Outspoken, self-made, independent, glamorous, American: the very qualities that make Meghan Markle a hit with the public could prove tricky for The Firm to cope with, argues US-based Brit Jane Mulkerrins.
Royal wedding fever has once again hit peak shriek this spring, with acres of column inches and breathless commentary dedicated to Harry and Meghan’s big day. And, really, who can blame us? After a turbulent and traumatic 18 months – not least for the two nations who’ll be united by their nuptials – we’re all in need of a little Markle sparkle. But once 19 May has come and gone and the dust has settled – every detail of the dress, ceremony and undoubtedly epic party pictured, priced up and picked over, the bunting packed away – what will the newest royal recruit bring to the family?
Let’s face it, the last time an American divorcée set her sights on joining The Firm, it didn’t work out too well, triggering a constitutional crisis. And Meghan has already strained the traditions of royal neutrality with past TV appearances and tweets discussing politics and feminism, plus her (now closed) lifestyle blog The Tig. If any other public figure expressed a personal opinion, it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But Meghan isn’t any other public figure – she’s about to become a duchess.
For some critics, it’s all a bit much. Meghan’s entry into the royal family, they fear, heralds the end of all that anchors the British monarchy: tradition, reserve and quiet duty. I, however, would argue the opposite. In an era of doom and gloom, with Britain divided about Brexit and the US tearing itself apart over Trump, this glossy Californian might be the best addition to our dusty old monarchy in decades. Who better to repair the ailing ‘special relationship’ than this highly attractive special envoy in an array of enviable coats? And what’s that I hear? Oh, it’s the sound of billions of tourist dollars thumping down on British soil. An American marrying into royal ranks is akin to having a Briton become First Lady (not that you’d wish that fate on anyone right now, but you get the point) – and they will definitely want to cross the Atlantic to see her.
On top of her nationality, Meghan is mixed race: her mother, social worker and yoga teacher Doria, is African-American; her TV lighting-director father, Thomas, white – which makes a more refreshing change from generations of all-white Windsors. ‘A huge number of people relate to Meghan,’ says Penny Junor, author of numerous royal biographies, including those of Prince Charles, Diana, William and Harry. ‘She is far more representative of modern British society than the daughter of an aristocrat.’ Chris Ship, royal editor at ITV News, witnessed this relatability first-hand when Meghan made her second royal visit with Prince Harry to Brixton, a traditionally Caribbean and West Indian part of South London. ‘A couple of people told me: “I’ve come here to see Meghan Markle, but I wouldn’t have come here to see the Queen,”’ Ship reports. ‘She has made the royal family more accessible, relevant and open in a way that none of the others has been able to.’
But it’s not all plaudits. Meghan has been criticised for being too ‘huggy wuggy’ by columnist Jan Moir, who warned her to ‘give it a rest with the endless Lady Bountiful arm-pats’. Princess Diana’s biographer Andrew Morton says Meghan’s ambition makes her a ‘modern-day Becky Sharp’. Others have expressed contempt at her indiscreet, wholly un-British emoting, gushing in her Vanity Fair interview in September last year about how ‘in love’ she is. Having lived in the US for almost eight years, I can fully attest to the tendency of our American friends to wear their hearts on their sleeves, sometimes to an extent that makes a still buttoned-up Brit cringe. However, I’ve also observed how much and how rapidly Britain is changing.
Last year Harry talked openly about his need to seek counselling to help him deal with the grief after the death of his mother. Having a member of the royal family, who has served frontline in the forces, normalise therapy and mental-health issues speaks volumes about Britain’s increasing emotional openness. And, of course, it also indicates how well matched he and Meghan appear to be. Both of them embody a new, more youthful style of leadership that celebrates genuine, emotionally honest communication, instead of seeking to stamp out such ‘weakness’. While Meghan might be wholly modern, one can imagine eyebrows were raised at the palace over the fact that this is not her first rodeo, as they say stateside. She was previously married to producer Trevor Engelson but they divorced in 2013 after two years. So, it’s not a fairy tale – but fairy tales haven’t generally served women well (think of Diana, Princess of Wales), and separating from one’s spouse no longer carries the same stigma it did even 20 years ago.
Diana, an aristocratic and supposedly biddable bride, was selected as a suitable wife for Charles. But it didn’t work out that way. Even the Queen was forced to admit she learned lessons from Diana. In 2013 author Hilary Mantel reflected – controversially – that Kate Middleton’s marriage to William was the result of a lesson learned, too. She wrote in the London Review of Books: ‘Kate seems to have been selected…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…capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother with no messy deviation.’
Meghan, on the other hand, might well prove to be messier. She publicly backed Hillary Clinton, lamented the departure of David Cameron and criticised Donald Trump and Brexit. Earlier this year she used her and Harry’s first official appearance alongside her soon-to-be in-laws the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to voice her support for the Time’s Up and #MeToo (equal pay and anti-sexual harassment) movements. Though this should hardly be surprising given that she’s a former UN ambassador for women, there was if not quite a backlash, then certainly the sound of heavy tutting: ‘Isn’t she being a bit…political?’
The royal family’s website royal.uk makes the situation clear: ‘As head of state, the Queen has to remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters.’ But that’s the Queen, which Kate will one day be – undoubtedly the reason she keeps a dutiful silence. Meghan, however, as wife to the spare (Harry is sixth in line to the throne after the recent arrival of the third royal baby, suffers no such restrictions – at least, not officially. ‘As a couple they are likely, I think, to be more open in their opinions than other royals we have seen,’ predicts Ship. And, while that may stick in the craw of some critics, he doesn’t believe it’s actually that dramatic a departure. ‘The Queen has always given the impression of staying the same, but has actually moved the monarchy with the times,’ he says. ‘Whether that’s getting rid of debutante balls or changing the way the royal family pays tax, she knows that as monarch she has to maintain her relevance to society.’
Plus, Ship points out, the happy couple are not abandoning tradition entirely. Though there has been talk of Meghan’s mother walking her down the aisle and of the bride making a speech – both to much bristling from traditionalists – it could hardly be called an unconventional occasion. ‘They will be getting into a carriage pulled by horses and parading through the streets of Windsor. You can’t really say that isn’t traditional.’ The ensuing pictures will, no doubt, be dreamy. But a quick root around on social media reveals plenty of shots that Meghan might now wish she could wipe out. A former Deal or No Deal ‘suitcase girl’ turned actress, there’s a world of cheesy poses that don’t really say ‘royal’. But they do prove that, like the rest of us, Meghan has worked for a living and has taken the odd job she’d have preferred not to. Plus, her seven-year stint on the drama series Suits has probably prepared her better for royal life than any of the in-house training that comes with the title. Compare Meghan’s polished, relaxed performance in front of the camera in her post-engagement interview with Harry – in which she seemed to do most of the talking – to Kate’s (perfectly understandable) nervousness at her and William’s sit-down.
‘Meghan has lasted the course, in part, because she doesn’t mind the publicity,’ says Junor. ‘The other girls Harry dated were more private and were horrified to find themselves in the newspapers.’ Her celebrity status also echoes that of Diana she was the one with charisma, the showpiece in the household – which, believes Junor, became a problem. ‘Charles would spend weeks crafting a speech about a subject really dear to his heart and then the press would totally ignore it. The papers would instead be filled with pictures of Diana’s new hairstyle.’ But Meghan and Harry won’t face the same conflict, Junor believes. ‘I don’t think she’ll outshine Harry. He has a big personality and is very much loved – they will be a great double act.’ The issue, however, might be that combined star power itself: ‘I think the potential problem is that she and Harry might outshine William and Kate,’ warns Junor. So, as for whether Meghan is too much for the monarchy, I would argue not – for now. But whether she’ll be too much for future monarchs remains to be seen.