She is being hailed as a “breath of fresh air” who represents an opportunity for the royal family to embrace “real change” but, make no mistake, it’s Meghan Markle who will undergo the metamorphosis when she marries Prince Harry.
People magazine this week features a cover headline: “How Love Changed Harry,” with a “royal insider” claiming that Markle is “definitely the one wearing the trousers in their relationship. She is a strong, opinionated woman who has her own ideas about things, and that’s one of the things he loves about her.”
But how true is it that the independent-spirited Markle has attained such influence in one of Britain’s oldest, and most set-in-its-ways institutions?
As sausage factories go, the royal family, with its gilded pomp and magisterial façades, is better disguised than most.
But the British monarchy has perfected, over the centuries, a finely honed process for taking in individuals, grinding them down with the mincer of institutionalism, and spitting out perfectly formed identikit royals at the other end.
True, there have been two notable exceptions in recent years—the spirits of both Sarah Ferguson and Diana Spencer proved impossible to break—but, generally speaking, resistance to the grinding glacier that is the House of Windsor is futile.
The reconstitution process takes some time, and it is best, as is common practice at slaughter houses, if the truth is kept from the new intake for as long as possible to avoid panic.
Therefore much encouragement is, on a surface level, being given to Meghan Markle, the latest intake, to do things “her way.”
So, keep your hair straggly, Meghan, wear mismatched earrings and hug the boys and girls eager to greet you as you tour every far-flung corner of your new home.
In the run-up to the May 19 wedding, the British newspapers are positively bursting with carefully briefed stories about how Meghan is changing not just Harry but the royal family itself—she is paying for her own wedding dress, she is having a sponge cake rather than a fruit cake at the ceremony, she will make a speech, she is forcing the royals to rethink their historic racial prejudice.
But the truth is, this is all just very pretty, carefully arranged garnish. The royal meat factory will ultimately reprocess and repackage Meghan Markle just as effectively as it has done Kate Middleton.
Ah yes, Kate Middleton.
Remember the confident, middle class woman who we were told was going to reform the royals? The girl who rowed in dragon boats, refused to be bossed around by her father-in-law and famously wore a negligee in a fashion show? Who did her own shopping, declined to get a nanny, and insisted on installing air conditioning in Kensington Palace?
Well Kate Middleton has turned out to be about as revolutionary as Charles II.
“Diana was pitched as the girl next door but of course she wasn’t, she was from one of the most aristocratic families in the land. But Kate really was the real deal, on that front. She is from very humble origins,” says Prince Harry’s biographer Penny Junor, “But we think of her now as very royal.”
Indeed. To see Kate, seven years after her wedding, side by side with Meghan Markle is to realize how completely she has been absorbed by the Windsors. With her sensible court shoes, high street tartans, public frugality, and obsession with “normality,” the only Windsor more Windsorian than Kate is Her Majesty herself.
Kate is also a glimpse of Meghan’s likely future; fitting in, rather than sticking out and hoping the royals will change shape to accommodate you, is the order of the day.
This is not to suggest that his relationship with Meghan Markle has not had a profound effect on Prince Harry. It has. He has grown and matured in the space of two years from a frankly rather idiotic if charming young man into an assured diplomat.
But hopes that, for example, Meghan’s biracial heritage will lead to a root and branch change in racially prejudiced attitudes in the bosom of the establishment should be taken with a pinch of salt. Just look at Princess Michael of Kent, arriving for her first meeting with Meghan Markle wearing a crude, racially stereotyped “blackamore” broach.
Her defense was, essentially, that she was incredibly stupid, that she didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.
And the scary thing is, she probably didn’t.
Even Prince Philip, noted for a string of racially offensive comments over the years, is finding the habits of yore hard to shake off, notwithstanding his new granddaughter-in-law. He recently told a man with a beard he looked like a terrorist.
Again, the really worrying thing is that he likely genuinely thought this was not remotely offensive.
So while Meghan truly is, to use the well-worn phrase, a breath of fresh air for the royal family, claims that she is transforming the organization from the inside out should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped to shake up the royals than Meghan,” says the royal writer Christopher Andersen, author of Diana’s Boys, “But Meghan doesn’t want to shake things up. She wants to be accepted by her in-laws. And, let’s face it, trying to change the monarchy is like trying to turn around the Queen Mary.”
If Meghan Markle does ultimately effect any meaningful change in the royal family, it may not be visible for some time. Until then, she may follow what generations of royal brides have done before—keep calm and carry on—or she may really do things her own way. That “breath of fresh air” could prove genuinely revolutionary.