The announcement may have been a striking preemptive move, with Prince Harry reportedly defying the explicit instructions of his grandmother the queen not to announce that he and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, would “step back” from royal life. Yet this is hardly the most dramatic rupture the family has suffered. Queen Elizabeth II is on the throne precisely because of such a rift: Her father became king after her uncle abdicated the throne to marry a divorced woman and went into exile. Three of the queen’s four children have subsequently divorced themselves, one in breathtakingly acrimonious fashion. The Sussexes’ bombshell is nothing compared with the late Princess Diana’s confessional collaborations with the journalists Andrew Morton and Martin Bashir, undertaken in an effort to get first Prince Charles and her in-laws, and then the British public, to understand her pain.
Maybe this constant state of royal breakdown is understandable. The House of Windsor is spectacularly privileged, but its members are also under tremendous pressure. Those of us on the outside might sigh over the decor and imagine what we might do with 20 million pounds a year (about $26 million). But I’m not sure most of us could name the actual salary we’d like to be paid for surrendering our personalities, performing an endless array of ceremonial but crushingly dull appearances, and doing it all while submitting to pantyhose (the female royals) and exhaustingly personal media criticism (both genders, but it’s worse for the women) every day.
Can you imagine being told by your mother that no one actually cares about you as an individual, as Queen Elizabeth II does to Prince Charles in this season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” a show that may be fictionalized but is deeply rooted in fact? What would you have to be paid if you knew you were going to have to fight a years-long struggle to get your family to acknowledge your bulimia and other mental health issues, as Diana did in real life? The idea that Meghan Markle was going to transform the Windsors into a breezily diverse, egalitarian bunch by marrying into the family was always more aspirational than reasonable, a white dress and tiara acting as camouflage for the futility of it all.
A surface reading might present Harry’s desire to break away from the parts of royal life he finds stultifying as a victory his mother could have been proud of. But, as Tina Brown noted in “The Diana Chronicles,” Diana’s definition of victory was not always reliable. “She thought this deafening public scream would solve the matter once and for all,” Brown wrote of Diana’s decision to collaborate with Morton on a tell-all book. “It was her pattern, the belief that a single volcanic act could fix everything.”
So far, Harry’s story has a happier ending than his mother’s. He is stepping back as a senior royal with his marriage intact. He and his wife do appear to have some plan for the days to come, or at least a new website with a Frequently Asked Questions section. And yet there are certain chilly echoes between Diana’s defenestration from the royal family and the departure of her younger son.
When Diana announced that she had agreed to a divorce from the Prince of Wales, Buckingham Palace declared frostily that “this will take time.” This time around, there was perhaps a hint less condescension in the official statement that “We understand [the Sussexes’] desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.”
That hint of steel should be a caution to anyone who is busily revising Harry and Meghan’s escape into a modern fairy tale, one in which the duchess rescues the prince and carries him off to a happily-ever-after in Canada. The thing about riding off into the sunset is that, depending on the terms of your departure, it means leaving your once-beloved brother, father and grandmother behind. The folly would be in forgetting what kind of story this is, and refusing to see that another word for “drama” is “pain.”