UK: Do the Royals care what you say about them?-NYT

June 1, 2012

[CJ Hinke of FACT comments: It would be unthinkable in today’s political climate in Thailand to host such a conference. In England, there is a well-established Republican movement to abolish the monarchy but this conference is actually being held in a Royal palace. The conference is using a famous 1948 quote by the exiled King Farouk, last of Egypt’s Muhammad Ali dynasty, “There will soon be only five kings left – the Kings of Diamonds, Heart, Spades and Clubs, and the King of England.” as its motto. (King Farouk bought a 94-carat diamond and was said to eat 600 oysters a week.) The monarchy in England is still robust and well-loved. Why are Thais such fraidy-cats?]

Analyzing Royalty’s Mystique

Jennifer Schuessler

The New York Times: May 28, 2012

Workers unveiled a giant image of Queen Elizabeth II on a building along the River Thames in London to celebrate the Queen’s upcoming Diamond Jubilee. [Matt Dunham/Associated Press]

Next week, after the confetti from Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebration has been swept from the streets of London, more than 100 scholars will convene at Kensington Palace to ponder a phenomenon as puzzling as it is familiar: the robust survival of the British monarchy in a democratic age that long ago consigned similar institutions to the gilded dustbin of history.

Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown in 1953. [Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Queen Victoria in 1897, the year of her widely celebrated Diamond Jubilee. [Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

This three-day conference, which will feature talks on subjects ranging from hats and monarchs to the role of the Crown in a constitutional system, commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s ascension to the throne as well as the recently completed renovation of the palace. But it can also be seen as an unofficial celebration of another refurbishment: that of the study of modern monarchy itself.

Biographers and popular historians have never lost sight of royalty, especially if madness, romance and scandal were involved. But until recently the serious study of modern British monarchy — those kings and queens who for the past two centuries have reigned but not ruled — was covered in a thick layer of dust, if not disrepute.

“For many historians on the right, the monarchy was just there and it was good, so there was no reason to study it,” said David Cannadine, a professor of history at Princeton University and an organizer of the conference. “For historians on the left, it was absurd and indefensible, so there was no reason to study it.”

Many scholars trace the resurgence of scholarly interest to an essay by Professor Cannadine published in 1983, in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, lamenting the tendency to see the modern monarchy as little more than a highbrow soap opera of minimal interest to a profession that had turned decisively toward bottom-up social history. Since then, however, scholars have gone into the archives and emerged with serious studies of royal finances, ceremony, philanthropy and political power, often linking this most elite of elites to the concerns of ordinary people.

“The modern monarchy is not just a subject for biography,” said Arianne Chernock, an assistant professor of history at Boston University. “It has so much more use as a window onto broader cultural trends, attitudes and the way people imagine themselves as citizens.”

Professor Chernock is currently writing a book about 19th-century British perceptions of queenship, which, she argues, illuminate the broader rising demand for women’s political rights. “From the death of Catherine the Great to the election of Margaret Thatcher, no women were technically ruling European states,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean sovereigns aren’t doing real work. What does it mean to have a hereditary position when so few women have any power?”

Britons debated the relationship between Queen Victoria’s femininity and her sovereignty, while newspapers were filled with coverage of foreign female monarchs like the rapacious Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar (who expelled British missionaries and legalized the slave trade there) and Queen Pomare IV of Tahiti, whose struggles with the French were depicted as struggles on behalf of the rights of the people.

Even the feminist trailblazer Helena Normanton, Britain’s first practicing female barrister, who was called to the bar in 1922, was obsessed with monarchy and queens, filling her files with elaborate diagrams about their movements and activities.

“You get a profound sense that this fascination was linked to Normanton’s own pioneering work,” Professor Chernock said. “Women are taking comfort in the sense that they have this tradition of holding power.”

The monarchy has also been taken increasingly seriously by historians of the British Empire, who point out that even as the power of the Crown declined at home during the 19th century, it was expanded abroad, where Queen Victoria was often seen as a unifying figure as well as a defender of minority interests.

She was far from a mere symbolic prop in the imperial drama, said Miles Taylor, the director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London and author of the forthcoming book “Empress: Queen Victoria and India.” Instead, he argued, she took an active role in drafting the 1858 proclamation bringing India under Crown control, restoring religious freedom and guaranteeing its inhabitants the same rights as other imperial subjects.

“From there on, Queen Victoria became seen as a sort of patriot queen, separate from the British government, deified and invoked for her generosity and sympathy,” he said.

Even today, said Maya Jasanoff, a professor of history at Harvard University, constitutional monarchy may sometimes provide a more durable framework for the protection of multiethnic rights than republican democracy. She pointed to Prince Charles’s much-mocked declaration a few years ago that as king he would like to be known as “defender of the faiths,” plural.

“It’s pretty easy to understand why conservatives like monarchy: He or she represents power, tradition, hierarchy, stability,” said Professor Jasanoff, the author of “Liberty’s Exiles,” a recent study of loyalists after the American Revolution. “But what some people might find harder to understand is why liberals might like monarchy.”

Research on the 20th-century monarchy remains a bit thin, scholars say, partly because of lack of access to documents. The current queen’s papers will not be available until after her death, and researchers seeking material on subjects that are still delicate, like the House of Windsor’s 1917 name change from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, or the abdication of Edward VIII, may not get an enthusiastic response at the Royal Archives, which are private.

“I don’t see a lot of distinguished work,” said Frank Prochaska, a professor of history at Oxford University and the author of “Royal Bounty,” a widely cited study of the British monarchy’s transformation over the past two centuries into a philanthropic powerhouse above the political fray. “It’s going to be a while.”

But some scholars are finding angles on more recent royal history, if not necessarily ones that will win them invitations to Jubilee conferences. In “Capital Affairs” (2010), Frank Mort, a cultural historian at the University of Manchester, argued that the neo-imperial pomp surrounding Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 was shadowed by fears of declining sexual morals, spurred partly by immigration from the former colonies.

Mr. Mort is currently writing about the abdication, which he argues is too often seen “from above” as a drama of high constitutional principles rather than from below, as a reflection of popular sexual politics. He presented a paper on the subject in April at a University of London conference on “the royal body,” which also featured work on paparazzi and other modern topics, alongside papers like “ ‘Great Codpeic’d Harry’: Imagining the Sexualized Body of Henry VIII.”

“Modern royal masculinity is relatively unstudied,” said Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who presented a paper at the conference on the role of George V, George VI and Prince Philip in promoting national cohesion through manly sport.

That may partly be because for the last two centuries British royal men have more often been standing somewhere behind the throne rather than sitting on it — a phenomenon that some scholars say may suit the modern monarchy just fine.

Clarissa Campbell Orr, a historian at Anglia Ruskin University in England and the author of several books on queenship, said that women may be more comfortable with the constitutional monarch’s condition of being rather than doing.

“A man who is a king, or a king in waiting, is always fretting,” she said. “A woman is less likely to fret and more likely to just get on with it.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: