The Pity Of The Royal Marriage

Broken, like many such unions, by the unbearable tension between desire and duty

I wrote the other night (“The Sand Pit as Paradise”) about the value of learning and accepting limits, and finding happiness within them. Let’s talk about the other side of that.

I’m watching Season Four of The Crown on Netflix, and enjoying it, though Gillian Anderson’s irritating take on Margaret Thatcher makes the Iron Lady look like she’s constantly trying to pass a kidney stone. Last night I watched Episode 3, titled “Fairytale,” about the engagement of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. We have come to think of Diana as a kind of martyr, trapped in a loveless marriage to a fuddy Prince who cheated on her, and later pursued to her death by the paparazzi. This season, so far, pretty much lives by that take, though it does have surprising sympathy for Charles.

Just when you have had enough of him, carrying on with Camilla Parker Bowles, despite his engagement, you see Charles in the final scene, on the night before his wedding, weeping as he contemplates the sacrifice of his happiness for the duty of state. His mother, the Queen, gives him a pep talk, telling him that he is doing the right thing for the Crown, and that perhaps he and his new wife will come to love each other in time. She’s basically telling him to make the best of the situation, and to live like the entomologist trapped in the pit, from the Japanese movie we discussed a couple of newsletters ago.

Charles turns to his mother, his eyes brimming with tears, and you see the deep misery consuming the man. He doesn’t want to do this. His father wants it for him, and so do most others in his family. Diana has traipsed into a snare — but the snare has also seized Charles.

We know how this ends, of course, and we know that Charles continued to be unfaithful to Diana, with Camilla (who is now his wife). It is hard to pity Charles, but The Crown makes as good a case for it as you’ll see. In the entire series, he has come off as droopy and miserable, bullied by his emotionally distant father, the Duke of Edinburgh, and forced to play a role that he doesn’t relish. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be Prince of Wales, but that he doesn’t want to be Wales on the terms of the Firm.

In real life, Charles is actually an interesting man, with intriguing things to say. Some years back, I wrote an essay about him as a philosophical Traditionalist, a stance that makes him fairly radical about matters of the environment. The essay is no longer online, but it starts like this:

The heir to one of the world’s oldest monarchies, a traditionalist? You don’t say. But Charles’s traditionalism is far from the stuffy, bland, institutional conservatism typical of a man of his rank. Charles, in fact, is a philosophical traditionalist, which is a rather more radical position to hold.

He is an anti-modernist to the marrow, which doesn’t always put him onside with the Conservative Party. Charles’s support for organic agriculture and other green causes, his sympathetic view of Islam, and his disdain for liberal economic thinking have earned him skepticism from some on the British right. (“Is Prince Charles ill-advised, or merely idiotic?” the Tory libertarian writer James Delingpole once asked in print.) And some Tories fear that the prince’s unusually forceful advocacy endangers the most traditional British institution of all: the monarchy itself.

Others, though, see in Charles a visionary of the cultural right, one whose worldview is far broader, historically and otherwise, than those of his contemporaries on either side of the political spectrum. In this reading, Charles’s thinking is not determined by post-Enlightenment categories but rather draws on older ways of seeing and understanding that conservatives ought to recover. “All in all, the criticisms of Prince Charles from self-styled ‘Tories’ show just how little they understand about the philosophy they claim to represent,” says the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.

Scruton’s observation highlights a fault line bisecting latter-day Anglo-American conservatism: the philosophical split between traditionalists and libertarians. In this way, what you think of the Prince of Wales reveals whether you think conservatism, to paraphrase the historian George H. Nash, is essentially about the rights of individuals to be what they want to be or the duties of individuals to be what they ought to be.

That last line defines the conflict within Charles’s soul — the Charles of The Crown, that is, though one is confident that the fictional Charles is close to the real man in this respect. He did not want to marry Diana, but she was correct for a Prince of Wales. He thought that he would be able to carry on like his royal forbears, and have a private life that differed from his public commitment. Charles, who, at 32, was twelve years older than Diana when they married, had told friends that he expected to learn to love Diana in time.

Diana, though, was a modern girl who expected to marry for love. After the birth of Harry, the Prince went back to carrying on with Camilla, and their marriage collapsed. You know the rest.

