Time to kick the craving for private happiness
Love in a palace is perhaps at last More grievous torment than a hermit's fast:
hat is Keats's view, and it may well be true. But while I am happy to hear it from a poet, I cannot dispel my resentment at being forced to hear it from the Princess of Wales. After sadness at the news of the separation and a flush of anger at the gloat- ing of Andrew Neil, one is left with an enduring feeling of bitterness against her.
The British public, by four to one, think that the Prince is more to blame than the Princess for the breakdown of the mar- riage. Possibly they are right in their assess- ment, though I do not see how they, or I, could know. But this is beside the point, which is that, if you marry the heir to the throne, you must not separate from him. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is true that the Prince was inconsid- erate and unloving and middle-aged and that the whole thing was therefore a grievous disappointment; why could she not behave like Lamia, the subject of the poem quoted above — ... knowing surely she could never win
His foolish heart from its mad pompousness She set herself, high-thoughted, how to dress The misery in fit magnificence.
That is what, one thought for years, she was doing, and one admired her for it very much. But now she appears to resemble Lamia in another sense, taking the form of a beautiful woman and turning, on closer inspection, into a serpent.
What is the point of the English upper- class girl's education, or rather, lack of edu- cation, if not to prepare her for a life toler- ating the boringness of the English upper- class man? Surely that sort of upbringing was supposed to give its recipients the inner strength not only to marry respectably in the county, but to bear more difficult situations, such as being widowed in war, or marrying into the royal family. That, after all, was the example of Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon two generations ear- lier. What she learnt in the nursery at Glamis before the first world war enabled her to turn her husband into a good king at the most dangerous moment in the century. When Edward VIII abdicated and her hus- band ascended the throne, she wrote to Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury: 'I can hardly now believe that we have been called to this tremendous task and (I am writing to you quite intimately) the curious thing is that we are not afraid. I feel that God has enabled us to face the situation calmly.' And she signed her letter . . for the first time and with great affection, Eliz- abeth R'. Fascinating the half-suppressed note of triumph. Why didn't the nursery at Althorp instil the patience necessary to win such a reward?
Possibly the Princess so believes in her own magical powers as a public figure that she thinks she will still become Queen any- way, but the more likely explanation for her behaviour is that she does not want to be Queen as much as she wants to leave her husband, in which case she is suffering from what Archbishop Lang, in his broad- cast about Edward VI1I's abdication, called 'a craving for private happiness'. In people in public life, this craving deserves sympa- thy, but not tolerance. It is just as bad as, or perhaps worse than, a craving for two bot- tles of vodka a day or endless shots of hero- in. As the anti-drug advertisements say, it screws you up. And not only does it screw you up, it also, if you give way to it, screws up everyone else who looks to you for lead- ership or encouragement.
If you are Princess of Wales, you are not supposed to have private emotions, or at least, you are not supposed to let anyone know what they are. You are supposed to display a deference to the idea of certain emotions. You cannot reasonably be expected to love your husband (although, if you do, it helps), but you can be expected to act as if you do. Your role is far more important than you. Who knows or has a right to care whether, for example, the Queen loves the Duke of Edinburgh? She is the Queen and he is her consort, and both do their duty and there is nothing more to be said. Think of her telling friends to talk to Andrew Morton. It is unimagin- able. The gulf shows why she is Queen and the Princess never will be.
One would need a complete intellectual history of the last 200 years to explain why the craving for private happiness has now come to rule almost everyone. Its roots lie in the Romantic movement and the destruction of the ancien regime, in the decline of organised religion, in the birth of psychology, in the influence of the Blooms- bury group, in existentialism and Holly- wood movies. Until quite recently, it may have benefited western society, encourag- ing individuals to perform daring deeds and
conquer new worlds. Today, however, it is out of hand. It gives each person the idea that he is interesting and then fills him with rage when he discovers he is not. Everyone goes looking for 'the real me', using quack means like psychotherapy and astrology and theories of reincarnation, and then breaks the mirror in a fury when reality stares back at him. Or, perhaps I should be saying, at her, for it is women's magazines which particularly promote these dreams.
The craving for private happiness chips away at all forms of human endeavour because it turns people in on themselves. In newspapers today, there is hardly any cov- erage of the arts. Instead there is coverage of people known as artists who are inter- viewed and profiled. They should be asked about their work — 'How do you mould such a form? How did you mix such a paint? Whose work did you study and what did you learn from it? Instead, they are asked about themselves — how their father died young, or their lover died of Aids, how they kicked drugs or discovered eastern mysticism, or how they feel about being so famous. The result is that the art itself qui- etly fades away, and is replaced by the cult of celebrity. Imagine Giotto on the South Bank Show. He would be literally speech- less at any questions Melvyn Bragg would ask of him, completely nonplussed and embarrassed at the idea that he should talk about himself. It would make rotten televi- sion, which is why Melvyn is much happier with Jeff Koons.
What applies to art applies to all human institutions. They are constructions of the human imagination and will fail as soon as people are too self-absorbed to imagine them again in their own genera- tion. The rule of law, for example, is not upheld by the gun (though the gun can help from time to time) but by people's capacity to imagine the benefit of law. The monar- chy is the most aesthetic of temporal insti- tutions, the one that needs the most imagination. It is not threatened as much by republicanism as by the interviewer shoving his microphone forward and ask- ing, 'How do you feel?' We know how the Princess of Wales feels. That is what is unforgivable.
How do you know, some will object, that the Prince does not suffer from the same debilitating craving for private happiness? I do not know, but, since he is the next King, I do not think we should discuss the matter.