It really doesn't make any sense, this immense amount of curiosity and interest I have in the doings of the House of Windsor. After all, I detest inherited privilege and wealth. And I'm the widow of an Irishman for whom ``those bloody Brits'' was a frequent expression of contempt.
But there I was last week, watching every minute of the wedding and obsessively reading all the coverage in every U.K. newspaper available on line, and most U.S. publications too.
And yes, I bought a commemorative coffee mug on eBay, and also scored one of those odd made-In-China mugs created in a factory whose foreman who probably thought white dudes all look alike, and who substituted a photo of Prince Harry for Prince William.
I don't think my interest is because of all the fantasy and fairy tale stuff. I've read enough about the House of Windsor (and its predecessor dynasty) to know that things are often tough inside those palace walls, even if Prince Charles has a butler who squeezes the prince's toothpaste on the prince's toothbrush twice a day.
Maybe it's because it's a family that, for historic reasons and now, enabled by technology, it's possible to observe very closely, to a degree that would be rude and intrusive to people I actually know. We journalists are all voyeurs at heart, you know. And part of it is probably my magpie brain that pecks away at anything shiny and brings it home.
My friend Thalia always talks about how the two of us have more information stored in our heads that won't earn us money. In my case, a lot of those factoids have to do with Elizabeth and her kinfolk.
It started years ago at the time of the Coronation. My favorite aunt and uncle had a boarder, a British ``maiden lady,'' as unmarried women of a certain age were once deemed, who was the parish secretary. She gave me a copy of the coronation edition of the British version of Town & Country and I poured over it, reading it obsessively, and even now remember many of the details it revealed. Did you know that dukes have four rows of ermine tails -- actually sealskin spots-- on their coronation robes and that their coronets have eight strawberry leaves? I do. I also know that the cloth-of-gold canopy is held over the sovereign's head by four Knights of the Garter. Never play Coronation trivial pursuit with me because you will lose for sure.
I wrote a poem about the Coronation when I was in 4th grade and it got me into big trouble at school. I remember that it had two stanzas of 12 lines each, while everyone else in the class composed a rhyming couplet of two lines of iambic pentameter. My teacher didn't believe mine was original work, and I was sent home from school in disgrace because of the alleged plagiarism. She didn't understand that I had read so much about the coronation that I had lots of imagery on which to draw. If you aren't old enough to have seen it on TV in 1953, here's a little archival footage of the Coronation with overblown commentary from the Beeb.
Maybe it was in 5th grade that I realized that there had been a Queen Victoria. I knew no one else with that name, so became very interested in her. Read several full-length biographies of her, including Lytton Strachey's before I was out of grade school. I realized that although her name and her era were synonymous with prudery, she was, in fact, a lusty Hanoverian, who was passionately in love with her husband, and who pined desperately for him until the day she died. This trailer from ``The Young Victoria'' makes this abundantly clear.
And once I read about Queen Victoria, I became equally interested in her descendants. The fact that so many of them had hemophilia was particularly compelling as in my family, we have von Willebrand disease, which is a non sex-linked form of hemophilia. It seems such an odd coincidence.
Poor deaf -- but oh so elegant -- red-haired Queen Alexandra was interesting. Like Diana, she had a husband -- Queen Victoria's eldest son-- who had to wait years and years and years to assume the throne, and who had mistresses right and left, including one who actually was Camilla Parker-Bowles' great-grandmother. Now that's irony! Here's a little video biography of Queen Alexandra.
And then there's German-speaking May of Teck, who was engaged to the heir to the British throne. He died suddenly of pneumonia six weeks into the engagement, and what the heck, her marriage was then arranged to his next oldest brother (the King George who was Queen Elizabeth's grandfather). Queen Mary, as she became, was haughty, imperious and may, in fact, have contributed to her son Bertie's terrible stammering problem. During World War I, she had her chauffeur drive her around the British countryside, gathering of scrap metal to be recycled into armaments. Only, for the most part, what was gathered up was working farm machinery that courtiers had to return very quietly the next day. Here's a brief video bio of this queen.
Her son Edward VIII abdicated from the throne to marry the woman he loved, who was by most accounts a rather brittle, unintelligent, mean-spirited and twice-divorced Baltimore native. Their political views were so shocking -- they did hang out with Hitler -- that they had to be banished to the Bahamas for the duration of the war in hopes of avoiding huge embarrassment or worse to the U.K. Here's the abdication speech in his own voice.
