In 2013, Man Booker Prize winning author Hilary Mantel, best known for her Wolf Hall duology, gave a speech at the British Museum. In it, Mantel eloquently interrogated the trappings of royal duty for women, and used both Marie Antoinette and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (a.k.a. Kate Middleton) as her prime examples. She recounts being asked at a book festival to ‘name a famous person and choose a book to give them’. Mantel said she chose a book on the historical importance of Marie Antoinette’s fashion for ‘Kate’ because she felt that the Duchess had been trapped by the blank personality and image she was forced to present to the public:
‘It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution. It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.’
It’s a damning point, but one made with utmost empathy, stressing the dehumanising manner with which Kate was and continues to be viewed: She can’t have quirks because that could reveal controversial opinions; she can’t get too large or she’ll be called spoiled or be bombarded with pregnancy rumours for years; she can’t be too daring with her fashion because that’ll inevitably upset someone. Mantel notes the limiting narratives open to a woman whose sole duty to the crown, whether or not it is admitted, is to give birth.
Later, Mantel talks of Kate as the ideal figure for the job because she seems to have been ‘designed by committee’ and a world away from the troubles her late mother-in-law caused the British Royal Family:
‘Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.’
I heartily recommend you read the full piece because it seems like not many people have. About a month after she gave the speech, to little public response, the tabloids pounced on it as proof of Mantel launching an attack against Kate. Think-pieces galore were spewed on the nastiness of Mantel, frequently going after her own appearance, all under the justification that poor Kate had been bullied by one of Britain’s biggest authors. No self-awareness was exhibited that very week when breathless news coverage of a public event Kate attended focused almost exclusively on her hair, her clothes and her baby bump. Mission accomplished.
I think about this piece a lot and how defensive it made so many outrage merchants over the mundane and narrow realities of our monarchy. That fairy-tale image has done very well for the country, even as it becomes costlier, less relevant and, like Buckingham Palace, starts to crumble. Still, the fantasy remains of the handsome princes, their future brides and the glitzy weddings that will bring the world together in harmony.
William and Kate’s big day was feverishly reported upon by media worldwide, even those who had disposed of their own monarchies. Other European nations had their princesses of humble beginnings - the estate agent from Australia who married the Danish Prince, the former newsreader who is now Queen of Spain, the single mother with a dark past who found love with Norway’s future king - but they’ve never attracted the love of the Brits (the dregs of imperialism will do that to the planet). Kate Middleton is also a different breed of princess from those fellow consorts: Upper-middle class upbringing with a monied family, private education, little career to speak of, and strong connections to the elite. It was easy enough to twist into the Cinderella story, but in reality it’s just the country’s most upmarket society wedding. The glitz wasn’t there, and the British media still crave it.
Enter Meghan Markle. Actress. Former calligrapher. Advocate for the UN’s Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Ex-lifestyle blogger and clothing designer. Girlfriend of Prince Harry.
I’m not sure the British media, particularly the tabloids, know what to think of Markle. She ticks all the boxes they’ve been begging for when on the trail of the wilder royal’s love life: She’s beautiful, glamorous, and a career woman with lots of prior coverage to reference. Of course, she’s also a mixed-race American divorcee with vocal support for feminism and women’s issues worldwide, and that may be too much of a discernible personality of their liking.
It’s harder to project ideas and concerns onto Markle than it was onto Kate when she was still just Will’s girlfriend, a position she held on and off for a decade before Diana’s ring was slipped on her finger. Kate never spoke in public, she didn’t seem to have many hobbies, and she was always photographed in motion. Her life in the harsh glare of the public looked to revolve around exclusive nightclubs, working for her parents’ company, and being the dutiful plus-one to Will. Every photo could be gathered into a collection entitled “Public Relations 101”, as she spent a decade being prodded by the tabloids, derided as ‘Waity Katie’, and speculated over to within an inch of her life, and still she never put a foot wrong. There were no shocking revelations, no seedy tell-all moments (bar one uncle, and even then nothing juicy was revealed), and even her family seemed ready for primetime. Kate and her fellow Middletons were Teflon to scandal, which boded well for the Windsors. It must be said that The Firm’s refusal to get involved with the dirt of the commoners is glaringly hypocritical given their own status as the most gaffe-ridden family in the country, complete with toe sucking, tampon fantasies and basically everything that comes out of Prince Phillip’s mouth. Then again, class gives you the privilege to call such things quirks and not stains.
