Also, because there is so little material of any substance to go on, because the public is allowed to see only public events — a princess gets married, a duke gets divorced, a prince gets a job as a helicopter pilot, the queen uses the phrase “annus horribilis” in a speech — we impose on them any narrative we like. We use them as prisms for discussions of privilege, of class, of tradition, of race (in the case of Ms. Markle), of what Britain was and what it should be. We examine them through their sometimes parasitic, sometimes symbiotic relationship with the British news media, which treats them at times as if they were little more than upper-crust Kardashians.
Covering the British royal family isn’t like covering a normal family. You’re not going to get anything out of them. They’re masters of the no-content remark. Their public appearances are tightly controlled, and their activities most days — showing up at charity events, making boring remarks and leaving — are not in themselves raucously exciting to behold. When they give interviews, it’s usually to British news organizations, and always under the most anodyne of circumstances.
And of course they’re not our royal family, so it’s hard to regard them with anything like the awe they provoke in pro-monarchy Britons. (Many Britons, of course, wish they would just go away.) I’ve met a few of them, and I can report that they are much as you might imagine, only more so.
Once, at a meet-the-princess lunch, I watched Diana reduce a bunch of seasoned (male) American foreign correspondents to spineless blobs of obsequious jelly competing to express their sympathy for how hard her life must be and bragging about how arduous their jobs were. (“Richard Gere is renting a house down the street from me, and so I can see something of what you must go through every day with the paparazzi,” said one. “I work for a newspaper in Los Angeles, and have to write on deadline with an eight-hour time difference,” said another.)
My favorite royal encounter happened to an American friend some years ago. It was at a fancy party outside London at which the queen was a surprise guest. My friend had not yet had dinner, but she had had several glasses of Champagne.
A receiving line formed. The queen stood next to an aide whose job it was to whisper in her ear a little tidbit about the identity of each new person, including where they come from.
“I understand that you’re from Texas,” she said, as the line moved along. My friend, addled by drink and confused by the queen’s clipped accent, thought she said “Have you paid your taxes?”
And so she responded the way any American would, when asked such a personal question by a British monarch. Looking at the queen with her best republican expression, she declared, “No taxation without representation!”
And that was the end of the conversation.