When visitors enter the UK, they should be greeted by a life-size model of a dragon (though what is life-size for a dragon?) with a placard by it that says: “Welcome to the United Kingdom. We devour princesses!”
The dragon might be made of newsprint, for it is the newspapers – followed by waddling broadcasters, tut-tutting along – who are the devourers of these women. The latest British royal scandal features two central British institutions, the royal family and the tabloid press, oddly paired with a distinguished writer. The first two have flourished in a swamp of contempt (on the royal side) and addiction (on the press side) ever since the postwar years, when automatic deference to royalty was replaced by a destructive neediness.
The present queen, Elizabeth II, was a young woman of 25 when the death of her father propelled her to the throne in 1952. No scandal of her making attended her as a princess, nor has any since she became queen. Her sister, Princess Margaret, was a different matter. In love in her early 20s with a divorced “commoner,” Group Captain Peter Townsend, she renounced him at her sister’s request and later married the photographer Anthony Armstrong Jones. She later divorced him. Margaret, a heavy smoker and drinker, was a fixture in the popular papers – mostly for real or alleged affairs, especially with the minor aristocrat Roddy Llewellyn, a man 17 years her junior.
Margaret’s fame was dwarfed by Princess Diana; a woman of rare beauty with a quality of effortless stardom. Like Marilyn Monroe, Diana was destroyed by a fame she had sought avidly, played with feverishly and finally was consumed by. Diana was tabloid gold, an original woman who offered herself, while also withholding herself, thus increasing the fascination. The slow breakdown of her marriage, the post-marital affairs and the serial charity events she attended propelled her to a celebrity no other modern princess has matched.
Certainly not Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge (not a princess yet, but likely to be, and then a queen); wife to Prince Charles’ elder son, William, a man who could be king either after, or even (as is much speculated) instead of, his father. She invites the appellation of a “nice girl” – pretty, charming, stylishly dressed. But her nature and passions are a mystery. This week, however, she has succeeded in uniting Prime Minister David Cameron and opposition Labor Party leader Ed Miliband. They both condemned a “venomous attack” on her by the novelist Hilary Mantel, twice a Booker Prize winner and one of England’s most lauded novelists today.