Magazine | December 31, 2010, Issue

Tragedy of the Commons

Nothing is more American than a humble cachet. Up to now we have owned the boast about being the first person in one’s family to go to college, but we just got sideswiped by England. In a seizure of grand mal democracy that we can never match, it was announced that Prince William is to wed commoner-than-thou Miss Kate Middleton, which will make her the first person in her family to become Queen of England.

As usual, Americans were threatened by the word “commoner” but it simply means someone without royal blood, or someone who is not a peer — i.e., a duke, marquess, earl, viscount, or baron. It does not mean someone without a title. Plenty of commoners have titles: The late Queen Mum was born Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, daughter of the Earl of Strathmore, but she was still a commoner; so was Lady Diana Spencer, another earl’s daughter, because children of peers are all commoners. But we have a mental block against the word, so the media got tangled up in confusing explanations.

Kate would be, they brayed, “the first commoner to marry the heir to the throne since . . . ” Some of the names they came up with were Elizabeth Woodville-Gray (15th-century queen consort of Edward IV, who was already king), Anne Boleyn (not reassuring), and Anne Hyde (17th-century wife of the future James II, who predeceased him). But the difference between these women and Kate Middleton is their degree of commoner-hood. The first was the widow of a knight and the other two were knights’ daughters, which at least made them “gentry,” but Kate’s parents are rich, successful entrepreneurs who were once a commercial pilot and an airline stewardess. In England such people are called the “aspiring” middle class, meaning that in the fullness of time they can be counted on to become even pushier than they already are.

A Church of England bishop predicted that the marriage would last only seven years. He quickly took it back and apologized but I think he was right. A clue that all is not well is the genteel panic evident in the repeated assertion that “the Queen is said to be delighted.” The construction of that sentence alone tells anyone with a third ear that all hell must have broken loose. Next, the Brit tabloids reported that Kate had had a pregnancy scare. This might account for Prince Charles’s uncharacteristically gruff statement that it was time they got married because “they’ve been practicing long enough.” Did she really have a pregnancy scare or did she say she did because, having been strung along by William for eight years, she “aspired” to get him any way she could?

Besides a future king, what is she getting? Maybe a past king named Oedipus. Diana is the ghost at this feast, making her appearance at the time of the announcement by taking the form of her own engagement ring, William’s gift to Kate, which made one female media diva give a little shudder and murmur “Creepy.” The ring was shown on what looked like a fake hand, compliments perhaps of Mme. Tussaud’s helpers.

#page#The specter of Diana also hovers over the comparisons between her and Kate recited by upbeat commentators. At 28, Kate is more mature than was 20-year-old Diana; she’s more intelligent than Diana; a college graduate, she is better read than Diana; and as one commentator tactfully put it, she is “mentally balanced.” How long she will remain so is another matter. Every recitation of her stalwartness has to go up against memories of Diana’s suffering, crying, starving herself, vomiting, hurling herself down stairs, cutting herself, telephoning lovers, and reading Barbara Cartland. Kate’s problem is that we are just not that into stalwartness. Ours is the Age of Diana, a time of such philosophical corruption, social depravity, and political crackpottery that if people can’t feel sorry for you they hate you. It masquerades under the name “compassion,” so Kate had better cultivate a couple of showy vulnerabilities before she is called an aspiring elitist.

The future of the monarchy depends on how much of his mother William wants to reincarnate. As a child he grasped in a primal way that the monarchy made her unhappy and he would stuff Kleenex under her door when he heard her crying. The imagery of a chevalier coming to the rescue of an incarcerated lady fair is too blissful to fade. I think he subconsciously wants to take up the wrecking ball where Diana dropped it and finish off some more of the institution she hated. But first he must become king, which brings up the question of his father.

Polls consistently have shown that a majority of Brits wants Prince Charles to step aside and let William succeed to the throne when Queen Elizabeth dies. (Diana first planted this idea in her tearjerking “three in a marriage” interview.) But he can’t “step aside.” There are only three legal precedents for getting rid of a rightful king. Abdication, the last-ditch solution to a constitutional stalemate. Regency, made necessary by the monarch’s serious illness, as when George III went mad. The third is something only the English could pull off: a “Glorious Revolution.” They had one in 1689 after James II turned Catholic, married an Italian princess, and had a son by her, thereby bumping his two Protestant daughters by Anne Hyde out of the succession. The Protestant-dominated Parliament had had enough. They exiled James to France and Mary II became queen of a country that remained politically stable, hence the “glory.”

Prince Charles has no reason to abdicate unless his divorce prevents him from being Defender of the Faith, but that’s unlikely now, and he has already mused about the more ecumenical “Defender of Faith.” His musing tendency might suggest a regency to readers of his new book, Harmony, a worrisome treatise on his ecomania containing a centerfold of an Amazonian rain forest. If he gets any dottier there’s always exile. “Take your bird feeders and go” is not very glorious, but then neither are our times.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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