Ordinary Royals


I once wore a life jacket that had been used by Prince Charles, but the only member of the British royal family that I actually met was Princess Anne.

She came to lunch with the American correspondents in London one day. She was cool and reserved, not adept at small talk or banter, but quite composed. She had just returned from a trip to several African countries, where she had visited children in poverty. She has made the world's children one of her special projects.

Retainers worked the room, gushing into reporters' ears about the princess' gutsiness. The days were long and hot, the retainers said, but she had asked no special privileges, just hung in there with the relief workers.

The panegyrics were unnecessary, for it was clear to most of us that Anne knew quite a lot about Third World poverty problems. With clarity and intelligence, she discussed the limitations of one aid program and the feasibility of another, why relief efforts might be effective in one place and be wasted in another. But for the accident of birth, she could have been a newspaper reporter, if that's a compliment.

Still, I wouldn't quarrel with the smug and silly Labor parliamentarian who told me on another occasion that he didn't mind if the little people wanted to worship a royal family; he just wished the Windsors weren't so ordinary.

He missed the point completely. An ordinary royal family is the only kind to have. If we insist on brilliance and accomplishment -- or forthat matter, moral virtue -- in our kings and queens, then we get into arguments about worthiness and the monarchy loses its value as a unifying symbol.

Suppose, for example, Prince Charles really were a competent architecture critic instead of an opinionated dilettante. He would become a divisive figure, at first in the cultural world, but also among those -- environmentalists, say, or health-care advocates -- who resented the prince's devoting his gifts to architecture instead of to their particular idea of the country's most pressing need.

As it is, Charles' traditionalist views start no fistfights. Those who agree with him, mostly lay people, feel pleased; and those who disagree, mostly architects, harbor an amused condescension.

Alas, Charles doesn't appreciate the virtue of being ordinary. Perhaps he agrees with the Labor parliamentarian that a throne is something a prince ought to deserve by virtue of his important thoughts and elevated tastes.

That, at least, is the theory of the British journalist Julie Burchill. Writing in The New Republic, she suggests that a shaming awareness of his own ordinariness accounts for Charles' professed fondness for Solzhenitsyn, Kafka and grand opera, and his disdain for the Danielle Steele novels and rock music favored by his wife. The prince's public utterings, Ms. Burchill writes, are "a horrible hybrid of American psychobabbling self-pity, German pomposity and Scandinavian introspection. . . . But being dissatisfied and being deep are not the same thing."

By contrast, Ms. Burchill says that Diana's popularity, even in the midst of a squalid public marital rift, stems from her unpretentiousness: "She was the one member of the ruling house who was actually happier among the people rather than among her people."

A century ago, Sarah Orne Jewett wrote a story about a widow who lived alone in the Maine woods and longed for Queen Victoria to come to tea. The widow had once visited London with her sea-captain husband, and she had gone to see Buckingham Palace, just at the moment the queen's carriage drove by. Victoria had looked her way, and the widow was sure that their eyes had met and that volumes of understanding had passed between them.

A queen was only a woman, the widow realized. She and Victoria both knew sorrow; both had lost their husbands. The widow often thought of her friend in Buckingham Palace, imagined that at certain times of the day Victoria might be doing the same things she herself was doing. Wouldn't it be lovely if one day the queen should come to Maine so they could sit together and take tea and open their hearts to each other?

Ordinariness is the secret of the royal family. The British people can forgive marital scandal, for they have marital scandals in their own lives. They will not forgive, nor support, a monarchy that pretends to deserve its rank.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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