Most everyone is probably up to speed on Queen Elizabeth's parents after seeking the excellent film ``The King's Speech'' which won so many Academy Awards this year. If you've missed it, do check it out. It's very well done, with great performances by a trio of actors. Here's the trailer, if you've missed it.
When I was a child, I read The Little Princesses, a biography of the present queen and her sister as children, written by Marion Crawford, their governess. LIfe with governesses and ponies, and coronation dresses were so far from the world I inhabited as to be unimaginable.
And always playing in the background, of course, was the religion issue. Naturally British history in a Catholic school leans heavily toward Henry VIII, his many wives, and his rejection of Papal orders, and the persecution of the Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I, including what became known as ``The Bloody Question.'' It really seemed strange to me that a king or queen could be head of a church that was so similar to, but so unlike the church of Rome. I was shocked the first time I realized the Archbishop of Canterbury was an Anglican. After all Thomas a Becket, the pre-Reformation bishop who was hacked to death at Canterbury Cathedral, was one of ``our'' saints. Those lines from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales remain locked in my memory more tightly than almost anything else I've had to memorize:
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke
I remember seeing photos of Prince Charles and his siblings as they were growing up, a few years younger than I. They wore such odd clothes, I thought. I remember one photo of Charles as a little boy wearing what looked to my eyes to be a girl's winter coat with Mary Jane shoes and white socks. Even as a little boy, he almost always wore a necktie, something the boys I knew wore once for their first communions and never again until they were in high school.
I got up in the middle of the night to watch Charles and Diana's wedding. My first marriage was ending and I can remember watching this wedding with such sadness, wondering if this 19-year-old virgin and Charles, like my first husband and I, were from two such different planets that, finally, any rapprochement was impossible. If you've managed to escape all the rerun footage of their wedding this past week, here's a small taste.
Diana died the same year I became a widow. I was living in a friend's basement, waiting for my loft to be finished so I could move in. I kept trying to watch the funeral on TV, much to the bemusement of the friend with whom I was staying. The wave of grief that swept the UK was very different from what I had experienced when my husband died, and I reflected on the different effect a sudden accidental death has on a family as opposed to the slow relentless pace at which AIDS nibbled away at what was left of my husband. What I will always remember best about that funeral is Sir John Tavener's heartbreakingly beautiful ``Song for Athene'' sung as a recessional, with the only other sound coming from the shoes of the Welsh Guard members bearing her coffin on their shoulders.
And now it's 14 years later. It's a new beginning for the house of Windsor that certainly has had its self-inflicted wounds over the past two decades. If the wedding is any indication, it now looks like someone who is advising the court has a better sense of the world outside the palace walls than was the case back when Charles and DIana married, or even when she died.
As I listened to the Bishop of London's homily at the wedding, I heard many good words of advice, advice that would have been in good stead for the beginning of any marriage. I truly wish I'd heard some of them when I was married the first time. He seemed to say what I would say were I to officiate at a wedding (and by the way, I do have ULC credentials and can do so, if you're interested). Here's the homily.
I saw a young couple whose body language eloquently spoke of their regard and respect for one another. And there were a few moments that really surprised me, such as seeing Prince Charles pick up one of the 3-year-old bridesmaids and hold her very gently on the balcony so she could see the throngs below. Another little bridesmaid's frowny face peering over the balcony as the bride and groom kiss probably makes for one of the most memorable and fun wedding photos. I liked the grace and dignity with which the bride's parents comported themselves. And the greenery in the abbey, including jasmine just like the vine growing in my garden, was such a refreshing change from overdone baroque flower arrangements.
Yes, I loved seeing the frocks. I hope the wedding dress begins a trend as I am very very tired of all the A-line strapless wedding dresses that have been de rigeur for the weddings of the past decade. The bride's dress was very beautiful, I thought, and I enjoyed reading this story in the UK's Daily Mail about how the secret of its details was kept. I was fascinated by the fascinators and I can see that next Ostara, we will have to make ourselves fascinators to wear to the ritual. I laughed my head off at Beatrice's hat (hat?) that resembled a cross between a diagram of the female reproductive system and a set of felt reindeer antlers. People are having way too much fun with her hat, as this video indicates.
And now the wedding is over and done, and instead of steaming off on the Royal Britannia yacht as Charles and Diana did, they have returned to a farmhouse in Wales and Prince William will be back on the job as a search-and-rescue pilot Monday morning. Somehow this part of the story goes at least a few English miles toward mitigating the whole wealth-and-privilege thing.