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the palace papers

22 november 2022

While we were catching up with the first four seasons of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II unfortunately died, putting a bit of a damper on our enjoyment of Olivia Colman's dotty-dowdy version of her.

The Crown is not perfect TV. The writing gets lazy at times and resorts to having characters over-explain the obvious. Showrunner Peter Morgan has this shtick about the constitutional awesomeness and statesmanly savvy of the British monarchy that rings false, even if you're trying to take the show as pure soap opera. It's still a pretty good show. Accept that the characters are mashups of PR and fantasy, and you have a substantial treat in store.

Yet you do wonder what the reality behind Morgan's bedazzled vision might be, so I was curious about Tina Brown's recent book The Palace Papers. Brown starts from Meghan Markle's assertion that she did not know what to expect upon marrying Prince Harry, and was subsequently miserable. It's easy to imagine people born into royalty being miserable, or even people born (like Diana Spencer) into the British aristocracy and then being dragooned into its highest ranks. Less so when you are an outsider with books and the Internet and common sense at your disposal, and a reputation for researching your acting roles well. Brown uses the puzzle of the miserable Meghan to draw readers into her dissection of the House of Windsor.

Some of The Palace Papers reads like a guidebook to the TV show, at least as far as they'd gotten (season 4, the Charles/Diana marriage on the brink of collapse) at the time Brown's book appeared. Naturally we learn that the royals lead far fuller, and far grubbier, lives than even the more scandal-sheet aspects of The Crown dare to represent. And we learn this at immense length. The Palace Papers is a huge honking long book, something that is not immediately apparent when you read it on Kindle as I did. Every aspect of every notable item of clothing worn at a big royal event is lovingly recorded. The level of detail isn't daunting, though – as it accumulates, you get the impression of a vast pointless superstructure, literally a regime I suppose, that takes up a great deal of national attention in a modern democracy. A disproportionate amount, I was going to say as an inveterate small-r republican; but as an American doing my small part to encourage our national fixation on Presidents and their lives and families, I am not sure I'm in a position to criticize.

Brown skips much of the history of Charles and Diana, which has been told at grueling length in many other books. As a result her own narrative is somewhat elliptical, and indeed the whole book is structured more as a set of topics, organized by person (Princess Margaret; the Queen Mother) or by relationships (Charles and Camilla; William and Kate; Harry and Meghan) than as a chronicle. The general trend is chronological, though. As we near the present, Brown gets more appreciative and sympathetic, particularly to William and Kate, to the point where her exposé verges on fan-magazine treatment.

But the scandal gathers so thick when we get to the 2010s that The Palace Papers is in no danger of descending into fangirl homage. Brown writes very well on the huge UK media scandal that exposed the outright criminal lengths that latter-day paparazzi go to to track their victims. And she is forthright about Prince Andrew's horrifying intimacy with Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, who made unrepentant rape into an international celebrity lifestyle.

The Megxit material, covering several final chapters, is interestingly balanced. Meghan Markle was treated in a cavalier and at best micro-aggressive way by a family steeped in whiteness and privilege. But Brown blames the Sussexes too for their approach to remaking royalty. Among Meghan's many miscalculations was her apparent belief that she could be a famous princess and, separately, a lucrative international brand. But that was wanting it both ways, in Brown's analysis. With the enormous prominence and conspicuous consumption of royalty comes a certain not-for-profit imperative, curious to say of one of the world's richest families. They are, after all, public servants and ultimately funded by the taxpayers, and by the electorate's indulgence of their inheritances. It is too early to tell whether Meghan and Harry will become a permanently beloved independent supercouple – or whether they will wander the outskirts of celebrity like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

As I was reading The Palace Papers I kept imagining alternative histories. What if Charles had simply been able to marry Camilla in the first place; what if Andrew and later Harry (or some version thereof) had been able to follow ordinary military careers, what if … I suppose, what if, the Crown's nations, including England, Scotland, and Wales, had become a set of republics in the 1960s at the same time as Britain lost its world empire.

Republicanism, as I've said, seems to me a mighty good idea. Removing an accidental line of inheritance from the center of a political system removes the possibility of all sorts of mischief, from British prime minister Boris Johnson leveraging the Queen into proroguing Parliament in 2019 to Australian prime minister Scott Morrison leveraging the Governor General into letting him secretly take personal control of numerous cabinet ministries in 2020-21. Not that republics can't involve extra-constitutional power plays, as a couple of recent American impeachments have demonstrated. But an elected President would be more responsible to the people than the unique all-powerful nullity at the heart of the Windsor domains. Or perhaps Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. could dispense with any constitutional role for the monarch, and follow the Swedish path of a purely, instead of a merely mostly, ceremonial king or queen.

Brown mentions at several points the fears of monarchists and royals alike that the next big scandal could topple the British monarchy altogether. But they go from awful thing to awful thing and just keep getting more popular – an admirable but also perhaps pernicious legacy of Elizabeth II. The craving for institutionalized celebrity for its own sake may be universal. Politicians often gather their share of it, especially in strong-president republics like France and the United States. But I have to think that it would be a better world if we were governed by accountable functionaries, and saved our adulation for sports and music and movie stars.

Brown, Tina. The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the truth and the turmoil. New York: Crown [Penguin Random House], 2022. Kindle Edition.