Of all the interesting combinations which sexual geopolitics has come up with, that of the American girl and the English man is one of the most enduring, giving a saucy spin to the phrase ‘Special Relationship.’
It started with cold hard economics when the second half of the 19th century saw the creation of the American billionaire – Vanderbilt and his railways, Carnegie and his steel, Singer and his sewing machines. The daughters of such men became known as The Dollar Princesses; girls who came to cold old England bringing million-dollar dowries to reboot ruined stately homes in exchange for the one thing money couldn’t buy them in the brave New World – a title.
By the end of the century, a quarter of the House of Lords had American conjugal connections and such unions had injected around twenty-five billion dollars into the British economy as well as contributing to the bloodlines of such eminent Britons as Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales.
The enchantment proved mutual even after new money and old houses ceased to be part of the sexual exchange rate. When I was a teenage reporter on the English music press in the late 1970s, my unprepossessing male colleagues would return in a state of sexual stupefaction from work trips to the USA and when they finally re-acquired the gift of speech would report – somewhat disbelievingly, to give them credit – that American girls ‘couldn’t get enough of it’ upon hearing their accents, no matter what class or region; just the fact of their Englishness was enough. And this has been replayed, variously, centre stage throughout recent history in the stories of Edward and Mrs Simpson (infamy), Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman (true romance), Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen (tragedy), Guy Ritchie and Madonna (comedy) and Russell Brand and Katy Perry (farce).
Any woman linked with a scion of a ruling monarchy can expect to have the media of that country pawing through her back pages with all the restraint of a tasered alley cat on heat – but an American divorcee associating with an English prince brings with her more baggage than most, thanks to the long shadow of the Abdication.
Luckily, Meghan Markle seems more than capable of standing up for herself, which made the statement from Prince Harry in the winter of last year even more poignant:
‘His girlfriend, Meghan Markle, has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment. Some of this has been very public – the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments. Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle’s safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her. It is not right that a few months into a relationship with him that Ms. Markle should be subjected to such a storm. He knows commentators will say this is ‘the price she has to pay’ and that ‘this is all part of the game’. He strongly disagrees. This is not a game – it is her life and his.’
If only Prince Harry’s mother – a teenage virgin – had been blessed with just a sliver of the chivalry from her boyfriend which Prince Harry extended to his older (at 36, she is three years his senior) divorcee girlfriend! But that will be one of the ways we remember Diana – she raised sons who, however brief her time with them, will never say the words ‘Whatever love means…’
She also raised sons who prefer self-possessed soul-mates rather than innocent girls who can be bullied, impregnated and gaslighted. Though they may seem like rather bland chalk and spicy cheese, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle share similar backgrounds and characters; though from affluent families and privately educated, they are far from the usual aristocratic breeder stock. Middleton is the descendant of coal-miners and the daughter of an air stewardess turned self-made millionairess whose former profession made some snobbish Sloanes snigger ‘Doors to manual!’ before the marriage officially elevated her daughter to First Class. Markle is the daughter of an African-American mother who worked as a psychotherapist and an Emmy-winning lighting-director Caucasian father. No one is ever going to mistake them for the salt of the earth, for sure – but neither are they spoilt by anything near the level of laziness and entitlement of the traditional debutantes who for generations have been offered up for inspection and selection to the ghastly Windsors.
Markle makes her living as an actress, most principally in the U.S television law drama Suits since 2011 (‘I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches – I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works’) but one gets the impression that do-gooding, in the best possible way, is her main focus in life. Even her somewhat irritating lifestyle blog The Tig (closed down in April after three years) which took its name from Markle’s eye-crossingly pretentious epiphany while drinking a glass of Tignanello that ‘suddenly I understood what people meant by the body, legs, structure of wine’ never veered into the ludicrous – and potentially hazardous – bum-boiling territory of Gywneth’s Goop.
And the annoying alt-ism which, frankly, one would be shocked not to find in a young middle-class woman raised in La-La Land has always been cancelled out by Markle’s heartfelt politics. At the tender age of 11 she was angered at the sexism of a television commercial that said ‘Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans’. ‘I was so angry, I wrote to all sorts of people including Hillary Clinton and the soap’s manufacturer. It worked – they altered the wording from ‘women’ to ‘people’,’ she said. She has since become a Global Ambassador for World Vision, travelling to Rwanda to work with the Clean Water Campaign and as a Counsellor for the international charity One Young World, speaking on modern-day slavery.
Compared to the vacuous Shrieking Violets of his own London set, Prince Harry could be understood for coming to the same conclusion as an earlier and clearly more intelligent Prince of Wales than the one poor Diana married: American girls ‘are livelier, better educated, and less hampered by etiquette. They are not so squeamish as their English sisters and they are better able to take care of themselves.’
It would be nice to think – for reasons of spite and scandal – that Meghan Markle is that splendid thing ‘an adventuress: a) a woman who seeks dangerous or exciting experiences: b) a woman who seeks position or livelihood by questionable means’ (Merriam-Webster). But I think the far more wholesome if less thrilling truth is simply that she is a young woman in love. This month she told Vanity Fair, speaking publicly about the relationship for the first time: ‘We’re two people who are really happy and in love. We were very quietly dating for about six months before it became news, and I was working during that whole time, and the only thing that changed was people’s perception.’ It really is too banal – and too beautiful – not to be true.
The myth of the fairytale princess is one of the more repellent of traditional female aspirations and role models which has somehow persisted and even revived. Now perfectly average grown women demand that their wretched menfolk must ‘treat me like a princess’ – which so far as I can discern actually means being treated like a cross between a child and a prostitute; being cosseted, and having men pay for everything.
Prince Harry is a lucky man to have found a companion who is so definitively un-princessy – even though she is as beautiful a woman ever to have walked the Earth. Though perhaps, when Markle speaks of ‘feeling too light in the black community, too mixed in the white community…for castings, I was labeled ‘ethnically ambiguous’…was I Latina? Sephardic Jewish? ‘Exotic Caucasian’?’ she does bring to mind a sort of princess – not the insipid Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties but rather the bold, brave and winsome warriors of recent times – Jasmine, Pocahontas, Moana. One thing is for sure – Meghan Markle has never waited soppily for some prince to rescue her. In fact, it seems far likelier that it is she who will rescue the prince.