The Queen of Hearts

On the visual culture of a royal wedding.

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The forthcoming royal wedding is a boon to the chronic insomniac. What better way to sooth the sleep-deprived psyche than with endless detail on the air-brushed lives of Kate Middleton and Prince William? Documentaries on the subject of this couple usually turn up in the small hours of the night on one of the more obscure cable stations. If not, one can always consult the Royal Channel (the official channel of the British Monarchy) available via YouTube for a 2 a.m. update.

   

Even without insomnia, I confess to having an unquenchable appetite for royal pabulum. I am drawn, for mysterious reasons, to that Grand Guignol cast: Princess Diana, beautiful but overexposed (not to mention dead); Prince Charles, every day more like a cartoon courtier from Beauty and the Beast; his disheveled and vaguely menacing second wife, Camilla; his father, who looks as if he’s sucking on a sour ball; and his pastel-enshrouded mother. This woman has a particular fascination for me. What is it with her? In my circles, mothers give up interesting and lucrative careers to make cupcakes for their kids’ kindergarten class. Why can’t this lady, Queen or no Queen, sacrifice a few years of waving from her limo so her sad sack son can have something to do? Is she a monster or merely British? Something to ponder at 2 a.m.

Still, it’s nice to take a break from such deep speculation and look to the young couple, Kate and William, for a change of face and of wardrobe. I am especially taken with Kate Middleton. Could anyone be better suited for the role of princess-to-be? She has dimples and swinging dark hair (a nice change-up from Diana’s short blonde coiffe), a manner that is poised but not snooty, and a perfect last name, in case we happen to forget that she is “of the people.” Charles Dickens and George Eliot (author of the great novel about middle-class English life, Middlemarch) couldn’t have named her better. She is precisely what the monarchy needs: fresh blood from the merchant class to invigorate a family atrophying on country estates filled with yapping dogs and too much stemware. Consider the former Queen Mum, Elizabeth’s mother (played by Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech). She was, at least legally speaking, a commoner because her husband was not meant to be King and didn’t have to beat the bushes for an aristocratic wife. Thrust into a queenly role, she performed impeccably, even during the Blitz. I am also reminded of a short story by Henry James, “The Real Thing,” in which a painter finds members of the lower class to be better models for his aristocratic portraits than genuine blue bloods. Kate Middleton, a good middle class girl, is bound to do a better job than Diana, who had the double whammy of being not only an aristocrat but also a virgin.

Prince William has his points, too. He seems to have inherited all the best things from his doomed mother — her height, her health, her engaging smile — and a few not-so-bad things from his dad: a slightly furrowed brow and a receding hairline. Looking at William after viewing footage of Diana is to be reminded of one of those Shakespearean heroines who dresses up as a boy — an apt evocation, since boys played girls in Shakespeare’s time and Diana always looked to me a bit like a drag queen. On the subject of William’s character, I can only say that he appears to be a pleasant, well-intentioned fellow. I recall hearing him in one of my late-night channel-surfing forays profess to having “a brilliant time” at some event where “everything was quite brilliant” (“brilliant” apparently the British equivalent of our “awesome”). His words reflected an uncomplicatedly genial, if not brilliant, intellect.

This is in marked contrast to his younger brother Harry, already occupying the de rigueur black sheep role. Remember seeing the photos of him in a Nazi uniform at a costume party a few years back? Harry has the narrow, close-set eyes suggestive of wildness and stupidity, the combination proper to the younger brother of a venerable man. Prince Andrew played this role to Charles, and we in America have had our share of the type. Think of the younger brothers of presidents Carter and Clinton. Fortunately, the pattern was reversed in 1930s Britain when it was discovered that the abdicated king, an authentic Nazi-sympathizer, had a more sober younger brother. As the recent Oscar-winning film demonstrates, there is nothing like a bad stammer to build character.

Kate and William carry promise in other ways as well. The death of Diana seemed to be the apotheosis of the royal drama; where could things possibly go from there? But anorexia and infidelity, divorce and sudden death, riveting though they are, are not what we really want from these people. We want spectacle, not drama: parades, palaces, furniture, servants, dogs, and, of course, clothes, especially hats. Personally, I would never wear a hat unless it were 10 degrees below, but for some reason I love them on the heads of royal personages.

In the context of spectacle, the mere sliver of a story is enough. Take the ring. I’m a sucker for those mini-montages showing Princess Diana’s sapphire and diamond engagement ring first on her finger as she steps out of her carriage in that overstuffed comforter of a wedding gown, and then on Kate’s finger as she walks down Sloan Street in an uber-coordinated outfit complete with hat. Thankfully, Kate’s hands are of the same proportion as those of her her late mother-in-law-to-be (is that the right phrase?); the ring montage wouldn’t work if she had small hands and stubby fingers. On such minor details does the future of the monarchy hang.

There are also tidbits of royal lore that entrance me during my insomniac nights: that Kate met William at St. Andrews University in Scotland, which he chose, for reasons unexplained, over his father’s Cambridge. There he majored, for some additional odd reason, in art history. One of the royalty documentaries I watched during the wee hours informed me that he loathed the subject and only stuck it out because Kate, also an art history major, convinced him to. Her appreciation of the field bodes well for the family art archives and may give her father-in-law, an expert on old-fogey architecture, someone to talk to (or quarrel with) during those cold winters at Balmoral.

I am struck by the resemblance of Kate Middleton to the actress Katie Holmes (she for whom Tom Cruise bounced on Oprah’s couch). Holmes recently played Jackie Kennedy in a television movie about that American royal family, and I expect that she will be drafted to play Middleton at some point in the future. But first we will have the real thing: a royal wedding in all its glittery spectacle, followed by a montage of the honeymoon and an in-depth survey of the bride’s wardrobe. I look forward to it all, especially the hats. • 18 April 2011

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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