As I mentioned last week, I have been making my way through Sally Bedell Smith’s latest biography on the Prince of Wales. I haven’t gotten too far, but far enough that I’ve come through the other side of the 1980s and all that that entails. Not too much about the Waleses’ marriage could possibly be new to us at this point, but it’s been a few years since I’ve sat down and waded my way through a biography of one of them and it was interesting to do so, particularly the early years in light of how the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are currently perceived.
Having not been around for the vast majority of the ’80s, everything I know is with the benefit of hindsight and there’s a marked difference in seeing a situation play out in real time, via headlines and commentary, versus references in a broader narrative of someone’s life. But a turning point that is brought up again and again from this period is a 1985 Vanity Fair article on Charles and Diana by Tina Brown (who would later write quite the biography of Diana in 2007). The article was written about a month out from the couple’s visit to Washington, D.C. and caused a considerable stir.
One early graf says:
Princess Diana, the shy introvert unable to cope with public life, has emerged as the star of the world’s stage. Prince Charles, the public star unable to enjoy a satisfying private life, has made peace at last with his inner self. While he withdraws into his inner world, his wife withdraws into her outer world. Her panic attacks come when she is left alone and adulation-free on wet days at Balmoral; his come when his father tells him he must stop being such a wimp and behave like a future king. What they share is an increasing loss of reality. Ironically, both are alienated by the change in the other.
The truth of this notwithstanding, consider that 32 years later the only thing most people remember from this few-month window is that Diana looked beautiful dancing with John Travolta. That illustrates the importance of the long game when the Royal Family is conducting their PR. They’re living history and while their popularity is important and worth monitoring, its waxing and waning is a given and a holistic look at each person’s trajectory is the only thing that remains.
The Queen = a long reign of public service. Henry VIII = six wives. George VI = World War II. Queen Victoria = the Empire.
In many ways, legacies are built on literal images. Like Diana dancing with Travolta in 1985, our sense of the RF and specific monarchs often comes from the photographs and portraits that litter our history books, museums and magazines. Kate beaming with George outside the hospital. Elizabeth I with her bright red hair and her foot on Europe. Kings and queens clutching rosaries, displaying their wealth and showing off military strength.
Brown later wrote in her biography of Diana that she knew her article had struck on truth because the Waleses sat down for a televised interview a few months later to dispute rumors of domestic discord. Indeed they did and while I had watched the interview years ago, I re-watched it this week and what struck me was less the awkwardness between Charles and Diana (though that’s wildly apparent), but how often William and Kate sprung to mind.
Charles on his role:
“It’s not so much a job as a way of life. I think this is an essential feature of the whole thing and I frequently read things saying, ‘Why doesn’t he get a proper job?’ Or something like that. And I honestly, personally believe the whole way of one’s life is part of the job. […] The way we live our lives is in a sense also the role. Again, I don’t think I can say it too often, the particular position that I find myself in and my wife, there is no actual laid down job or role and you have to, to a certain extent, do as you think right and fit. It’d be quite easy to do nothing, in fact.”
One stumbling block for William and Kate, and the one which leads to much of the criticism they sometimes receive, is what Charles has made his role. A huge part of why I personally find Charles interesting is that he did exactly what he set out to do: create a meaningful role for himself in a position that demanded both nothing and all of him. Charles didn’t have a template set for him. The last Prince of Wales before him was Edward VIII who, while popular, spent most of his time surrounded by luxury, married women and making political remarks that didn’t always align with his father’s government. That he “got away with it,” so to speak, has more to do with the nature of the press in the 1920s and 1930s then it does anything else. Now, one could argue that Charles is guilty of all three of those things as well, but to say that is to disregard what amounts to an impressive bit of philanthropic entrepreneurship.
