Nostalgia

Prince William Is Engaged; Do Royal Weddings Still Matter?

Prince William and Kate Middleton

Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton watch an England versus Italy rugby match at Twickenham stadium in London in 2007. David Davies/Associated Press hide caption

itoggle caption David Davies/Associated Press

The strangest thing about the engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton is how normal it seems. They met at school. They've been dating for eight years. They broke up once — or at least they said they did — but they got back together. And now, next spring or summer, there's going to be another royal wedding.

In the summer of 1981, when Prince William's parents, Prince Charles and then-Lady Diana Spencer, were married, it was a massive cultural event — even in the U.S. Televised live (I remember, because my family was traveling in California and I got up insanely early to watch it at my aunt's apartment), it had a thoroughly old-fashioned royal-wedding narrative: she's so young and shy and pretty, and look at her dress, and look at the hats, and look at this strangely beautiful spectacle that we don't have here. Civics class teaches that we're glad we don't have a monarchy, but a royal wedding certainly seemed like the day to have one. It was greeted in many corners like a live-action Disney cartoon. Oh, sigh, imagine.

It wasn't until later that it all began to look like such a deeply sad undertaking.

It's one thing to acknowledge the unusual lives of royalty and the fact that people aren't free to marry entirely for love; it's another to learn that there is little affection in a particular situation at all. Over time, there were the interviews, the revelations of third-party involvement, the divorce.

And then, of course, there was Diana's death in 1997, which set off an equally overblown spectacle of public grief and then a debate about that grief, and whether it was an impressive display of hard-earned affection and sympathy for her or a grandiose display of false feeling and our creeping cultural need to overshare.

That entire sequence of events, along with the less horrifying but also thoroughly non-storybook story of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson (the original Fergie, as those of us whose cultural awareness pre-dates The Black Eyed Peas might think of her), might be expected to rob royal weddings of their appeal. Aren't two divorced princes (plus a less sensationally divorced Princess Anne) adequate to instill some level of skepticism? Haven't we learned not to trust this particular bit of pageantry? We've seen Helen Mirren as the Queen, we've read the revelations from a variety of Diana biographies ... isn't the accumulated tarnish enough to kill the shine?

In this case, almost certainly not. As with many bad marriages, the one good thing that seemed to come from that 1981 union was that they had kids they loved. And even if you think monarchies are silly and archaic, and even if you couldn't bear the chest-pounding hysteria surrounding Diana's death, it was very difficult not to be moved by the sight of her sons walking behind her casket. It seemed to cement the princes' position in the public mind; they are always, to some degree, those broken-looking boys staring at their shoes.

Prince Charles walks with his family outside Westminister Abbey after Princess Diana's funeral.

Prince Phillip, Prince William, Earl Spencer, Prince Harry and Prince Charles walk outside Westminster Abbey during the funeral service for Diana, princess of Wales. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images

Ten years later, William and Harry sat for an interview with Matt Lauer where they seemed almost startlingly normal and well-adjusted, given the trajectory of their lives. They were friendly, they were realistic about their obligations — they were even funny. Who knew princes were even allowed to be funny? While Harry's had to beat back a few public mini-scandals, William has mostly remained squeaky-clean (he is the one who has to be King, after all). But beyond staying free of controversy, he also manages to project a certain warmth and accessibility, which makes him an incredibly media-ready royal.

And let's be honest: Looking like a movie star hasn't hurt him, either.

In the end, any waning of sentiment that might have occurred as a result of those busted royal marriages, any loss of sparkle, seems to have been matched and probably surpassed by the sentiment that grew out of Diana's death. It's not the same anymore, it's true — we live in a tell-all culture that even the royal family hasn't been able to entirely avoid, so we know much more than we're supposed to about who did what to whom and when. It's clearly not a Disney movie. (Which isn't to say it ever was, but the stopper on public revelation does seem to have come out of the bottle since 1981.)

But there's such a great public desire to see Charles and Diana's kids do well, to see them overcome all that sadness and letdown, that this royal wedding is probably going to be just as closely watched as the one that took place thirty years earlier. Maybe for slightly different reasons, but ultimately with the same anticipation and many of the same hopeful sighs. It's precisely because the publicly projected dreams didn't come close to coming true for Diana that we may wind up dreaming them again for her son.

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