Wednesday, May 23, 2018
The Countess of Grantham & the Duchess of Sussex
There is already so much commentary in the American press about the “Royal Wedding” that I know that my own positive impressions are widely shared among my compatriots. It is pleasant to be in the social mainstream for a change, though my “take” may be a little eccentric. I am of course not anti-British—how could I be?—but in general I deplore what might be called “aristocracy creep” in America. Our country fought and won a revolution to overthrow the hereditary principle, and to establish democracy as a goal with republicanism as its instrument. The great George Washington refused coronation, but we got only as far as John Adams before the dynastic imperative reappeared in another form. As we entered our most recent campaign season the two presumptive “front runners” were—out of a hundred million eligible candidates—a Bush and a Clinton.
Some significant portion of the wedding’s American viewers must have also fairly recently watched the fabulously successful British television drama series Downton Abbey. Its subject is life in a (fictional) great stately home in Yorkshire in the early decades of the twentieth century—a time during which an essentially eighteenth-century social model was threatened and eventually quelled by new social and economic realities. Like most viewers I was fascinated in an almost prurient way by its “upstairs-downstairs” social hierarchies and its depiction of the domestic rituals and the minor melodramas of the idle rich and their adherents.
But there was some serious social history as well. The industrial revolution and mercantile capitalism were unforgiving to wealth mainly derived from large land-holdings. The upkeep of a seventy-two bedroom house with a domestic staff of thirty is substantial, and many of the titled grandees of the shires, though half buried in social cachet, were short of cash. So many of them went where the money was. In this instance that was not the bank, but watering holes such as Newport, R. I., where there was a certain supply of the nubile daughters of rich, often nouveau riche, American tycoons. It was the inherited fortune of the American-born Countess of Grantham (Cora Crawley, played splendidly by Elizabeth McGovern) that rescued Lord Grantham’s great house and continued to bankroll it through fifty-two episodes. Thus had a certain segment of the waning British aristocracy turned in “real life” to the New World for redress of the ills of the Old. Read Henry James, especially Portrait of a Lady, for some of the moral niceties of the situation.
Well, American womanhood came to the rescue of distressed British bigwigs again last Saturday. There is capital, as in financial, and capital, as in social. The fictional Countess of Grantham was happily endowed with money capital, megabucks. She had other things going for her as well, but the conduit to her man’s heart had been a checkbook. Meghan Markle, now to be styled the Duchess of Sussex, is loaded with social capital. Admittedly she had been earning 50K a pop in one of her recent acting gigs—not exactly chicken feed—but what she is bringing to the House of Windsor is a treasure more precious than pearls, a steamer trunk full of American social capital—sharp intelligence, real modernity, celebrity with an egalitarian aura tinged with feminist consciousness, a fundamental genuineness so far triumphant in face of the weirdness of the life she now enters.
The latest Duchess is a wind tunnel of fresh air. The British “royals” are not under imminent threat of extinction, but they are not wildly popular either. A lot of contemporary Brits feel about the monarchy more or less the way I feel about Las Vegas. It has little to do with me, but I can appreciate that it’s a big money-maker in the national tourist sector. It does take a lot of good will to accommodate the anachronisms of the setup. Queen Elizabeth is the only monarch the large majority of her subjects has ever known. On the whole she has done an amazingly dutiful job in a situation no thoughtful person would wish upon an enemy, but she is a woman in her nineties whose early cultural formation is literally from a bygone era. Her son and heir, who is considerably less popular, already looks like the Ancient of Days, and his comparative modernity includes unhelpful eccentricities. This is a point made by the Economist in what is the best of the analytical essays I’ve read arising from this marital moment.
Given the current urgency of racial issues both in Britain and America, and the attention given to them by many prominent journalists, I suppose it was inevitable, as well as a good thing on the whole, that the racial theme should loom large in the punditry. Yet much of what I have read was written by people more familiar with critiquing the Oscar awards than delving into the symbolism of religious liturgies. The “royal wedding” was a hugely public celebration of a Christian sacrament according to an Anglican rite. The ministers of the sacrament of matrimony are not the officiating clergy in the big hats and cool capes but the marrying couple themselves—in this instance an international couple with slightly different melanin levels. I presume they had a lot to do with the planning. The service featured a range of excellent Christian music, though of course it would be impossible to suggest the vastness of the range to be heard in churches across the globe. A gospel choir sang of a love that would sustain even should the mountains fall into the sea (Psalm 46:2). An English boys’ choir sang of love that demands moral action (John 15:14). The remarkable feature of the repertory was not the color of the singers but the unifying theme of love. The preacher said the whole thing was about love. One doesn’t need to contrive a racial “angle” in Christianity. The world-wide Anglican Communion alone has upward of a hundred million members, a numerical majority of whom are black and brown people.
Since it was a royal event at which the queen was present, the singing of “God Save the Queen” was a must. But I also want to say God save the Duchess of Sussex, whose social capital may cooperate with the Deity to that end.