But the fact remains that in 1985, when he was only a few years older than William is now, he was still building his career, his causes and his reputation. William and, to a lesser extent, Harry are often held up next to their father and found wanting, but the fact remains, their royal careers are only beginning. It’s worth pointing out, too, that Charles received separate criticism around this time for scaling back his public duties to spend more time with his young family and be a hands-on parent. The headlines ran his engagement numbers alongside his parents and called him “work shy,” too. Considering he has also been criticized for being a less affectionate and engaged parent than Diana was, and you have yourself a no-win situation.
What it speaks to, however, is that not much of what William is facing right now is unique to him. Some of it is, sure – the Verbier ski trip was still quite dumb, but William’s role is whatever he makes it and he’s still in the process of doing just that.
Diana on her role:
“I feel my role is supporting my husband whenever I can and always being behind him, encouraging. And also, the most important thing, being a mother and a wife. And that’s what I try to achieve; whether I do is another thing, but I do try.”
I loved this when I heard it. Less for the content, but more because all I could think of was Kate. Kate gets criticized twice over in the comparisons to Diana. I’ve heard it said that when Diana had been married to Charles for the same amount of time Kate has been married to William she had accomplished more. I’ve also heard Kate at the age of 35 compared to Diana at 35 and found wanting. But neither is particularly fair or grounded in reality.
Per the above, Diana made no bones about defining her role as one that supported her husband. Nor did she blink before saying that her first priorities were her marriage and her children. Now, was this a bit of political theatre? Sure, some of it – the marriage wasn’t in great shape by 1985, but certainly her children did come first. But that’s not really the point – the point is how Diana publicly defined and sold her role. Can you imagine if Kate said this today? I can’t. Frankly, I don’t want her to. But it calls to mind her comment earlier this year when a little girl asked her what the best part of being a princess was and she answered that she was well looked-after by her husband. It left a bad taste in my mouth, but it speaks to deferring to William’s role in the family and putting the marriage first.
We remember the “War of the Waleses,” but that came later on. Diana didn’t start out trying to undermine her husband, outshine him or break out from the extended RF. Four years into being Princess of Wales, she was a wife and a mother of young children.
Similarly, to the second point, it’s impossible to compare Diana and Kate at 35. At 35, Diana was in the process of getting divorced, had been separated from Charles for four years and had been Princess of Wales for 15. Her children were away at school and she was a seasoned Royal. This is simply not the case for Kate, however much it’s likely to her benefit that she was 29 and not 20 when she married. She can’t fake experience. Quite a bit of the work Diana did for which she is best remembered came much, much later in her career – a significant bit of it even came after she had separated from Charles, which is yet another complicating factor worth considering.
Diana on her causes:
“Yes, but that’s taking time because I don’t want to dive into something without being able to follow it up. Nothing would upset me more than just being a name on the top of a piece of paper and not showing any interest at all. Hopefully the organizations I’m involved with see me two or three times a year, *if* the times, you know, I can do it, I can fit it in.”
Again, I love it. Kate is criticized all the time for only showing up for her various charities a few times a year and here Diana is laying that out as the ideal, if she can fit it in (emphasis hers). Just as with William, Kate’s causes and initiatives will take years to crystallize and the full extent of her work will likely come further down the line, when her children are older and she has had more time to familiarize herself with the nuances of her job and what makes sense long-term. This isn’t carte blanche for the Cambridges to hide out at Anmer Hall, as they have been accused of doing, but rather acknowledging that by royal measures, they are right on track.
But back to the interviews themselves – William and Kate haven’t done this. The only sit down interview they’ve done together was their engagement interview back in 2010, and it’s worth considering whether there is merit in taking this step. Not to defend themselves, but rather to communicate personally, separate and apart from their position as patrons of their causes. William has done solo interviews, but there is a marked difference. Some of it may come from Kate’s discomfort with public speaking. Some of it may come from believing that nothing good came of the personal interviews in which Charles and Diana participated. And perhaps it just hasn’t been a priority yet.
I hope at some point they do – I think it’s relatively risk-free and would likely only garner goodwill.
In any event, I have once again come to conclusion that when it comes to the BRF, not much is ever new.