It is one of the rites of parenthood to look at your sleeping baby and wonder what path he or she will take: Will she be a mountain climber? A painter? An actuary? Then you back away – carefully, in case she starts screaming – and think: She can be anything; her world is unwritten.
There is one baby, however, whose future is already written. You may have heard about this child, whose imminent arrival caused news crews to gather in the sweltering heat outside St Mary’s Hospital in London. In their first few weeks as parents to Baby Windsor, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will wonder many things – is he supposed to make those noises? When will he ever go to sleep? – but they will not wonder if they’ve spawned a future notary public. There is a crown in the Tower of London that will one day sit on Baby Windsor’s head.
Of course, things could change. Baby Windsor could follow the path of his great-great uncle and decide he doesn’t want to be king. Perhaps there won’t be a crown to inherit; a republic might rise in place of the monarchy. But, all things continuing in a conservative direction, that tot is headed throne-ward.
How claustrophobic it must be to have a path laid out for you from birth. No wonder, then, that the theme of escape runs like a gilded ribbon through royal literature. Some girls want to be princesses; some princesses just want to be girls. The jaded newspaper reporter in Roman Holiday asks the runaway princess what she’d do if she could slip the prison of the palace: “Oh,” says Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann, “I’d just do whatever I liked, all day long.”
Roman Holiday was released in 1953, when princesses were the height of glamour: Lovely young Elizabeth had just become Queen, and in a few years Grace Kelly would marry the prince of a fairytale kingdom (built on arrivistes’ gambling money, but hey, never look too closely at fairy tales.) Roman Holiday is the most astringent of romances, peeling back the glamour of palace life to show that it’s more like a small-town registry office, all bureaucracy and bylaws. Princess Ann runs away and, incognito, spends a magical day eating gelato, getting into fistfights, and falling in love, but in the end she succumbs to pressure and returns to her royal duties. Is she a good soldier, or a coward?
In Monica Ali’s novel Untold Story, Lady Diana Spencer fakes her death and moves to small-town America. “She had had enough,” writes Ms. Ali, “more than anyone should be expected to endure.” Disguised by plastic surgery, crippled by the thought that she’s damaged her sons, Diana (now named Lydia) works in a dog shelter and spends her days wondering if she’s done the right thing. Ms. Ali argues that the world had placed the world’s most famous woman in an untenable position: “The cognitive dissonance of spending one day talking to amputees in Sarajevo and the next being pursued by paparazzi while wearing a tiger-print bathing suit is hardly a recipe for emotional stability.”
In real life, of course, Diana was always trying to slip her bonds, She visited a gay bar disguised as handsome boy with her friend Freddie Mercury, and a posh nightclub disguised as a policewoman with Sarah Ferguson. She delighted in hiding from paparazzi under baseball caps. In the end she couldn’t hide, and, summoning photographers at will, didn’t want to. This is the princess paradox.
Diana appears in Sue Townsend’s 1992 satirical novel The Queen and I “dressed for adversity in denim and cowboy boots.” In the book, Britain has become a republic and the royal family sent to live on a pestilent council estate that the locals call Hell Close (“What’s that?” a neighbour asks when the Queen hangs a painting. “It’s a Titian,” she says.).
The neighbours are confounded: “How do you talk to someone whose head you’re used to licking and putting on an envelope?” The Queen slices open her finger on a can of Spam and encounters the wonders of the NHS. Prince Philip is miserable, but Prince Charles is ecstatic, free to grow a pony tail, buy a stolen VCR and live in his tiny garden. “I’ve never been so happy,” says Charles. “I am, at this moment, deliriously happy.” Ms. Townsend cleverly suggests that, liberated from palace protocol, Charles would essentially be the same person, only less annoying.
The tension between duty and desire has an understandable power for dramatists. The Queen seems entirely comfortable with her lot in life, and if she isn’t, she’s not saying. It was entirely different for her father and mother, thrust from the corner of some dank Scottish castle into the spotlight of empire with Edward VIII’s abdication. (There is a television movie titled, Bertie and Elizabeth: The Reluctant Royals.)
In fact, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother, turned down repeated offers of marriage from Prince Albert, who later became King George VI, in part because she couldn’t imagine living in the royal cage, famously writing that she was “afraid never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to.” Much of the Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech centres on George VI’s rage at having to take the throne. “What is he, an indentured servant?” asks the speech therapist before meeting his new patient, the future king. “Something like that,” responds the future queen.
The fact that he sucked it up and became a good king in a terrible time is part of the story that Britain tells itself. He did his duty. In a country where “mustn’t grumble” is close to being a national motto, that’s the only satisfying narrative.
William Shakespeare knew as much. His cynical, roustabout Prince Hal would much rather hang about the stews of Southwark with whores and thieves than practise diplomacy in Westminster. “Riot and dishonour stain the brow/Of my young Harry,” laments his father, Henry IV.
Later, Hal will reveal to the audience that his caddish ways are a ploy so that his future exploits as king will seem even more glorious by contrast. He never really wanted to escape the crown, as he reveals when he dismisses his surrogate father Falstaff in one of the most brutal moments in literature: “I know thee not, old man.” Kings and queens are loyal to their destinies and their kin, and the dream of being a commoner is mere passing fancy. That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.