A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On Heirs and History

I am not yet tired of hearing about the pregnancy of the Duchess of Cambridge, but I am tired of hearing people moan about how they don't want to hear about it.  It's been only two days, and I am already blisteringly weary of dismissals of the news: "Who cares?" and "Just another celebrity pregnancy media frenzy."  Sorry.  Tisn't.   

I will grant that many are far too wrapped up in the lives of celebrities, and the hysteria some Brits  show over the Royals can sometimes seem over-the-top and bewildering.  I hope (probably in vain) that the Duke and Duchess can live out her pregnancy in some kind of normalcy (and in health--that  the Duchess has been hospitalized for hyperemesis gravidarum is a cause for some concern), but there is no escaping the fact that she, her unborn child, and her husband are walking history.  That is a future monarch she is carrying there, and questions of the wisdom and feasibility of the continuation of a monarchy in Great Britain aside (that's a topic for another time), the pending birth of a future monarch is a big deal.  

Not as big a deal as it would have been four, or even one, hundred years ago, but a big deal still.  Whatever one's opinion about the royal family, there is no denying that who they are and what they do is considered to be top news by millions: it is estimated that some 300 million people watched Prince William and Catherine Middleton's wedding in April 2011, 1.2 million people lined the royal pageant route on Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee and 14.7 million watched the Diamond Jubilee Concert in June 2012, and 10 million people a year in Britain alone have tuned into the Queen's annual Christmas Speech in recent years).*  The members of the House of Windsor fascinate their subjects (even while they and the royal system which they embody may infuriate some of their subjects as well), and, if interviews with some of those who come out to line The Mall during celebrations such as Royal Weddings and Jubilees are any indication, their service to the Commonwealth engenders loyalty, admiration, and gratitude in many.  That being the case, the birth of a child who will change the line of succession and thus change the future face of the British monarchy is certainly newsworthy.    

But what is infinitely more compelling to me, what has me excited to hear about this pregnancy, is the sense of history that comes with this news.  So much of Britain's history rests on who sat on the throne and who could or could not produce a legitimate successor, and while the political ramifications of not producing an heir are less dire now than they have been in Britain's past, the event of Prince William's marriage and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge's, subsequent pregnancy connects us to that past.  I have always thought that the British seem to be more aware of their history during their day-to day lives than we are--a result, perhaps, of having a national figure who is a living, breathing link to hundreds of years of royal and political history.  The royal family we see today--Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Prince William, and, of course, all the rest of the Queen's children and grandchildren--are a result and a reminder of hundreds of years of history.  The current Queen's father gave a rousing speech at the start of WWII that helped unite a country under threat; her uncle was at the heart of a scandal that tested the relationship between the monarch and parliament; her grandfather ruled during WWI, her great-grandfather had a period named after him (Edwardian), her great-great grandmother, too (you might have heard of it).  When we watch The King's Speech and get swept up in the story of that man's life and the history he lived, is it not marvelous to realize that the dignified woman we see celebrating sixty years on the throne is his daughter?  Or to think, when we see that episode of Doctor Who with Queen Victoria that plays on the history of her family, that that story (in more realistic terms, perhaps) is still being told?      

Millions of people the world over can do this, too, can trace their ancestry back hundreds of years, can point to the historical events their families influenced or were a part of.  And history, after all, is made up not just of the names and deeds everyone knows but of the names and deeds no one knows.  But the children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be the next step in a part of history that we can see, and that is just mind-bendingly brilliant.  To think that these children will be the direct descendents of people who stare at us out of black and white plates in our history books; to realize that the past isn't dead, that, in fact, it walks about, living, breathing, falling in love, having children; to be reminded of this is simply grand.  

And we Americans, who are so unfailingly interested in trying to pull the beliefs and attitudes of our founding fathers into the present, who are fascinated by the complex histories of our own important ruling familes (the Adamses, the Kennedys, the Bushes), and who have a history of the family Bible with its carefully filled out family tree at the center, should have no trouble at all understanding why the impending birth of the great-great-great-great-great grandchild of a figure of such national and international historical import would be breaking news.  

*The population of Britain in 2010 was
~62 million, meaning about 16% of the population watched the Queen's Christmas Speech.  By contrast, about 37.8 million people watched President Obama's 2011 State of the Union Speech, or about 12% of the US population. These comparisons are not strictly one-to-one (I don't mean to equate the President of the USA's State of the Union Address and the Queen's Christmas Speech; they do not serve the same function), but the point that people care about the royals is adequately made, I think.    

**Also, a nod to Jane Murray's The Kings and Queens of England, which is always my go-to for sorting who-came-after-who and who-was-who's-father.