When I told a friend that my daughter had been making anti-royal flags for the day of the Middleton-Windsor bash, she reproved me: “Every little girl should fantasize about being a princess!”
I disagreed, of course. I’ve nothing against children fantasizing about being princesses, just as I’ve nothing against them playing at dinosaurs (though I’d jib at either being made compulsory); but the former isn’t really an argument for monarchy any more than the latter is one for turning Britain into Jurassic Park.
I thought no more about the exchange until a couple of days later, when I was catching up with another friend, who writes fantasy fiction for adults. She mentioned that, although she is herself a republican, she is often assumed by her readers to be a monarchist because she writes about medievalesque fantasy worlds featuring kings and queens: “Whereas I spend most of my time showing what’s wrong with monarchies!” The trouble is that if you write about a Bad King in a medievalesque fantasy, people won’t respond by demanding full emancipation under a proportional STV system – they’ll ask for a Good King instead. Every genre comes with its own conventions, built into the DNA of its fictional worlds. It’s hard to mount an internal critique without evoking Dennis, the anarchist peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government!”
Where does the border between fantasy and reality lie in these cases? Oddly, many of the fantasy novels that most enthusiastically recount quests to restore True Heirs to their empty or usurped thrones are written by United States citizens who would reach for their muskets if it were suggested that the same thing should happen in their own country. Monarchist fictions have some kind of appeal for these writers and their readership – but what kind, if not a political one? We can blame the Disney Corporation for ensuring that millions spend their childhoods steeped in a flamingo-pink princess marinade, but that merely shifts the question, to one of why there is such a ready market for this feudal fantasy. (It’s a very selective feudalism, of course: not many children fantasize about being serfs.) One is tempted to summon Freud to account for its appeal, or perhaps Jung with his toolkit of archetypes, but as someone who appears to have missed out on the royalist gene, I’ll leave it others to explain.
If it were only a matter of fantasy, I don’t think this would bother me much. However, when it comes to royalty there is a strange porousness about the boundary between fantasy and reality. There’s my friend, for example, who believes that playing princess is incompatible with being a republican in real life. And the Americans, while they may claim they like royalty only in stories, still spent vast sums covering last week’s event. I think it’s safe to say that many, if not most, of the two billion people who watched the wedding worldwide did so not in order to express their approbation of monarchy as a system, but to indulge a vicarious fantasy about royalty and the associated pomp. (I’m not sure what “pomp” is, but it’s one of those things the royals seem to have bagged for their own use, like swans.)
Having talked to monarchists over the last few weeks, I get the impression that relatively few people really believe that choosing the head of state by means genetic accident is rationally defensible, but they value monarchy for its appeal to something beyond reason, something about identity, continuity and hierarchy that operates at a symbolic level – at the level of fantasy, in fact. And it’s true that we all get through our lives in part by using fantasy to add meaning and significance to drab reality. We all have our rituals, our treasured moments that seem to “mean” more than others, our special people and places. Seeing the ways in which these aspects of our lives intertwine with the quotidian is something I find fascinating as a writer and as a human being. I can well believe that the monarchical fantasy serves some such purpose for those who like it, even though it leaves me cold. (Specifically, this fantasy baffles me because it seems to contradict rather than enhance the positive values I associate with Britishness: for example, I don’t see how a sense of fairness is in any way enriched by a system based on the fetishization of unearned privilege – but, as I said above, I must leave that to others to explain.)
The interesting thing is that, in many ways, monarchy has survived in this country largely by pretending to be a fantasy, by trading on its symbolism and moving itself as far away as possible from the visible levers of power. It uses its glamour in the old-fashioned sense of the word, as a form of legerdemain. For, while the monarch has little direct power by comparison with some of her predecessors, she stands at the apex of a system that has been remarkably (if discreetly) effective in retaining both influence and wealth. In terms of land ownership, Britain remains effectively a feudal country, with two-thirds of the land owned by a mere 160,000 (mostly aristocratic) people – just 0.3% of the population. The honours system keeps politicians and civil servants quiescent, the jewel-encrusted carrot of hope being more effective than a knobbly blackthorn for this purpose. And whilst we fret about which voting system is best for the House of Commons, we seem remarkably unfussed that half our legislature has no democratic component whatsoever. A flash of ermine, a dazzle of diamonds, and we flip into fairy-tale mode. Robes and furred gowns hide all.
This traffic between fantasy and reality also runs in the other direction – at least for me. I don’t much care for books in which True Heirs get restored and it’s the taken-for-granted duty of ordinary people to die in order to achieve this consummation. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1915 Ruritanian novel The Lost Prince may be a little old-fashioned as a real-world adventure story, but its assumptions are in perennial vogue in fantasy.
Historically, however, it’s not a fantasy at all. Today is the 540th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury, at which Edward IV finally defeated Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses, at the cost of some 3,000 lives. A decade earlier, at Towton, he had defeated him less decisively in the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil, leaving some 28,000 dead. Like many of our famous battles from Crecy to Culloden, the Wars of the Roses were primarily a family dispute about who was the True Heir, and the disputants had no hesitation in seeing thousands who had nothing to lose or gain by the outcome hacked to pieces in their cause. It’s a longstanding tradition, but not one I feel like celebrating in fiction, or dressing up with the conventional lie that the True Heir is always a good person, and the Usurper always a pernicious tyrant.
Maybe, in fact, I have more in common with my princess-loving friend than I first thought. Neither of us believes there is an impermeable cordon sanitaire between the games you play, the stories you tell, and the beliefs you hold. The difference is, of course, that her beliefs are Wrong and mine are Right.
Maybe I should simply have said that at the start?