Tomorrow is the coronation of King Charles III, which I’ve come to understand as a sort of regnal equivalent of a bar mitzvah ceremony. Though it marks a transition that has already occurred — Charles automatically became king when his mother died last year — people still get excited about the public event.
Things already feel a little overwrought in London. The streets and stations in the center of town are full of signs passive-aggressively warning people that “a major event” will cause traffic jams and road closures, which seems like an oddly if-you-know-you-know way to describe a literal national holiday. Yesterday, a friend messaged me to ask if I knew why so many helicopters were circling noisily around the neighborhood where the Times has its London bureau. It turned out to be security for a pre-coronation appearance by William and Kate, respectively the Prince and Princess of Wales, who dropped by a pub for a carefully orchestrated and highly secure “casual” photo op.
I found myself instinctively parsing their outfits, which made them look as if they had dressed for slightly different events: William was tieless and open-collared, the princely equivalent of going out in a t-shirt and jeans, while Kate, in a long red coat accessorized with white stiletto pumps and a white-leather frame handbag, looked like she was headed to a daytime wedding.
Then I felt bad, as I nearly always do when beholding the Princess of Wales, because the monarchy in this country seems like a cruel institution to the people caught up in it, and Kate’s clothing has always seemed symbolic of the ways her marriage has restricted her life. Maybe she just liked the red coat! Why was I even thinking about this?
Hilary Mantel got a lot of pushback about this 2013 essay in the London Review of Books, which people willfully misread as an attack on Kate Middleton, then the Duchess of Cambridge, rather than on the monarchy. But I’ve always thought it was an insightful description of how the royal family generally, and its female members particularly, are treated as objects for public consumption rather than human beings.
“I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung,” Mantel wrote. “In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.” Mantel ended with a call for mercy, begging the press and public not to be “brutes” to Kate as they had been to other royal ladies in the past.
The British tabloid press — preferring to overlook the implication that they were the ones at fault — decried this description as misogyny. But Mantel’s essay offered more sympathy for the person under the clothes than any of the glossy magazine stories or tabloid coverage, because it considered the possibility that there might be a difference between the person she appeared to be and the person she wanted to be, or actually was.
Lately I’ve also been reading “Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” by Andrew Downie, a much harsher account of a very different member of the royal family. It is an incredibly damning portrayal of the former King Edward VIII, detailing his and his wife’s strong Nazi sympathies, including evidence that they were in touch with Hitler’s emissaries about negotiating a “peace” agreement that would have put him back on the throne in exchange for help convincing Britain to surrender.
It is also a sad account of a man trapped in emotional childhood, whose desperate attempts to secure personal and public adoration destroyed his chances of achieving either goal.
He was obsessively in love with Wallis Simpson, the American divorcée, for whom he abdicated the throne. The book describes how his upbringing as the Prince of Wales left him ill-equipped for private life with her. “I remember like yesterday the morning after we were married and I woke up and there was David standing beside the bed with this innocent smile, saying, ‘And now what do we do?’” Simpson later told Gore Vidal (The Duke was known to his family as David). “My heart sank. Here was someone whose every day had been arranged for him all his life and now I was the one who was going to take the place of the entire British government, trying to think up things for him to do.”
His openness to Hitler’s overtures seems to have been in part because he wanted to regain his lost status and the respect that went with it. He was obsessed with convincing his family to grant Simpson the title of “Her Royal Highness,” or at least officially receive her at the palace, but they refused. The only people who treated the Duchess as royalty, according to the book, were the couple’s own household servants.
What you’re reading
Linda Long, a reader in Atlanta, GA, recommends “Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner:
I have become totally addicted to Korean TV dramas because of their happy endings and slow burn. This includes keeping a spreadsheet of the shows and the stars. I know little about South Korea so decided to read something about it. “Crying in H Mart” describes the importance of food and mothers, and gives insight into immigrant life in America and Korean culture.