Count me among those who felt a twinge of excitement when the news broke Tuesday of the long-awaited engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton. This excitement has very little to do with being a British citizen. For all intents and purposes, I am culturally American — but Americans have a long-standing fascination with the House of Windsor and their goings-on, and in that regard I am no different from most.
I can’t help but do what so many are doing, which is compare this engagement announcement to the one that came nearly thirty years ago from William’s parents, Charles and Diana. As I’ve written before, I was not quite fourteen when I first saw the future Princess of Wales on television, and I promptly fell into the strongest and most passionate celebrity crush of my adolescence, surpassing even Kristy McNichol. Like millions of others, I stayed up all night on a warm summer evening in July 1981 to watch live coverage of the royal wedding from London. I was absolutely captivated, my normal pubescent cynicism replaced by wide-eyed and unabashed romantic fascination. I never quite lost my fascination with Diana over the years, and when I learned of her death (in Manchester Airport, just after I had arrived in the UK to give a paper) I was rocked to my core. Though it always surprises people when I say it, I consider the events of 9/11 to be only the second most shocking news event of my life; the first happened four years earlier in a Paris tunnel.
In 1981, much was made of Diana’s purported virginity. Much was also made, but hardly ever in a critical way, of the age gap between Lady Spencer and Prince Charles. He was 32 when they were engaged, she had just turned 19. And much would be made, in retrospect, of their painful awkwardness together, including their infamous answers to an interviewer who inquired whether the couple were very much in love; Diana offered a blushing “Of course”, Charles, a devastatingly diffident “Whatever love is.” As we would eventually discover, he was already very much in love with the woman to whom he is at last now married, Camilla Parker-Bowles.
The difference between the Charles/Diana and William/Kate engagements — and more importantly, between the relationships themselves — says a great deal about the evolution of our society in the past thirty years. Very few people think Kate Middleton is a virgin, and no one in their right mind likely cares. Equally important is the difference in the narrative arc of the two courtships: Diana and Charles were the poster children for rushing into something, while Kate and William have been very much young people of their generation, showing no interest in hurrying to the altar. As most folks know, the young couple have dated for eight years since meeting at university, and took a much-publicized “break” along the way. A great many young people in the Western world today will be able to identify with such an extended courtship that has had such obvious ups-and-downs. The sensible modern idea that sexual compatibility should be determined before marriage, and deep intimacy already established before walking down the aisle, is made manifest in the story of newly engaged couple. This is to be applauded.
And of course, I’m pleased that we’ve got a marriage between chronological peers. While Diana was thirteen years Charles’ junior, Kate is six months older than William. I’ve made the case again and again that older men/younger women relationships, for all their culturally-constructed allure, are frequently problematic, even exploitative. This is especially true when the younger woman is below, say, the age of 25 while the man involved is a decade or more her senior. (As was very much the case with Charles.) It certainly ended disastrously for Diana, not merely because her husband was unfaithful, but because she and the Prince of Wales were, like so many other age-disparate couples, manifestly incompatible. It’s no surprise that the great love of Charles’ life, Camilla Parker-Bowles, was his same age (actually, as with Kate and Wills slightly older than the prince.)
While attraction, fueled by fantasy and need, can offer flourish across a significant age divide, deep and enduring romantic compatibility can rarely survive that divide when the younger partner hasn’t even reached full adulthood. (And the rental car companies are right — most of us, as the brain research suggests, need until our mid-twenties to hit that full adulthood.) Charles lacked the courage to push against the culture and the palace in order to marry the woman he loved, but the heartbreaking example of his tragic first marriage seems to have made a considerable impression on his elder son and future daughter-in-law. Kate and William, despite colossal media pressure, have allowed their relationship to unfold slowly, have allowed themselves their very public doubts, and have built a bond based on both the eros and shared experience of the sort that is really only possible with a generational peer.
As a feminist, I worry for Kate — but I’m hopeful as well. Diana tried to fashion a more modern vision of royalty, and met with spectacularly mixed success. Middleton will face tremendous pressure to conform to a traditional ideal, and the fear is real that she may find her individuality disappearing behind the royal veil. But if she and William can be as different from his parents in their married roles as they were in their engagement process, then there is real hope that she can be a more modern and egalitarian icon than we’ve yet seen.
So here’s to their marriage, but more so, here’s to the route they’re taking to get there.