It’s an odd thing, watching a woman devoured by the gaze of others, but monarchy is odd. I watched the Duchess of Sussex – it’s an expectation, not a name – arrive at an event at the Natural History Museum in February. The car entered a forecourt containing two stunned adults and a child with a posy. We were brushed away by a shining young press officer. “Please go inside,” she said when I loitered, and she turned around, not even waiting for acknowledgement. Monarchy invites sentiment, and depends on it – lovely princesses, charming children, dogs. But it isn’t sentimental. It is ruthless and it acts to survive. It has to, because it makes no sense at all. We live under enchantment.
Meghan was in cream – she dresses like a hotel room she would like to sleep in – and heavily pregnant. When I saw the photographs, they seemed more real than she is. She is designed for photography and she knows its power: her father, Thomas Markle, now 74, was an Emmy-winning lighting director on General Hospital. She and Harry look like people who are constantly watched. They seemed tense – him, able to admit it, and she, so far unable. Perhaps she considers it failure? Around me, the affluent – they paid £120 per ticket a ticket – held up iPads. The greeting delegation had the enormous grins of people experiencing a dangerous level of dopamine. Even royals seem normal when you see how people treat them. They seem rational, even if they can be injured by flattery.
They are here to watch The Wider Earth, a play about Charles Darwin’s five-year voyage on HMS Beagle. It’s a wry metaphor; it tells of how animals adapt their behaviour to survive. Meghan and Harry came into the theatre after we did, and we were invited to stand for them. The photographs of Meghan, with babbling captions, were online before I got home.
Projection of your own desires on to living avatars is intellectually lazy, but it isn’t new. It’s an ancient way of being and it’s a powerful narcotic. No tide of history – liberal, populist – has seriously shaken the British affection for this drug. The monarchy dances on a pin, but it has never fallen off. As a child Harry watched his mother insulted by photographers. They wanted a particular image: Diana crying.
They would jeer at her, he has said, once she had rejected her royal protection detail – an act of defiance so belated it amounted to suicide – and she would weep. When he fell in love with Rachel Meghan Markle, born in Los Angeles in 1981, he was secretive. Women – Chelsy Davy, Cressida Bonas – had left him before. Harry and Meghan courted in Soho, Botswana and Toronto, where she filmed Suits. Harry-mania – which had culminated in the reality TV series I Wanna Marry “Harry”, in which 12 credulous women competed for the affections of an impersonator – was dead.
Meghan is not the first American to marry into the British royal family of course – that was Bessie Wallis Warfield, who married the former Edward VIII in 1937. She is not the first divorcee – that was also Bessie Wallis Warfield, who was twice divorced. She is not even the first actress. Sophie Winkleman, who is married to Lord Frederick Windsor, was in the Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour last month, where she was seen wobbling in front of a gun.
Meghan’s Twitter, Instagram and lifestyle website The Tig were deleted before she married, as if her voice itself was her dowry. The words that remain online are soothing and precise. There is a tinniness to them, the words of someone who works in hospitality PR seconded to the Foreign Office.
Meghan Markle’s parents met on the set of General Hospital. Doria Ragland, 12 years younger than Thomas Markle, was a trainee make-up artist. She is African-American, descended from slaves. He is from Dutch stock; through him Meghan is descended from Edward III and Robert the Bruce. They lived in the Valley in Los Angeles, where Doria was sometimes mistaken for the nanny. Thomas’s children by a former wife – Thomas Junior and Yvonne, who renamed herself Samantha – shared the house. Meghan was loved, but it was not a happy home. Her parents separated when she was two.
She was educated privately at the Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles and Northwestern University in Illinois, where she studied theatre and international relations. “I was always the smart one,” she has said. “My self-identification was wrapped up in being the smart one.”
She served at soup kitchens and persuaded Procter & Gamble to change a sexist advertisement for cleaning products.
“At the age of 11 I had created my small level of impact by standing up for equality,” she wrote later. This is a typical Meghan sentence: pared down to nothing.
In 2015, she pondered being mixed race in Elle. She was grateful, she wrote, that her father bought her a mixed-race family of dolls and wondered why a college classmate thought the breakdown of her parents’ marriage was inevitable. She saw her mother racially abused in a car park and wrote her most truthful words: “To describe something as being black and white means it is clearly defined. Yet when your ethnicity is black and white, the dichotomy is not that clear. In fact, it creates a grey area.” She was asked to tick a box at school: Caucasian or African American. “I left my identity blank – a question mark, an absolute incomplete – much like how I felt.”
So Meghan became an actress – although she initially supported herself with calligraphy, which is a search for beauty and control in something mundane. There was heartbreak, noted in the anonymous blog Working Actress, which was reportedly written by Meghan: “I’ve spent many days curled up in bed with a loaf of bread and some wine. A one-woman pity party. It’s awful and ridiculous.” She wasn’t, she wrote in Elle, “black enough for the black roles and I wasn’t white enough for the white ones, leaving me somewhere in the middle as the ethnic chameleon who couldn’t book a job”.
She married and divorced the producer Trevor Engelson, and she became the paralegal Rachel Zane in Suits, the legal drama television series. She excelled in philanthropy – anti-racist and feminist activism – and blogging on The Tig, which sought social justice among cashmere neutrals. “While my life shifts from refugee camps to red carpets, I choose them both because these worlds can, in fact, co-exist,” she wrote. “And for me, they must.” It sounds like the entirely invented life of an Instagram Emma Bovary who came from nowhere. Her childhood friends say she has dropped them, but they have sold their memories for profit.
If she is dissatisfied by her background she hasn’t said so explicitly, beyond not inviting her Markle siblings to her wedding. But Harry did, when Sarah Montague asked him about Meghan’s first Christmas at Sandringham in 2017: “She’s getting in there,” he said. “I suppose it’s the family she’s never had.”
