Sunday, May 1, 2011

Everyone loves a wedding

Prince William married Kate Middleton this past Friday, April 29th, at Westminster Abbey in London. The event was viewed worldwide and it was estimated that one million Britons lined the streets from the church to Buckingham Palace so as to catch a glimpse of the royal couple as they made their way to Buckingham Palace where they shared not only one but two kisses. The bride looked beautiful; it was her day, her wedding dress was lovely, elegant and stylish (like she is) and Prince William looked handsome and proper. The bride’s sister also looked very pretty; her dress was lovely and she looked as though she was very happy for her sister. Prince Charles and Camilla, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and Prince Harry all played their roles well and all looked to be enjoying the day. But the day belonged to the married couple as well it should. They seem to love and respect each other. One can only hope that their marriage will not go the way of previous royal marriages in Britain—Diana and Charles, Andrew and Fergie, and so on. There are no guarantees in the fishbowl of public life that awaits them.

I am not going to review British history or the history of the monarchy. It doesn’t interest me all that much and frankly, I am not a monarchist. I can honestly say that at the same time that I enjoyed watching parts of this royal wedding as well as other royal weddings, for example, those that have taken place in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden in the past decade or so. Each of these countries has a monarchy, and during the past decade, the children of the reigning monarchs have gotten married and produced heirs. Some of them have also divorced and remarried. There have been scandals in Scandinavia just like there have been in England, albeit much less in-your-face than those in Britain. The difference is that in Scandinavia, there is much less pomp and propriety in the royalty compared to the English royalty, and that takes the pressure off the royals to a degree. Most official happenings are more ‘toned-down’ in Scandinavia generally. For example, the Norwegian prince Haakon married a commoner who for all intents and purposes was quite a lost soul before she fell in love with him. Her life had taken some odd twists and turns before she turned her life around by marrying him. Their wedding, and the reception that followed it, was televised. There were a number of poignant moments—in the church, at the reception—you saw and felt the bride’s gratitude and joy at having been given the chance to have a new life. The media were asked not to delve into or to publish anything about her previous life, save for the fact that she was a single mother of a young son. It would have been unimaginable to have tried to do the same in Britain. The British media would have had a field day dissecting her earlier life every which way which might have resulted in their not marrying. And so it goes. It was perhaps a bit shocking for the Norwegian people to first accept the idea of a single mother as the future queen. But they did and it is no longer referred to or talked about. In Denmark, one of the princes has gotten divorced and remarried; his ex-wife has also remarried. The reason for the split? His constant need to party and to frequent the local bars, flirting with any and all women in sight. He does not seem to be doing this to his second wife, but God only knows, really. We don’t hear about it all until it explodes, and that seems to be the way things are done in Scandinavia. All the bad behavior and improprieties are swept under the carpet until there is no more room and then there is no more possibility to hide or to pretend that everything is fine.

I remember watching parts of the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981; I was on vacation in Montreal (Canada) at the time and caught some of the wedding on the TV in the hotel where I was staying. Their wedding made a small impression on me, but what made a larger impression was the circus that came afterward—years of married life probed and dissected at all angles. Diana photographed at all angles, everywhere she went. She went from being a shy unassuming nineteen year-old to being a fashionista and superstar---a celebrity who outshined her more staid husband in every way. She was a beautiful young woman who radiated empathy and compassion and insecurity; she made you feel for her, whether it was sorry for her or just simply liking her for whom she was. She grew into her role as princess; no one seemed to help her or seemed to care that she was floundering. Least of all Charles, who took up his affair with his first love, Camilla, shortly after the births of his sons. Diana did not take kindly to the idea of his having a mistress, and was vocal about it. She did not accept her role as the suffering wife in silence. What always strikes me is that she was so completely naïve about the fact that many of the British royals had affairs, so that it is that much more touching that she actually believed in love and fidelity when she married. Charles may have loved her initially, but he had been denied his right to marry the woman (Camilla) he loved because she was not a virgin, so he did what was expected of him in the public eye but lived his life as he saw fit. We learned all this via the countless TV and newspaper stories that bombarded us at all turns. As Diana’s popularity grew, Charles’ diminished, and that could not have been good for their marriage. But one can imagine Diana’s sense of betrayal, her anger, her sadness, and her inability to accept her role as betrayed wife. She was probably told countless numbers of times to just ‘accept’ her fate, that men were like this, that there was nothing to do about it, to raise her children and to keep her mouth shut. Her inability to accept her fate as well as her desire to punish Charles led to the soap opera that their lives became. But it is exactly that soap opera that changed the British monarchy, to the point where William could marry Kate, a woman he had known for ten years and with whom he had already lived. If Diana’s death changed anything, it created possibilities where there were none before. I remember when Diana died in August 1997; I was glued to the TV along with the millions of other people who sat and watched what transpired in a kind of shock. It didn’t seem possible that someone so beautiful and kind could die so young. And yet she did. I was in Oxford England to attend a scientific conference in September that same year, and it was unbelievable to wander the streets and come to the town center and see the thousands of floral bouquets that people were still placing at public monuments in memory of her. It was incredibly moving to witness. What strikes me when I think of Diana is that she took the energy that she had once given to her marriage and transferred it to her charitable causes. She did not crawl into a cave and wither after her divorce. She remained the important public figure she was. So that somehow, you went from feeling sorry for her to feeling happy for her; she had transformed her life, from sadness to joy. She had her children who loved her and she them.  She was on the verge of starting her new life when she was cut down. It gave her legendary status.

So when I watched the wedding of William and Kate, I was reminded of all the earlier royal weddings to which we have been witness. Reminded of all the promises to love until ‘death do us part’, to love each other ‘in sickness and in health’. It is easy to say those words when you are young and in love, quite another thing to live them and to honor those vows when sickness and hard times hit. Few people are around to provide TV coverage, support, medals or applause for that. A wedding is not a marriage, and no matter how fairytale the wedding, there is no guarantee that the marriage will be likewise. I am glad that my country is not a monarchy; glad that we do not have to spend inordinate sums as taxpayers to help support an outdated system. While the monarchy is interesting from a historical perspective, it does not fascinate in the present. When I look at monarchies, all I see are fallible human beings, often trapped in lives that are conservative and emotionally-stifling. I don’t see the point of monarchies anymore. And if one looks briefly back into history, or if one reads British novels, it is not hard to see that the royalty and the wealthy lived incredibly privileged lives, whereas the poor and middle class, who were taxed to support them, did not. This aspect is also less extreme in Scandinavia; the royalty live well but the standard of living otherwise for the ‘commoners’ is quite high. The question then becomes—what role does the monarchy play these days? What is its function and why is it important to keep a monarchy? I know how I would answer, but I am the ‘rude’ American who is not steeped in centuries of history. It is one thing to watch the royal weddings and scandals on TV and to comment on wedding dresses, hats and the like, quite another to assess the impact of the monarchy on modern society. It has been said that they are good for tourism and charitable causes, and if so, that is a good thing. But still I believe a discussion of their true worth is warranted, especially in England. 

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