What ought Charles to have done? I say that the woman you marry is your wife, and therefore you have a duty to do your very best to love her, and an absolutely duty to fidelity. Period. And so too does she to him. Should he have married Diana in the first place? Obviously not — but if you’ve followed The Crown from the beginning, you know how impossible it is to step outside the royal roles. Queen Elizabeth, in her long reign, has always been regarded as dutiful above all things. She is the sun around which all the other royals in this series turn. The failure of Charles and Diana’s marriage made it impossible to continue the monarchy under the old rules — which is why Diana’s sons married for love.

It was Charles and Diana’s unhappy fate to live on the border between the old and the new. Though I am an admirer of Charles’s thinking on architecture, art, and the environment (and met him once at a reception at Highgrove, his country estate), I am not accustomed to feeling sorry for him in his marriage to Diana, because however destructively she behaved before her divorce — she had serious emotional problems — she really was an innocent lamb entering that Windsor den of foxes. But the institution of the Firm is built to crush those who cannot or will not conform to its unbelievably rigid forms.

We may think that we prefer that the royals can be more informal, more human, what we may get is someone as vulgar as Prince Andrew, with his womanizing and gallivanting with the odious Jeffrey Epstein. Or, to switch to another monarchy, consider Pope Francis, who brought marked informality to the papacy, which, if you ask me, was doing just fine with the papal pomp. Have you seen the chapel at the Santa Marta House, where Francis chose to live? There is something about ritual and beauty, and ritualized beauty, that elevates all of us when we feel solidarity with a monarch. Seen in the best light, the finery adorning the Windsors, or the Pope and his retinue, is not to their own glory, but respectively, to the nation’s and to the Church’s. Things go wrong when these monarchs begin to think that it’s all about them, and not those they serve.

The basic theme of the Windsor saga in modern times — this, going back to Edward VIII, who abdicated after less than a year to be with Mrs. Simpson, “the woman I love” — is that the monarchy is a mill that grinds human beings exceedingly fine. Well, what about Diana? What should she have done? After she found herself trapped in the sand pit of a miserable marriage, should she have done her best to live rightly, even if her husband did not? We know that she had multiple affairs prior to the divorce, so it’s simply wrong to think of her as blameless. Charles is a rigid and unsympathetic figure, unloved by the press, which canonized Diana even before her death, but it seems just to say that neither of them behaved honorably.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri laments that strict custom can bring ruin onto an institution. I forget the precise lines, but he says that in a royal family, a son who would have done well to become a cleric is forced by birth to become a king — to the detriment of the monarchy and the nation. And so forth. But that’s almost a tossed-off observation of Dante’s, meant to illustrate how human customs can cause disorder in the world.

The poet’s more profound point in the Commedia is that trust is the foundation of all human society. This is why vow-keeping is sacrosanct, according to Dante. This is why he puts traitors in the lowest pit of the Inferno. If you cannot trust, you cannot risk loving. In Paradiso, Canto V, Beatrice tells Dante, “Let not mortals take vows lightly.” If they do, they will bring ruin. This is what Charles seems to have done when he entered into his marriage without intending fidelity. And this is what Diana did by being unfaithful to her vows, though one expects less of her, because of her youth, and because her husband and the royal family itself made it so hard for her to keep those marriage vows. The whole world saw the destruction unkept vows brought onto that family and the monarchy.

But, having made unwise vows, ought they both have kept them, at the expense of their happiness. I think yes. It is more important that they live out their duty to be what they promised to be, rather than to be what they wanted to be. What if that meant they were miserable together? No one wants a couple to suffer, and certainly no spouse should suffer abuse, including repeated and unrepentant infidelity. But following Dante’s wisdom, if people are not willing to suffer to be faithful to their vows (marital and otherwise), society will disintegrate.

It’s a hard, hard thing, with no clear answer. I had a friend once, with whom I have lost touch, who used to talk about her mother and father’s loveless marriage. After all the kids were grown and had left home, it was clear to all of them, she said, that their parents had only stayed together for the kids. She said her brother told their father that the children, now adults, knew the truth, and they would not begrudge their parents divorcing. The father reportedly said simply, “I made a vow.” And that, according to my friend, was the end of that. The parents stayed together until death.

