On July 31, 1981, I got up at the crack of dawn to watch Charles, Prince of Wales, marry Lady Diana Spencer.
Impossible to say that now without a slight self-deprecating flinch, as you would if admitting, “I voted for Ralph Nader for president,” or “I once bought a Sony Betamax.” Because the resultant crack-up of the marriage, and the hideous scars it left on the institution it was intended to bolster, have become permanently ingrained on our culture. What we’ve witnessed, over the past thirty years, has been the dissolution of a dynasty in slow motion. It seems a safe bet it will sail on for the duration of Elizabeth II’s life—she’s just a few years away from being the longest-reigning sovereign in English history, and she really hasn’t given anyone grounds for termination; it would be almost ungallant to boot her out of office for doing exactly everything that was asked of her sixty years ago. But after she’s gone…? All bets are off. And another gaudy royal fertility pageant isn’t going to fix that.
In 1981, I was going through a medievalist phase, buoyed by a reading of Thomas Costain’s magisterial series of books on the House of Plantagenet, and by Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays on the same kings. I found it enormously appealing that the same throne that was so hotly contested and so brutally won in the 15th century, was still around in the 20th, though occupied not by a bold young warrior prince like Edward IV or Henry V, but by a pleasant middle-aged woman known for her handbags. I relished the idea that vestiges of ancient pageantry still persisted, like the Order of the Garter, though that honor was now reserved not for the valorous and heroic, but for tycoons and entrepreneurs. And there was something wonderfully exotic about the search for a suitable young virgin to present as a gift to a royal heir who was dutifully, if reluctantly, putting his tomcatting days behind him and getting down to the matter of lineage-tending; though the sacrificial aspect to this wasn’t very different, if you thought about it, from casting young virgins into rumbling volcanoes.
There were a few people at the time who pointed out how embarrassingly anachronistic it was to celebrate a hereditary monarchy in a country that was ostensibly a democratic meritocracy, but we just considered them grouches and spoilsports, and shut them out.
Very different today, in a “won’t get fooled again” sort of way, which is why I’ll be sleeping in on April 29 (and no, I won’t be setting the TiVo, either). To be sure, Prince William and his bride-to-be don’t appear to be the spectacular mismatch his parents were in 1981. They’re roughly the same age (as opposed to the 13-year difference between Charles and Diana), they’ve been a couple for several years (as contrasted to the mail-order-bride aspect of Diana’s recruitment), and it seems inconceivable that Kate Middleton has remained a virgin all this time, which means she’s entering this marriage with eyes wider open than Diana could have managed. Also, thanks to Diana’s hands-on parenting, Prince William seems much more grounded than his dithering, sensitive-to-light father was thirty years ago (or at any time since). In fact, you get the idea that if William were just an ordinary Joe, he and Kate would end up choosing each other anyway.
In other words, they seem like nice kids. I wish them well. And what I wish them, most of all, is that the whole Windsor dynasty is quietly dismantled and put away in a drawer before it has time to suck them into its gaping maw. What I wish for them is what I’d wish for any young couple: let them be free to build a life together. On their own, alone.
Doesn’t that just seem…well, civilized?