Meghan lives where activism meets materialism, which is as fashionable as it is ridiculous. Feminism without solidarity is a nonsense, but she daren’t talk about economics from a palace, even if she wanted to. There is no contradiction, in Meghan’s view, between campaigning for equality and wearing a £56,000 Ralph & Russo dress for her official engagement photographs. There is no contradiction in wearing a couture Givenchy wedding dress and writing inspirational mantras on bananas and distributing them as gifts for sex workers, as she did in Bristol last month. There is no contradiction in being silenced and having, in your personal coat of arms, a quill.
The wedding showed how monarchy adapts. Old Windsor met Hollywood: George Clooney, Idris Elba, Serena Williams and Oprah Winfrey were in the Markle family seats, and this is good for the dynasty, if ludicrous to behold. But monarchy doesn’t have to make sense, it only has to fascinate and be watchable, to hold the gaze. Meghan is a gift to the royal family – an outreach worker to make up for Catherine Cambridge’s decision to project nothing beyond a faint idea of shopping at Waitrose. Meghan can weave great nets of enchantment, and only a fool would say that a mixed-race duchess is not comforting for some. The idea of progressive monarchy might be absurd, but representative monarchy is not.
Join the firm: Meghan Markle walks down the aisle at St George’s Chapel, Windsor on 19 May 2018
Then Meghan married Harry, she became a creature of other people’s imaginings. It is the duty of royal women to mould themselves into mythical creatures. They are human sacrifices in the weird religion of monarchy.
The elements are there already. She has a father who has betrayed her. He staged photographs of himself before the wedding, and made public a letter in which she told him, in careful calligraphy, how much he had hurt her. Her sister Samantha – author of the forthcoming The Diary of Princess Pushy’s Sister – hates her and sends missiles from her Twitter feed, cursing what Meghan has done to their father. Samantha is now allegedly on a police list of “fixated persons”.
That is not enough conflict for some newspapers. They have manufactured a “war of the wives” with Catherine, based on something that did or did not happen at a fitting for Princess Charlotte’s bridesmaid dress – although I cannot imagine Catherine fighting with anyone. They have named Meghan “Duchess Difficult” because she apparently sent an email to a member of staff at dawn. It is impossible to know what has and hasn’t been said – the royals almost never sue, although the young princes are more litigious than many – but I find it hard to imagine that anyone outside a tabloid would say, as Harry is reported to have done, “What Meghan wants, Meghan gets.”
The only evidence for this invented war is the fact that Harry and Meghan will live in Frogmore Cottage in Windsor, not Kensington Palace with William and Catherine, and will run separate offices.
It is not the Wars of the Roses, but it’s enough to fill the picture captions – and they require suffering. One day Catherine is Waity Katie, a drudge waiting for a wedding in nude heels. The next she is a paragon of decorum, a human napkin ring. But the treatment of Meghan is more vicious and, indeed, racist. There is more ammunition in her small utterances than in Catherine’s but there could hardly be less. I cannot imagine Catherine signing a banana, as Meghan did, with the words: “You are loved.” Meghan apparently spent £406,662.55 on clothes in 2018, to Catherine’s semi-thrifty £68,334.23. I want to believe that Catherine leaked that to the newspapers, but of course she didn’t.
The only levity to be found is in Piers Morgan, whose bitterness towards Meghan matches Samantha’s. He says he had a drink with Meghan at a pub the night she met Prince Harry and never heard from her again. Morgan, who normally rails against hypersensitivity in others, processes his pain by writing ever more hysterical open letters offering spurious advice – chiefly that she should forgive her father for sins Morgan knows nothing about.
Kensington Palace is an odd place, a sort of half palace. It feels shabby and unfinished, a house that does not know what it is for, and unwieldy, with the blocks in which the family live spreading over a series of quadrangles. I go on the public tour of the state rooms of William and Mary. There is a feeling that if you can walk in their foot-steps, you can have what they have. In one there is a ghostly white dress for a woman with no head. Anything real about the royal family – the floors they walk on, the cars they drive – seems hopelessly prosaic, a balloon falling to earth.
Kensington Palace is also a shrine to Princess Diana, a wound that feels ever fresh. Her costumes are in a series of sad and shuttered rooms on an upper floor, and we are invited to stare at her clothing: bright, blooming 1980s couture, oblivious and full of hope.
Nottingham Cottage, Meghan and Harry’s current home, is just visible from Kensington Palace Gardens. A screen has been placed on the railings for privacy, so you have to bend down to see a small, red-brick house by Christopher Wren with a white picket fence and roses round the door. Fashion blogs have imagined, from ghostly remnants of The Tig, what the interior is like now Meghan is present – and they imagine a hotel. Plush and calm and likely pale, but nothing permanent. They aren’t staying.
The gift shop shows what the monarchy sells now. There is a pitiful shrine to Princess Eugenie’s wedding, which feels like a display summoned by a tantrum – probably the Duke of York’s. There is the book Kate: How to Dress Like a Style Icon, with advice to the unwary: Your Perfect Blazer; Wear Pale Pink Without Fading Into the Background; Be Bold With Your Brows (opposite a photograph of Catherine wearing a headscarf for modesty).
Beside it is Together: Our Community Cookbook, a selection of recipes, endorsed by Meghan, by women who cooked in the communal kitchen set up after the Grenfell Tower tragedy. That, essentially, is the contortion she must make: Kensington resident to Kensington resident.
There is also a novel for children called The Princess and the Suffragette. I wondered if it is truly a plea for the royals to have the only right denied them – a vote – and marvel at the hubris. The title is another insight into the contortion they are attempting, which is breathtaking in its audacity: princesses for equality?