Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Put On Your Crown

Set your alarm clocks, dust off the teapot, and pop to the shops for some crumpets: Prince William and Kate Middleton get married on Friday (at 6 a.m. EST)! Personally, I won’t be watching—I’m firmly wed to my bed, and nothing will tear us asunder before 8 a.m. on weekdays—but I will definitely be spending a lot of Friday gobbling up all the photographs and breathless reportage. What dress did she wear? Which tiara did she pick? Did they really put a disco ball up in the Palace? HOW LONG WAS THE KISS, AND WAS THERE TONGUE?

It’s incredibly alluring, this notion that the bride will walk into Westminster Abbey as Kate and walk out as Princess Catherine. After all, we have been inculcated since birth with the myth of royal metamorphosis. Our ancestors were, too: spend any time with folk tale scholars and you will soon see how nearly all cultures seem to have, or have had, a version of this transformation in their literature. Contemporary Western fantasies can be traced back to the 17th century, when Charles Perrault immortalized stories like Cendrillon, ou La petite Pantoufle de Verre in his collection of fairy tales; although he is considered responsible for the addition of the pumpkin (reading up on pumpkin symbolism is actually really interesting, by the way), his inspiration clearly came from past cultures. Writing in the 1st Century B.C., the Greek historian Strabo tells in Book 17, Chapter One, of his Geography the story of Rhodopis, the "Egyptian Cinderella." (Claudius Aelianus—Aelian—also mentions Rhodopis in Varia Historia). There is a Chinese story called "Ye Xian," dated 850 A.D., that follows the Cinderella plot, and a Gaelic legend.

Prince William's new bride would do well to read up on the origins of the princess myth, but I'd also suggest that she study its more contemporary iterations. I expect she's already read A Little PrincessFrances Hodgson Burnett's endearing, if a bit overly moralistic, exploration of what it really means to be royal. As young Sara Crewe proclaims:

“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it."

Princess Catherine can also turn to biography. The critically-lauded Hannah Pakula introduces us to"Vicky," Queen Victoria's beloved eldest daughter, in An Uncommon Woman (which I highly recommend), while Tina Brown takes us back to the more recent past in her infamous book The Diana Chronicles.

But what of us, the commoners who will always remain so, despite our childhood wishes for a prince? Again, we can turn to the inimitable Sara Crewe for comfort:

"I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren't pretty, or smart, or young. They're still princesses. All of us."

(Or we can go here.)

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