Was that the right thing to do? My friend did not think so at the time — we were in our late twenties — and I agreed with her. Now that I’m much older, and have read Dante, I’m not so sure. My friend’s parents were old-school Southerners, and though divorce was more accepted in our parents’ generation — there was little stigma to it — they still believed it was dishonorable, or so it seems to me in recollection. I don’t remember her saying that they were religiously observant. Again, this was something that my friend and I found hard to comprehend. Now, though, I can sense the wisdom in her dad’s stance.

One of the most stunning things anyone ever said to me came a few years ago when I traveled to a Christian college to give a talk about one of my books. I was talking over a meal with some professors, and asked, as is my habit, what are the greatest challenges they see facing their students. I’ll never forget what the professor sitting on my left said: that he did not think many of his students would be able to form stable families.

“Why on earth not?” I asked.

“Because they have never seen one,” he replied. Nods all around the table.

That floored me. These were students at an Evangelical Christian college, yet most of them, according to their teachers, came from broken families. The professors went on to explain that most of the students they talk to about it want to marry and have children, but they are filled with radical doubt about their ability to sustain marriage and family. And why not? Most of the adults in their lives have failed to live up to their marriage vows. They did not believe it was possible.

You begin to see Dante’s point. And you begin to see why the commitment my friend’s father had to his marriage, even though he suffered (my friend said her mom put him through the wringer), and even though his adult children consented to their unhappy parents releasing themselves from their vows — you see why that kind of commitment matters.

As I write this, I’m thinking of something a principal at an inner-city school once told me. The school had been started by a large and wealthy church elsewhere in that city, to serve the children of the poor. This principal and his wife led the school as a kind of ministry. The principal and I were having lunch one day, and he was telling me about how he has observed the greatest value of that school to the children is not in the education it offers, but the fact that it gives them a model of order and discipline — something they do not have in their lives.

He said one day two little girls from the school, sisters, had to come home with him and his wife because their mother had not been able to pick them up. The children looked around his living room, and saw a framed wedding photo of the man and his wife. The older of the two children pointed to the picture, and said to her sister, “See, this is how it’s supposed to be.”

They had never seen it.

There is pain in placing one’s duty to be what one ought over one’s right to be what one prefers, and we live in a world that has taken the latter path so definitively that we cannot imagine why anyone would choose the former. But it is not at all clear to me that the way we have chosen leads to greater overall happiness in the world.


[T]here is a harmonious alternation between joys and sufferings in this world. You should realize that even the thing that has brought you joy will later bring you suffering, and vice versa.

A wise order governs the destiny of each one of us. Joy can make us a little less heedful of our duties. Thus it needs to be sprinkled with a cold shower of sufferings so we don’t slacken in our efforts. But sufferings don’t have to last long, that the doubt doesn’t arise that we no longer have someone who cares for us. On the hills of joy — in the valleys of suffering — so goes the life of a spiritual man; but he chalks up real progress in this alternation. Joys that come from patience are purer, more spiritualized, less tainted by self-satisfaction; sufferings are also more firmly endured. Strictly speaking, joys are subdued by the certainty of sufferings on the way, while sufferings are endured with a mixture of tranquility, with an inner smile, as St. John Climacus says, because of the certainty of joys which will come in turn. So as changeable as the outer circumstances are in which the life of spiritual man develops, on the inside it has reached a kind of equilibrium, which gives him a constant peace. It is the strength of the spirit in the face of the waves of the world. …

The patient endurance of trouble, or longsuffering, at the beginning can be mixed with the consciousness that it can’t be otherwise. But in time hope grows out of it, which then accompanies it steadfastly and give it strength, making it seem completely voluntary. When man sees how much he has to endure, he begins to see that it is impossible for him not to have comfort from God, if not in this world, at least, in the next. This hope becomes for him with time very sure. Thus we can define hope as a certitude of the future things which appears in the person who hopes. If faith is a certitude of various present unseen realities and if when it is powerful it gives even a communion of those realities to the one who believes, hope is the certitude which one has in certain future realities and of the participation which he will have in them. So hope is faith oriented to the future for the one who has it. Hope is faith in an advanced stage, a power which gives transparency to time, which penetrates through time, as faith penetrates space and visible nature.

— Dumitru Staniloae, from Orthodox Spirituality.


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