Stepping back from the House of Windsor
On Prince William fanfiction, Anglophilia, the Crown, and obsolescence of royalty
My obsession with Prince William developed in 2002. He was a 20-year-old ruddy-cheeked heartthrob, newly back from his gap year. I was a bespectacled acne-plagued 13-year-old recovering from the hurt of not being invited to my crush’s bar mitzvah. I had a healthy imagination and no romantic prospects—until one lazy day during the summer between seventh and eighth grade, an issue of People Magazine in the dentist office waiting room re-introduced me to the young heir to the throne, who quickly displaced any lingering feelings for freckle-faced boys with flippy hair and Abercrombie tee-shirts.
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A few weeks later, I revealed my new object of desire to my best friend while we paddled a two-person sea kayak a few dozen yards from shore in Chatham, Cape Code—a safe distance from the curious ears of our parents. It was soon decided—I would pursue William, and she would pursue his younger brother, Harry. If it all worked out, we would also become sisters. This Kayak Summit commenced what we later dubbed The Summer of Desperation—long empty days that we spent on AIM (she had moved to Rhode Island) surfing the Internet and meandering the grounds of Balmoral in our imaginations. Together we explored the newly expansive worldwide web, researching British royal residences and “shopping” for the dresses we would wear when we met the princes at the Wimbledon finals at some indeterminate future date. I made weekly trips to my hometown’s public library, where I pored over back issues of Royalty Magazine, and to the still-solvent local Borders to flip through British tabloids.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that countless others shared romantic fantasies featuring the hunky young princes. Indeed, when we stumbled upon the now-defunct WispsofRoyalty.com, an aggregator of Prince William and Harry-centric fanfiction, we were shocked to learn how much … competition … we had. Hundreds of girls and women and gay men across the English-speaking world and beyond harbored romantic and sexual feelings for the princes — and were laying their fantasies out online. Some of these softcore explorations of desire were, I must confess, titillating. We savored a multi-part installment titled Love of the Purest Kind; the best part of LOTPK (as we referred to it for years) featured a middle-of-the-night rendez-vous between “Wills” and a young American love interest during a thunderstorm. We snickered at the fanfic written by people who obviously knew nothing about the princes, i.e., fanfic centering around meeting Wills at Oxford, when anyone with a serious interest in HRH knew he was enrolled at St. Andrews.
My insatiable appetite for royal content soon extended to all things British—BBC period dramas, Hugh Grant movies, Wimbledon, even an Olsen twin movie that took place at a Model UN conference in London—anything that allowed me to momentarily exist in the locus of my romantic fantasy life, where I imagined meandering through the highest stratum of society in a series of ridiculous hats. If I could have attended a Church of England church service, I would have. It’s easy to see now that my Anglophiliac obsession was representative of a deeper longing to be part of the outside world. Like most teenagers, I was miserable in middle school, hungering for new experiences and desperate to attain a level of sophisticated and worldliness in some future version of my life. I sought social acceptance (and though I didn’t do myself any favors by entering eighth grade with the attitude of someone named Tabita Crowley-Bonham), and imagined finding it one day far far away from the cliques of West Hartford, Connecticut. If it’s not already obvious where this story is going, by August, I was writing my own fanfiction and emailing it to my BFF in nightly installments. I can see the fanfiction now was a sort of survival technique, a way of imagining ourselves in a parallel universe where we were beautiful and desirable, where fate took us to the football pitches of Eton College to be the recipients of meaningful glances from handsome princes.
The fanfiction era overlapped with the period of early adolescence where I hungered to become a citizen of the world in other ways. I developed proto-leftist social and political opinions. (I also feel inclined to mention that I developed more friendships.) I was ardently anti-Bush, anti-war, and anti-American imperialism. Over the course of the new few years, I became an outspoken campus voice on humanitarian issues like the genocide in Darfur—but I was also still the self-professed Anglophile who was obsessed with Prince William. I lacked any historical context for the impact of European colonialism’s legacy on fledgling nation states abroad. I was still oblivious to the cognitive dissonance between my respectful awe of the monarchy and literally all of my other politics. I also completely ignored all of the readily-available literature about just how miserable Princess Diana’s experience in the royal family wa.
My interest in Prince William eventually receded with his hairline (and as I pursued actual relationships with actual boys through high school and college, bookish middle-class boys from a variety of racial backgrounds who were nothing like Prince William). After the spectacle of his royal wedding with Kate in 2011 during the spring of my senior year, I don’t remember paying the Windsors much mind. Indeed, the wedding commenced a rather boring stretch that Tina Brown described as the “golden era of the twenty-first century monarch,” observing:
“The Firm was basking in a bubble bath of national goodwill. The Duchess of Cambridge ensured the succession by producing two irresistibly photogenic children in Prince George and Princess Charlotte. Harry became the nation’s hero as an Apache helicopter pilot in his second deployment in Afghanistan. Charles was a cheery new man since his marriage to Camilla…, and the Queen was enjoying her own serene heyday by Keeping Calm and Carrying on.”
