20 years after Diana's death, we still do not want the royal family to be happy

We’ve kept all the duties, the dehumanisation, the gilded cages; but now the poor bastards don’t even get to invade France in return.

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When I was a child, I had a bible: it lived in Worcester public library, and its name was Lives Of The Queens of England. It came in stiff, forbidding volumes, each opening with an illustration of a woman in the clothes of her time. The names started off exotic – Berengaria of Navarre, Philippa of Hainault, a flotilla of Matildas and Eleanors – and gradually became more familiar, arriving at women I already knew from the pages of my beloved Jean Plaidy novels.

That book has stayed with me, not least because every so often on a trip through Europe I will encounter a place, like Cleves or Modena, I have only ever known as the source of a queen. But mostly what has stayed with me is the sadness. Until the scandalous Elizabeth Woodville – the older woman, with two sons already, who seduced and secretly married Edward IV – these royal brides were imports. At the edge of puberty, they were torn away from their family, their home, their language, and sent to marry a man many years older than them, toughened by war or roughened by years of pleasure-seeking. (Elsewhere, some lost even their names: Caterina of Florence became Catherine in France; Maria Antonia of Austria, Marie Antoinette.)

The queens led to princesses, and soon I was reading about girls my own age whose families loved them, but took care not to get too attached, knowing they were only temporary residents in their homes. I developed a passionate sympathy for Mary, Princess of Orange, and was happy that she was able to shelter her brother Charles II during his exile; she must have presumed when she left for Holland in 1642, aged 11, that they would never meet again. At 14, Marie Antoinette found herself stripped of everything she had – clothes, attendants, even her pug, Mops – at the French border, in order to be remade as a dauphine of France.

All that explains why I never wanted to be a princess. Why would any modern girl? You’re just a tiara and a uterus, good for opening garden centres and ensuring the succession. As Hilary Mantel noted in the Guardian on 26 August, anyone who romanticises princesses and “fairytale weddings” needs to read more. “Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification,” she wrote. “They are about child murder, cannibalism, starvation, deformity, desperate human creatures cast into the form of beasts, or chained by spells, or immured alive in thorns.”

Born in 1983, I came in on the Diana story towards the end, and wasn’t around for the beginning. I’m used to thinking of the Britain of the 1950s as antique and class-ridden; but what were the 1980s about? I find it extraordinary that two years before I was born, we were still anxious that the heir to the throne should marry a virgin. It now seems so… impolite, so outrageously invasive that Diana’s sexual experience should have been anyone’s business but her own.

Since then, I can’t help feeling that we’ve done to the monarchy what the Church of England has done to religion: made it palatable for modern tastes by scrubbing away many of its essential features. Just as Anglicans would find thundering about hellfire and sodomy exquisitely embarrassing, so Britons prefer to focus on the waving and the garden parties, and tidy away the hereditary principle and the bit where the sovereign is anointed by God. Hence those polls that crop up every so often suggesting lots of us would rather the monarchy skipped Charles and went straight to William. That’s not how it works, guys. Accept the arbitrary rules or don’t play the game at all.

Because of her beauty, and her early death, it is orthodoxy to regard Diana as a helpless victim of circumstances and Charles as a callous philanderer. That simple picture doesn’t do justice to the cruelty of the whole system of royalty in its modern incarnation. Charles seems to have been brutalised by his upbringing just as much as his bride was by hers. We’ve kept all the duties, the dehumanisation, the gilded cages; but now the poor bastards don’t even get to chop anyone’s head off or invade France in return.

Antonia Fraser points out that the apparent barbarity of Marie Antoinette’s stripping would not have felt so acute to an 18th century royal: they were used to a complete lack of privacy, from being dressed in the morning to having their bedsheets inspected after a wedding night. To us, that code seems abhorrent, and yet we are still happy to inflict it on our supposedly beloved monarchy. No sooner was Kate Middleton out of her lace McQueen than the world tried to see into her womb.

Big deal, you might say. They’re welcome to step down, turn Buckingham Palace into a Lidl and enjoy their millions in peace. But that’s not fair: we need the royal family, and they know it. The Queen is one of the few uniting symbols of Britain, someone who belongs as much to a newly minted citizen as a blue-blooded aristocrat.

The BBC documentary Diana, 7 Days showed the public to be excruciating in its neediness in the days after the death of Tony Blair’s “People’s Princess”. Even now, her sons struggle to articulate the effect of trying to mourn for their mother while performing dignified grief for the crowds outside the palaces. Harry admitted with grim satisfaction that he had never cried in public; he was pleased to have kept some part of his relationship with his mother private.

What do we want from the monarchy? We want the impossible. We want them not to be human: to be symbols, to be myths, to be icons. And we want them to do this in an age of smartphones and long lenses. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we hate our royal family as much as we love them; certainly we don’t seem to care if they are happy.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire