NEW YORK — Once upon a time, in 1936, a British monarch named Edward VIII was forbidden to marry his divorced US girlfriend and also be king, so he renounced the throne, moved with her to France, and lived not-so-happily ever after.
Nearly 20 years later, forced to make a similarly unpleasant choice, Edward’s niece Margaret opted to keep her title but jettison her (also divorced) boyfriend. She ended up herself divorced from the man she married in the boyfriend’s place.
But that was another century, another world, and many divorces ago.
As we ponder the news that Prince Harry, the raffish younger son of the future king of England, has become engaged to Meghan Markle — a US actress who, like nearly everyone in this story so far (except Harry) is divorced — it is worth noting how dramatically Britain and the royal family have changed in the intervening years.
It is also worth noting that the engagement, announced in front of Kensington Palace with traditional fanfare, the unveiling of a massive diamond engagement ring, and a burst of details about who said what to whom when and how they knew that this was it, is at once a huge deal, and not much of one at all.
It is not a big deal because Harry, 33, a former army officer with an earthy sense of humor who brings an element of edgy sex appeal to a family that could use a bit more of it, is only fifth in line to the throne. The only way he could plausibly become king is under some sort of “And Then There Were None” or “Kind Hearts and Coronets” scenario involving his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth; his father, Prince Charles; his brother, Prince William; and William’s young children, George and Charlotte.
But the engagement is significant, in part as a frivolously welcome distraction at a time of unrelenting bad news about the economy, about Britain’s painful Brexit from Europe, and about Britain’s place the world. More than that, it is an example of openness and inclusivity in a country that is sorely divided over issues like race and immigration.
Markle’s father is white and her mother is African-American, and so with one heady announcement, it seems, Harry and Markle have thrown out generations’ worth of quietly repressed tradition and presented a new royal model to a country that will have to adjust to it, whether it wants to or not.
“The royal family and the standards they normally have — they want them to be white and not divorced,” said Asha Duncan, 31, who works in fashion advertising and was strolling in Kensington Monday. “Maybe she will get them moving with the times more,” she said of Markle, “showing we live in a multicultural society.”
Visiting from Boston, Trevor Gailun, who is 41 and works in finance, said the emergence of a royal American in London could be only a plus.
“It’s very exciting that we have an American woman,” he said. “I think it is good for the royal family and also for the world to have a little bit more diversity.”
Not only that, he said, but “Americans are celebrity obsessed, and I think having a pretty well-known actress now as a princess — it does not really get better than that.”
Everyone loves an engagement almost as much as they love a wedding, and Britain’s monarchy-obsessed newspapers quickly produced tons of Meghan-and-Harry news, examined from every possible angle.
But if you read carefully you might find veiled traces of the racism and class-based snobbery that last year spurred Harry to issue a highly unusual statement of indignation on Markle’s behalf.
He was responding, for instance, to a Daily Mail report saying she was “Straight Outta Compton.” In the statement, a spokesman for the prince denounced, among other things, “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.”
But there was The Daily Mail back at it Monday, explicitly pointing out that most of Harry’s previous girlfriends had been blonde, and going out of its way to make Markle’s family back home sound like a bunch of eccentrically inbred rednecks.
“The extended Markle family is possibly the most unusual to marry into the House of Windsor so far,” the paper said on its website. Her half-brother, for instance, is newly engaged (to a woman named Darlene), “despite being arrested after pointing a gun at her during a drink-fueled argument,” the article reported.
And then there’s Markle’s uncle Frederick, 75, who as leader of the “Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church in America” is known as “Bishop Dismas,” the paper reported, and is said by a former disciple to preside over such a dwindling congregation that it is possible there are no worshippers left. (He is married, the paper said, to Theresa Huckabone, and lives with her and their 38-year-old son in a house in Florida that cost $80,000.)
Meanwhile, the conservative columnist Melanie McDonagh groused in The Spectator about Markle’s left-leaning political views and unsuitability, as a divorcée, to be married in the Church of England. “Obviously, 70 years ago, Meghan Markle would have been the kind of woman the prince would have had for a mistress, not a wife,” she wrote.
By contrast, writing in the left-leaning Guardian, the commentator Afua Hirsch spoke admiringly of Markle’s politics and said that her addition to the royal family would force Britain to confront truths about race relations that it prefers not to discuss.
“One of the problems with the discourse in Britain today is the tendency to downplay racial difference,” Hirsch wrote. “By contrast, Markle has owned and expressed pride in her heritage, speaking at length about the experience of having black heritage in a prejudiced society; of seeing her mother abused with the “N” word, of working in a highly racialized industry as an actor, and the identity struggle to which so many people who grow up as visible minorities can relate.”
The paper’s website was full of a range of comments reflecting a range of views: from readers who marveled at what this new development signifies for Britain and for themselves, from readers who hate the royal family and want it to go away, and from readers who do not care at all.
“I’d love to agree with this,” wrote a reader named “Nyder,” “but I have to point out that the current royal family have German heritage and it hasn’t exactly lead to English people viewing the Germans as their kin.”