wedding night. (I prefer the comment of the friend who asked Mrs Simpson what it was like to sleep with the king and was told, "Have you ever tried to post a poached egg?")

Whether out of distaste for Diana-mania, or despair at finding anything in the ground that has been dug, raked and sifted, Prochaska, who describes it as the "mass psychosis" of celebrity-worship, says nothing and does not say it very well.

At the least, he might have drawn a parallel between the most popular royal females of the 19th and 20th centuries. Both Victoria and Diana were maternal figures who suffered - one a grieving widow, the other a betrayed wife. Both, as well, were adored for their sympathy, real or putative, with the fashionable victims of their day - Victorians would melt when the Queen smiled at a Negro or Indian (as they then were), just as Diana fans were thrilled when she held hands with an Aids patient.

While obituaries for the British monarchy may be premature (150 years ago, Prochaska tells us, Americans were predicting it would soon end), a quotation in this book neatly, if inadvertently, explains why American affection for it may not be permanent. During Victoria's Golden Jubilee of 1887, an event widely celebrated in the United States, an American clergyman stated that the two countries were bound by the unbreakable links of race, law, language, literature and liberty. As those areas continue to diverge even more than they have already, it will be a difficult task to keep Americans gazing raptly at the throne.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas