If ever there were a love story for the Instagram age, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s beautifully chronicled romance is the one. Here they are, in a series of pictures from their private album released to promote next week’s six-part Netflix documentary on their relationship, sitting atop a Jeep on what looks like their first holiday together. Here he is, serenading her on the guitar. Then the two of them, impossibly glamorous, spinning joyously around the dancefloor at their wedding; and her on a beach, pregnant and delightedly cradling the bump, against an almost too perfect sunset.
Couple goals, luxury travel, a baby: that’s all the influencer boxes ticked. But perhaps the most telling image shows them late at night in their kitchen, just in from an official engagement. Harry has stripped off his dress jacket and is kissing Meghan, who is perched on the counter in an evening gown; it’s sexy, dishevelled and achingly intimate, at least until you ask yourself how precisely there came to be a photographer handy to capture it.
But, of course, this is the Sussexes as they want the world to see them: young and in love, happy and free, defiantly enjoying the fairytale romance that unleashed such baffling hatred in some quarters when Meghan first married into the royal family. After the death threats and the trolls, the pressures that left her feeling suicidal and him terrified of losing her, like he lost his mother, it’s not surprising that they are so anxious to take back control and overwrite the ugliness with something beautiful. They may be presenting a highly stage-managed version of themselves to the world, but isn’t that what royalty has always sought to do? It’s just that, lately, the slick Sussex brand looks rather better at it than the established market leader.
It’s been another terrible week for the royal family, once again accused of harbouring racism within the institution after a Black female guest at a reception hosted by Camilla, the Queen Consort, said she was persistently questioned by a lady-in-waiting about where she was “really” from. A Black woman, invited into the heart of the family but made to feel profoundly unwelcome? Well, that rings too many bells for comfort.
“Meghan already told you who those people are,” tweeted the American writer and activist Roxane Gay, after the domestic violence campaigner Ngozi Fulani came forward to describe her experiences. When it was only Meghan’s word against the palace’s about the racism she claimed to have experienced, she could more easily be dismissed as simply difficult, especially once she was herself accused of bullying palace staff. Not any more.
The speed with which the palace distanced itself from the veteran lady-in-waiting Lady Susan Hussey suggests it does at least recognise how damaging all this is. King Charles has, to be fair, spent years thinking deeply about how to modernise the monarchy, appealing to younger Britons at home and dealing with the painful legacy of empire within the Commonwealth. But the Firm now appears to have hit that painful stage of corporate evolution when an organisation knows it needs to diversify, but is aghast to discover that means it actually has to change, rather than making a few token adjustments and blithely carrying on much as before.
Her defenders argue that 83-year-old Hussey’s mistake was simply being born into an era where such comments were deemed perfectly acceptable. “Her sin, if there was one, was being old,” writes the journalist and family friend Petronella Wyatt in the Spectator. “Most pensioners are unfamiliar with the wonders of woke etiquette.” But Hussey was not most pensioners. She was a professional at work, whose role was to put every guest entering what can be an intimidatingly grand environment at their ease, and that requires the ability to move with the times.
Every guest invited to the palace is there because their work is deemed important to the nation, and the institution is responsible for ensuring they all go home with a magical story to tell their grandchildren. Diversifying the guest list is commendable – no doubt there weren’t many Black women from Hackney on it when Hussey joined the court 60 years ago – but it isn’t progress if it means people turning up only to be insulted. Which brings us, inevitably, back to Meghan.
Six years after the Olympic opening ceremony beguiled liberal Britain into thinking we really were the relaxed, modern, richly multicultural country we saw on screen, the sight of the royal family embracing a mixed-race princess raised our hopes again. To watch that wedding at which a Black bishop preached passionately about poverty, hunger and war, while Prince Charles gamely stepped in for her absent father to walk Meghan up the aisle, was to feel the cobwebs blowing away. Barely two years later, however, the unhappy Sussexes had decamped to the US leaving a trail of shattered illusions behind them.
Is the life they have now really the one they sought by leaving? Both seem faintly fragile still, and there are risks to the Faustian pact they have seemingly entered into with the media by mining their private lives for content. Netflix presumably isn’t paying the big bucks just for a charming flip through the wedding album – a trailer shows Meghan apparently in tears – and nor are the publishers of Harry’s bleakly titled autobiography, Spare. No matter how much they think they are in control, Brand Sussex are content creators now and the pressure on them to keep revealing more and more of themselves to hold the attention of a restlessly scrolling audience will be relentless.
But then, having had his life commodified for public consumption from the cradle, perhaps Harry is used to that. What this week has underlined, meanwhile, is that the royal family arguably needed Meghan more than she needed them. She and Harry were always a creaking Windsor brand’s best hope of renewal, its way into the hearts of a young, diverse, emotionally literate and politically aware new generation of Britons who still haven’t warmed in quite the same way to the new Prince and Princess of Wales and who recoil in horror from stories like this week’s. After all the dust has settled, Meghan still has her Prince Charming. The Windsors, battling against a future of dwindling cultural relevance, are still searching for their happy ending.