Princess Diana dazzled with her youth, beauty, and former nursery teacher’s touch, crouching to hug small children, in stark contrast with royal women who extended their gloved hands in greeting. During a 1981 visit to Wales in which frothing crowds lined the streets, subjects cried for Diana and all but groaned at Prince Charles. “The princess had everything going for her except the ability to not upstage the prince,” Prince Charles’s valet Stephen Barry once said. (Soon after, she outshone Queen Elizabeth at the opening of Parliament. Rather than the literal throne, all anyone really cared about was the fresh-faced Diana in white satin David Sassoon and the lover’s knot tiara.) After Wales, Diana “had expected to be lavished with praise by the Palace for her heroic efforts, but no response was forthcoming,” Tina Brown wrote in The Diana Chronicles. “Diana couldn’t understand why nobody said ‘Well done,’ recalled a former Palace aide.” Perhaps because, like Meghan, she exposed the monarchy’s wooden ways.
Like Diana in her day, “Harry and Meghan were suddenly too electric,” said Anna Pasternak, author of The Real Wallis Simpson: A New History of the American Divorcee Who Became the Duchess of Windsor. “They made the Cambridges”—Bill and Cathy, goes the joke—“seem dowdy, suburban, and rather dull. That does not go down well in the palace.” For continuity’s sake, the House of Windsor prefers to train the spotlight on the monarch and her direct heirs—hence the 2019 Christmas portrait in which only the queen, Prince Charles, Prince William, and Prince George made a performative pudding.
Three decades later, Meghan was staring down the paradox that had plagued her mother-in-law: The royal family demands duty from the women who marry in—to relinquish normal life (and their passports, according to Meghan) in service of the Crown. But if they’re too sparkly, the palace, like a sullen teen, gets jealous and resentful. It’s a no-win predicament familiar to women, and women of color in particular: You’re either too much or never enough. When Meghan and Harry announced their decision to step back as senior royals last year, the fusty palace establishment “started to push Meghan and Harry away completely,” Diane Abbott, the first Black female member of Parliament and former shadow home secretary, told Vanity Fair.
Instead of protecting the monarchy, the Firm’s alleged unsupportive treatment of the Sussexes has only lurched the institution into existential crisis, fueling questions about its colonial roots and Britain’s systemically racist present. “The queen is a figurehead for an empire that refuses to understand that its days are gone,” said Kelechi Okafor, London-based host of the Say Your Mind pop culture podcast. “Diana came along…and then Meghan Markle came along, and everything started to fall to pieces.”