“The dignity that was lost that week will never be recovered,” said Christopher Hitchens sternly to camera in a documentary made not long after the “undignified” event itself: the pageantry of mourning following the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Her funeral remains the most watched live television event in British history, and yet Hitchens reminds us that roughly half of Britons didn’t watch it.
In fact, plenty of people were horrified by an outpouring of grief that they saw as mawkish. The senior royals’ initial refusal publicly to show distress, or to go against protocol by flying the Union Flag at half mast over Buckingham Palace, was interpreted as either unacceptably cold or admirably solemn, depending on one’s perspective.
In much the same way, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s split with the royal family has divided opinion. It is tempting to dismiss this as trivial nonsense, better suited to the tabloids – who have, of course, cheered it all on with gusto – but the significance of this conflict goes well beyond the usual celebrity silliness. This publicly funded soap opera taps into some important questions about modern Britain. What do we want to be, as a country? What kind of people do we want representing us? And what virtues ought they to have?
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The writer Niall Gooch has described a conflict between sets of virtues that he terms “bourgeois” and “bohemian”. The former are named for their (generally derisive) association with the bourgeoisie, but they are by no means the preserve of the middle classes. These are the virtues that come with traditional respectability: stoicism, humility, industriousness, punctuality, obedience, tidiness and a sense of duty.
Set against these are the bohemian virtues, which include creativity, imagination, tolerance, open-mindedness, independence, sensitivity, and (above all) authenticity. Too much emphasis on these virtues leads to chaos and fecklessness but, at the same time, a society deprived of them would be conformist and overbearing, much like the worst stereotypes of the Britain of the 1950s – all manicured lawns and stodgy food. There is a balance to be struck.
No single person better embodies the bourgeois virtues than our current Queen, whose rather peculiar personality has proved well suited to her role. But what the Netflix series The Crown teases out so beautifully over the course of its four series is the difficulties encountered by the Queen – and by the institution she represents – when faced with a modern world in which such virtues are increasingly disregarded.
How can the drab, reliable Queen compete with the glamour of her sister Margaret? Or the vivacity of the patron saint of bohemian virtues, Princess Diana? In 1997 a critical mass of the public did not want a stiff upper lip – they wanted the kind of authentic display of emotion that Diana delivered so well. And the Queen, still rooted in the dominant culture of her childhood, could not provide it.
The anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston once described folklore as the “boiled down juice of human living”. Watching Oprah Winfrey urge Markle to “speak her truth” to an international audience this week, it occurred to me that the current Windsor family psychodrama functions much like folklore, boiling down a much larger conflict between bourgeois and bohemian values, and then inviting the public to pick a side.
Do you perhaps prefer the Duchess of Cambridge? In temperament she is the Queen’s true heir: a woman who rarely speaks in public, who carefully selects uncontroversial charitable causes, and who faithfully obeys the Queen Mother’s directive to “never apologise, never explain”.
Or are you rooting for Markle? Who has lived a very different kind of fairy tale, a more modern story inflected with identity politics, in which a valiant outsider takes on the powers that be, suffers for her defiance and eventually triumphs.
This is the kind of story repeated again and again in contemporary fiction, particularly that written for children. Think of “Let It Go”, the hit song from Disney’s 2013 film Frozen, in which a princess rejects her former self-control:
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
“Let It Go” is one of the most commercially successful Disney songs ever released, and it captures the spirit of bohemian virtues with particular flair. But in real life the rebellious princess is not quite so valorised. Polling suggests that the British public still marginally prefer the traditional version of the fairy tale, with the most emotionally restrained members of the royal family occupying the four top spots in the popularity ratings: the Queen, Princess Anne and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
And yet there is a telling generational divide, with younger Britons much more likely to express support for the Sussexes in their bohemian endeavour. And this is exactly what we should expect, given the fading away of the bourgeois virtues witnessed within the lifetime of this Queen. Humility and stoicism just can’t cut it in Hollywood, where authenticity reigns supreme. The Sussexes are playing to a young, American audience who have no interest in obedience to tradition, and their lucrative deals with Netflix and Spotify suggest that this strategy has paid off.
It would not be the first time that the monarchy has been destabilised by individual members of the royal family who cannot bear the demands of duty. But when Edward VIII abdicated, he was swimming against the tide of public opinion, whereas the Sussexes are swimming with it. The question therefore emerges: can an institution that depends on bourgeois virtues survive in a society that no longer prizes them?
This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation