Eira and I are hosting a small royal wedding party at our home on Friday morning. Kate and William are set to be married at 3:00AM Pacific time, and our gathering kicks off two hours earlier, continuing until the couple has returned to Buckingham Palace and we’ve been treated to the sight of the balcony wave. (For an earlier post on this particular union, see here.)
It’s fashionable to appear mystified at all the hoopla surrounding the Windsors. The right sort of people, especially on the left, are expected to engage in the customary round of eye-rolling about American Anglophilia and public laments about the continued cruel appeal of monarchy. It’s acceptable to be interested in the royals from an anthropological standpoint, or if your fascination is presented with a thick layer of ironic detachment. But to be genuinely moved by the pomp and circumstance, to be uncritically joyful — this is said to be a sign of an unreflective and vulnerable mind.
I’m not offering a Palinesque critique of the “cultural elite”. There’s much to question about the continued relevance of monarchy in the 21st century, particularly about the way in which it legitimizes enduring inequality. There’s also a great deal that’s right in the suggestion that what we do to the royals is cruel, a point Christopher Hitchens makes so eloquently in the second link above.
The Windsors don’t represent everything that is British, or even the best of Britain. But they are the public face of one aspect of that country and that people, one for which I am deeply grateful, as I wrote in this 2009 post:
My love for Britain isn’t rooted in ethnic heritage; on my mother’s side, I’ve got some ancestors from that sceptered isle, but far more from the continent. The love I have is rooted in many things, but perhaps most plainly in my family’s history. My paternal grandmother, Elisabeth von Schuh, was born in Vienna to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father; her husband, Georg Schwitzer (the spelling would later be changed) was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism when he married. My father was uncircumcised and baptized, but was ethnically 3/4ths Jewish; that latter fact would have meant a death sentence for him and the rest of the family following Hitler’s takeover of Austria in 1938. My grandfather, a gentle physician, wasn’t eager to leave; like many, he thought things wouldn’t “get that bad” for Viennese Jews (who were used to anti-Semitism as a political prop.) My late grandmother knew better, and she explored every avenue she could to get the family out.
It was Great Britain that welcomed in my father’s family. Not the USA (my grandmother tried that option). Not France (lucky, too, given what would happen to French Jews during the war.) The only door that opened was for Britain, which was willing to take certain Jewish professionals, especially doctors. The family escaped just before the outbreak of World War Two, and after a brief period in London, settled in what was then Berkshire and is now Oxfordshire, in a place called Fawler Manor just outside of Kingston Lisle. Though my grandfather was briefly interned as an enemy alien, he was eventually released and allowed to practice medicine. While my grandmother and her children stayed in the south, he went to work as the staff doctor at the refinery in Ellesmere Port, Lancashire — where he would die in a car accident in 1947.
It was the English who cared for my family before, during, and after the Second World War. My father left England at 24 to go to graduate school at Berkeley, but England never left him. The fundamental decency of that culture stayed with him all his life. He lived 47 years in the USA, but never got an American passport — he only wanted one citizenship, that of the one country that had opened its door and saved his family from the worst mass murder in human history. His California-born children all got their UK passports as soon as they could, and we all use them with varying frequency; we honor our father and we honor the land that became his home.
I know the sceptered isle well, from Caithness to Cornwall. We often visit my brother in Exeter, and I worked on my dissertation in Durham. I don’t have any Hollywood-fed illusions about a land of castles and crumpets. What I do have is a deep and abiding love for a people and a culture that saw (and still see) tolerance and fairness as among the highest virtues. It is unreasonable to make any human beings the embodiments of those values. But both in spite of and because of their lovable, exasperating, often touching imperfections, the Windsors do represent the land that saved my family when none other would.
I was fourteen when I rose in the middle of the night to watch Diana wed Charles (I had a crush on her as so many did, violating my normal rule about not being drawn to blondes). Three decades on, my daughter will be allowed to sleep while her parents and their friends eat scones, drink tea, and unapologetically and unironically stay up all night to watch Diana’s son and daughter-in-law embark on what even the most avid republicans surely hope is a far happier marriage.