It was only once my obsession with the royal family faded into the annals of my own memory that I noticed the Windsors creeping into American mainstream media. I think it started with the debut of The Crown in 2016, Netflix’s multi-season prestige depiction of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Given my years as a royal-watcher, friends continually sought my opinion on Claire Foy’s performance as the young Queen. I felt strange confessing that I had literally no interest. Perhaps it was that I already knew these stories and how they would end; perhaps it was that my romantic fantasies had veered in a decidedly American direction and I wasn’t as susceptible to the charm of a British accent as I once was. Whatever the reason, when I finally tried to watch, I found the episodes too slow. Around the same time, there were rumors that Prince Harry was dating the American actress Meghan Markle — what did I think of this Cinderella story? Was I envious? How did she compare to Kate? To my surprise, I felt nothing. The Royals had finally assumed their proper place within my internal cultural landscape and seemed just a stuffier, British version of the Kardashians who were equally undeserving of the world’s attention.
Maybe it was just that I finally had a life of my own to concentrate on, and maybe it was just another side effect of the Trump era, but I was no longer able to compartmentalize my reverence for the royals amidst my otherwise progressive democratic politics. The concept of “royalty” no longer constituted an escapist fantasy and instead finally appeared to me as the strange anachronism that it is—the bestowal of hereditary wealth and privilege and power on a single bloodline?! The upper stratum of British society in which I had once imagined myself prancing around Wills seemed increasingly embarrassing and irrelevant in a modern multicultural society plagued by more pressing social and economic concerns. Brexit made apparent that Britain was grappling with many of the same political questions as the U.S. — the Leave movement sounded remarkably similar to Trump’s America First slogan. Despite the Queen’s commitment to political neutrality, my American political point of view necessarily conflated an inherently conservative institution like the monarchy with British conservative political movements, even if they are not necessarily always aligned. Despite a brief moment of optimism when Harry married Meghan—could she be the breath of modernizing air that the Windsors needed?—the fact that the monarchy was stumbling to find its way in an evolving multicultural society was never more clear than when Harry and Meghan ultimately “quit” the royal family in early 2020.
During Oprah’s now infamous post-“Megxit” interview of Harry and Meghan in Montecito, the world learned just how weird life in “the Firm” really is. Some of Harry and Meghan’s allegations harkened back to Diana—the Firm refusing to call off the paparrazi dogs when they hounded Meghan, control over the new Duchess’s movements, and a disturbing lack of access to mental health care. (None of this was new to anyone who was up-to-date on The Crown and who had seen Pablo Larrain’s dark 2021 biopic, Spencer.) But on top of the “regular” aristocratic cold-hearted dysfunction that Diana revealed to the world came disappointing allegations of casual (unattributed) racism—concerns over the skin color of the future prince. Also new to American audiences was the insinuation that it was the “Firm” (the bureaucratic system of private secretaries who run the institution of the monarchy), and not the Queen, who held the levers of power over Meghan. (Obviously, however, this diffuse system of power only obfuscates who is really calling the shots.)
When I picked up Tina Brown’s 500 page tome, The Palace Papers, last month, it felt like cautiously agreeing to have coffee with an ex only to realize ten minutes in that you dodged a bullet. But I couldn’t put it down. Brown, a veteran journalist and former editor-in-chief of Tatler, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker, is a master storyteller who somehow managed unprecedented access to those with the inside scoop on the family. She is inherently reverent of the Crown as an institution—especially the Queen (the book came out only a few months before her death). However, she pulls no punches at Charles, who comes off as an overgrown spoiled child who has never received his mother's approval.More suprisingly to me, Brown venerates Kate (whom she basically portrays as the second-coming of the Virgin Mary) and, for lack of a better term, shits on Meghan as a fame-obsessed social climber who should have known what she was getting into.
It’s not just because I once dreamed of marrying a prince myself, but I find Brown’s disdain for Meghan disconcerting, and I wonder if there is an American-British divide. I find it impossible not to identify with Meghan—another American, millennial, outspoken college-educated woman who expects—and demands—a certain degree of liberty and respect in life. Though Brown is a successful female professional who certainly commands these things in her own life, she nevertheless identifies with patient, dutiful, middle-class Kate, who understands her role in the performance of royalty is to be a demure wife and mother. The monarchy, it seems, is an accepted exception to modernity; the preservation of hierarchy and tradition is necessary to its very functioning.
During my lifetime, it was perhaps easier to accept the anachronism of the monarchy since the Queen was the perfect, grandmotherly presence. But now that the role of monarch is filled by Charles, it will be interesting to see if he can be for his countrymen and women the same source of national pride, or if the royal family will fade into obsolescence. At a moment when respect in pretty much every American institution is crumbling, I can understand the appeal of having an apolitical institutional figurehead to rally around. That’s probably part of what draws American audiences to the The Crown. It’s just so … foreign, and, at a time when even football is political, it’s impossible to imagine what a benignly unifying institution or person could look like in the U.S. I’m sure this is in part what fuels American Anglophilia and royal fascination. At time when nothing in the U.S. is sacred—except for perhaps the Grand Canyon—we long for something unifying and beyond derision. But looking to King Charles, it’s hard to imagine him up to that task.
Tina Brown, The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil. New York: Crown, 2022, chapter 16.
My favorite revelation, which I have shared with anyone I have had dinner with in the last month, is that when Charles travels to friends’ houses for the weekend, he sends a truck ahead a day early with all of his own bedroom furniture, bedding, and ART WORK to be hung up in the guest room.
So enjoyed reliving your obsession with the Royals aka William .
Such an updated informative take on the evolution of your fascination and the world’s.