The British press have seemed less interested in Markle’s potential family drama, even though it fits a more scandal-friendly model. That’s nothing to do with Markle, of course, but certain estranged members of her family know a good opportunity when they see one. Her half-sister is trying to sell a book that ‘reveals’ Markle’s alleged social climbing, selfishness and cruelty, although few people seem to buy the set-up. It feels too much like bitter gears to grind than a true scandal to unfold. Perhaps it’s just a tad too Kardashian for the tabloids, who prefer to get their gossip through sneakier means. That’s not to say she wasn’t attacked by the press: Her films were picked apart for nude scenes, her race was fetishized and posited as a potential problem for the royals, and every aspect of her life as questioned as a possible block to becoming Harry’s wife.
A more shocking bride would probably be the dream pairing for the Brits when it comes to how they imagine the future of Prince Harry. The heir has the weight of responsibilities; the spare is free to truly screw up. From the infamous Nazi uniform fancy-dress costume to the nude liaisons in Vegas hotel rooms, Harry has always been our socially mandated bad boy - not irreversibly bad in the way rock-stars can be, but a redemption story in the making. William could never truly get down or let loose like a typical undergraduate because the security required and potential for trouble was too high. It’s partly the reason he went to St Andrews, one of Scotland’s oldest institutions that also happens to be in a small town with little nightlife and a very insular student community (his original choice was allegedly Edinburgh). Harry was expected to be bad on some level: It’s younger sibling syndrome, especially prevalent in the royal family, from Princess Margaret to Prince Andrew. As long as he put in the work - joining the army, establishing the Invictus Games - then a little bit of fun was no big deal.
In that aspect, Harry dating a jet-setting Hollywood star (albeit a C-list one at the most generous reading) on a show that can get a little risqué is far more in his wheelhouse than some of his previous girlfriends, who have been more in line with Kate or at least that aspect of upper-middle class society. There was Chelsy Davy, a party girl but one with a very wealthy background as the daughter of one of Zimbabwe’s largest private landowners; then there was Cressida Bonas, a dancer and actress with a Lady for a mother and good private education. Markle is also privately educated, with an Emmy winning lighting director for a father, but that kind of schooling in America does not tend to carry the markers of power that it does in the UK, where only 6% of the general public attend private schools but they make up over 70% of high court judges and close to half of all Bafta winners.
Markle is arguably as tailor-made for the job as Kate was, but the key difference is that Markle’s work was done independently, and not under the gaze of a press waiting for an engagement ring. I remember the sheer glut of obsessive interrogation Kate faced from the press the moment she graduated from university, thus forcing her and Will to leave the safety of St Andrews and the press’s agreement to leave the prince alone while he studied. It seemed as though, every day, there was a new set of photos of her leaving her house or walking to work or leaving a nightclub. Sometimes she looked understandably dour but mostly she had the same muted expression on her face, a clear sign of appropriate training on how to deal with the paparazzi. Kate was always a woman achingly aware of what people expected from her, and the limitations put in place by her position as a royal girlfriend, meaning she had the clout but none of the protection since the palace don’t tend to officially step in and warn off the press unless she has a ring on her finger.
Nothing Kate did would ever be the right move in the eyes of a cruel tabloid culture: She was criticised for waiting on Will to pop the question, she was derided for her weight, her employment was questioned while new opportunities opened to her were dismissed as benefits given by merit of her boyfriend, her clothes weren’t classy enough and then they were too boring for someone her age, and her family were posited as the new Bennets in waiting, with a social climbing sister and a mother eager to get the best marriages for her kids. Through all of this, Kate still did all the right moves: She stayed silent, she didn’t run to the press or get caught in a fake sheikh sting operation, and she remained as dignified as possible throughout. Despite it all, Kate still had to be relatable, just like one of us, the fantasy we all could live. Keep calm and carry on. Short term criticism for long term gain.
Meghan, by contrast, was given an unprecedented declaration of public support from Harry and the palace after their relationship was revealed. Not only was she discussed by name, the press was called out for sexist and racist abuse levelled at her, and the prince made a strident plea for her right to privacy. Any support Kate received from Will on an official basis was delivered in much vaguer terms.
Markle has also worn many hats throughout her career and done so with the expected level of exposure for a supporting cast member in a USA Network show, a far less turbulent narrative than one of a future consort. Most of her acting work prior to Suits, where she plays paralegal Rachel Zane (Rachel is also her real first name), was minor bit-parts in film and TV, from soap operas to procedurals. She appeared in two different iterations of CSI but has never done a Law & Order stint. Her filmography is not one that inspires Grace Kelly comparisons but it does reveal the typical life of a working actress, the kind of narrative that’s overlooked in favour of the bright young things who break it into the big time La La Land style. As someone who grew up adjacent to Hollywood, it’s easy to imagine that Meghan was aware of the harsh reality of the industry and knew a back-up option would be required. Her Northwestern University degree is in theatre and international studies, and her time as a student included an internship at the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires, so a step into the humanitarian world made sense.
