The Instagram post that rocked the royal world on Wednesday was deceptively simple: a candid photograph of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on the day their engagement was announced. The caption served as a new announcement, this one stating the intention of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to step back from their roles as “senior” members of the British royal family, become financially independent and split their time between North America and Britain. While their post was respectful to the queen and Buckingham Palace, it was also clear: We’re out of here, and you can’t stop us. It was the royal announcement version of your cat staring you in the face as it knocks your water glass onto the floor.
As surprising as the move was to royal lovers and haters alike, it felt uncannily familiar to me — and not so surprising at all. The Sussexes’ brand of royal rebellion rarely happens in real life. But it happens in fiction. Mine, to be specific. In my romance novels, princesses save princes, the heroines exercise agency, the royal lovers escape their gilded bubbles and dysfunctional families, and the greater the obstacles the more surely the couples arrive at their happily ever afters. Oh, and the princesses are black. At the time I was writing “A Princess in Theory,” in which a harried graduate student starts receiving spam mail saying she’s betrothed to an African prince that turns out to not be spam mail, the main conversation around princesses in fiction had largely been reduced to slogans like “Forget princess, I want to be a scientist.” This well-intentioned and reductive argument itself ignored the fact that real princesses possess other skills and ambitions outside of being royalty. We were told that wanting to see ourselves in fantasies replete with ball gowns and crowns was regressive — ignoring that many of us, those who weren’t white, cis and straight, had never been allowed to consider ourselves princess material in the first place. (My heroine Naledi is an epidemiologist as well as a princess, because why not both?)
And then along came Meghan Markle.
My Reluctant Royals series of novels explores themes similar to the ones facing Meghan and Harry: How do you handle the punishing expectations of being a royal, from having little choice in whom you marry to your personal life being fodder for public consumption? How do you distance yourself from family members who have harmed you, even if you still love them? And, most pointedly, how does the world treat black women who dare value themselves as highly as white aristocrats?
It might seem silly to pay so much attention to what is essentially a family matter, but Meghan and Harry’s “progressive” move away from the royal family is important in a world where boundaries are undervalued and abusive family patterns are set. In previous royal marriages, including those shared by Harry’s parents, Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, and his older brother and sister-in-law, Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, someone has to take one for the team. If a prince is unfaithful, well, that’s just the way of things, and the wife should keep her chin up and pretend nothing is amiss. If the media relentlessly target a woman who marries into royalty, well, she knew what she was getting into. Breaking the mold was simply not done.
But Harry, the spare to William’s heir, went and fell in love with and married an American — a divorced, biracial actress — and that set the couple up to become the family scapegoats, with the bonus of virulent racism to draw attention away from inconvenient things like royal affairs (there have been unconfirmed rumors that William had one) and friendships with convicted sex offenders (Charles’s brother Prince Andrew palled around with Jeffrey Epstein). While no one has to care about any of the royals — the British monarchy is a musty and parasitic institution, after all — the vehemence of attacks against Meghan is rooted in the fact that her mother is black, she is biracial, and a whole lot of people are racist. (If seeing the word “racist” makes you upset, you’re racist, too; sorry, I don’t make the rules.)
Meghan was thrust into an escalating nightmare of privacy invasion and public humiliation, as the tabloids and hordes of Meghan-haters online eagerly picked apart her every action to discover evidence of her classlessness, her rudeness and her diva behavior. There was that early headline describing her as “(almost) straight outta Compton,” and the comment by the sister of soon-to-be Prime Minister Boris Johnson that she had “exotic DNA.” A BBC Radio commentator tweeted a picture of a baby chimpanzee when the birth of the Sussexes’ son, Archie, was announced.
For his part, Harry was made to relive the cycle his mother went through. And they were both supposed to go along with all this, for the greater good.
It’s clear that they tried to compromise. Harry took legal action and made this emotional appeal in the fall: “My deepest fear is history repeating itself. I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”
It didn’t work.
How much did the British tabloids’ brutal coverage of Harry and Meghan impact their decision to ‘step back’?
Shortly afterward, we saw the stark pain in Meghan’s eyes during an interview in an ITV documentary that seemed designed to show people that their unkindness has a real human target. After being asked if she was okay, she appears on the verge of tears. “Thank you for asking,” she said, gathering herself. “Not many people have asked if I’m okay.”
The media and rabid Meghan foes seemed to grow even more angry — how dare they expect pity? And the royal family? They did nothing. So, Meghan and Harry stopped history from repeating itself; they broke the dysfunctional cycle and wrote their own happily ever after. In this new storybook ending, people don’t have to wallow in the toxic mire because that’s how things are in this family. Black women don’t have to stay strong in the face of racist vitriol as some kind of perverse toll for being in the public eye. You can pack your bags and leave, and even the disappointment of the queen of England can’t stop you.
While some people might say that this is just another tantrum by rich, privileged people, the announcement (and the backlash) struck home for me, with its faint echo in the recent implosion of the Romance Writers of America, the country’s biggest professional writers’ organization. The incident has been widely misreported as a well-known romance author and diversity advocate being censured for publicly calling out a racist book, but in reality this was the painful culmination of years of authors of color and others trying to make the organization — which was founded by a black woman — a business association that advocated for all of its members, and being rebuffed.
Like Meghan, many of us eagerly joined to perhaps fix from the inside an institution that seemed determined to keep people like us out (while profiting from our presence, of course). Like Meghan, we realized it isn’t our job to fix people who harm us or to dredge toxic institutions. She and Harry broke the cycle by leaving; marginalized romance writers, including me, did the same.
Look at the picture Harry and Meghan used for the announcement. You don’t choose just any photo in the camera roll for giving a historic nose-thumbing to the royal family, after all, especially when they’re your family. Harry is beaming at Meghan — he even seems to be pointing toward her. I choose her. Meghan looks giddy — as if she’s just spotted a glowing EXIT (from this dysfunctional mess) sign in the distance, but she’s holding on to Harry with both hands.
While the palace isn’t pleased, I can say, with the authority of an expert, that as far as storybook endings go, this one is pretty perfect.
Let’s hope we’ll all get our happily ever afters.