Her charity work has included becoming a Global Ambassador for World Vision Canada (she is Toronto-based as Suits is filmed there), where she travelled to Rwanda for the Clean Water Campaign, collaborating with One Young World, where she gave a speak at their annual summit, and becoming an official UN Women Ambassador. Her focus is on issues of poverty, gender equality and modern-day slavery, and all the ways those intersect. She’s written for Time on the stigma of menstruation in developing nations and how that can prevent access to education for girls. Vanity Fair even honoured her as a humanitarian to watch, photographing her alongside Fatima Bhutto and former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Celebrity philanthropy is an issue that’s raised many concerns over the decades, with some questioning the ultimate effectiveness of it when more attention is ultimately paid to the star and not the cause. Markle seems like a good exception to that rule: Before Harry, she wasn’t wildly famous so offered less of a distraction, and she had the education and work to back up what she was doing.
She also has hobbies and side-hustles that made her easy to define, as witnessed by her once active social media presence. One of her ventures, The Tig, was a Gwyneth-style blog with a focus on food, lifestyle and her humanitarian interests. The site was part self-promotion, part sweetly executed shine theory. She wasn’t afraid to get political, discussing the civil rights movement and racism’s impact on her family; she delighted in some Eat Pray Love shenanigans involving food and travel; she even offered BFF-esque advice to readers on everything from beauty to self-worth and voting. Nowadays, you can’t actually read the site, as Markle shut it down in April of this year, declaring that ‘it’s time to say goodbye.’ Around the same time, she also stepped down from her role as a brand ambassador for Canadian fashion store Reitmans, where she had helped to launch her own ‘accessible’ line of business-smart pieces. Her social media content has dried up too.
Immediately, engagement talk started up, because what other reason would she have for wrapping up satisfying and profitable business opportunities if not for an upcoming wedding? The prospect of having to give up so much of yourself to take on the role of wife cannot help but feel like a duty from another time, one that can be extremely dehumanising. It’s one Kate was familiar with: Allegedly, her commitments to Will in-between his duties and work made it hard for her to find flexible employment, thus exacerbating years of ‘Waity Katie’.
If Meghan does indeed marry Harry, everything has to go: The American citizenship, the acting career, her personal freedom, and her ability to live publicly within her own means and control. She will be expected to continue her charity work but probably with less say in the way she conducts it. Her clothes will be safer, any public speeches she gives limited and tightly edited, and she certainly won’t be sharing any of it on Instagram. Like Kate, she’s had time to grow used to fame and exposure, so the transition will be far easier than it ever was for 19 year old Diana Spencer, but the spectre of the Princess of Wales will loom ever-present over her dutiful life.
Basically everything Kate does is compared to Diana - ooh, were the polka dots she wore when leaving the hospital with Prince George a deliberate call-back to Diana? Would Diana approve of the children’s upbringing? Didn’t Diana have shoes like that? Remember when Diana also went to a charity event like Kate? She cannot help but be an heir to the potential the world hoped to see from Diana before the fairytale dissolved. For Meghan, that will be an inevitable problem, but not as immediate as the constant comparisons to Kate, which began almost as soon as the relationship was revealed. Outfits were compared and asked who wore it better, rumours flew about apparent tensions as well as instant friendships, and every dedication was made to prove that the pair were just like one another, despite evidence to the contrary. There will be less pressure for Meghan to breed but the intricacies of her reproductive organs will be scrutinized to the death if she isn’t pregnant quick enough. If a marriage takes place, you can rest assured that the eagerness to craft a catfight narrative will be evident from the get-go.
There’s a solid chance Meghan and Harry may already be engaged after going on holiday to Africa, where Will also proposed to Kate. We could see the dream-come-true Cinderella story play out all over again, all in service of a woman who has worked too hard and achieved too much to be labelled so narrowly. The monarchy is a splintering institution that thrives from appropriate decoration. Will and Kate have provided that for several years now, smiling and waving and occasionally wearing the same outfit twice just like the rest of us. Duchess Meghan will not be a person so much as a brand combined with a fantasy and the weight of centuries of historical expectations. The press will love her, then be cruel if they don’t think she’s doing things the way she’s supposed to. Hilary Mantel knew the cost of such inevitable cruelty, something that’s often omitted when talking about her now infamous speech. As she put it, ‘We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself.’