The merry wives of Mountbatten-Windsor

During one of the many dramatic moments in the unending freefall that is Brexit, an observer nonetheless saw reason for optimism. 

“Those girls are going to save us,” he noted — or words to that effect.

The “girls” in question are their Royal Highnesses Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, better known in media circles as Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle.

Salvation maybe too heavy a mantle for the duchesses’ slender, fashionable shoulders. Kate and Meghan are — in the words of yet another People special edition, “Royal Women” — “making the monarchy modern.” Well, there again, that might be a
teensy-weensy bit of a stretch. Princesses come and go. The crown is, well, if not forever than at least 1,133 years old.

Still, we get the optimist’s meaning. In a 24/7 digital world where more than ever narrative drives perception, Kate and Meghan have personal stories that have captivated the public, much as their beloved mother-in-law — Diana, Princess of Wales — did when she married Prince Charles on July 29, 1981, four weeks after her 20th birthday.

Diana is the unseen but deeply felt presence, the bridge in the Kate-Meghan narratives. The two have proved most faithful daughters-in-law to a woman they never met. Diana is there in their engagement rings. (Kate sports the sapphire surrounded by diamonds that was Diana’s actual engagement ring, while Meghan wears a Botswana diamond flanked by two diamonds that belonged to the princess.) She is there in their fashion choices, as in the periwinkle polka dot and red dresses that Kate wore after giving birth to sons George and Louis, respectively, echoing the green polka dot and red dresses that Diana wore post Prince William’s and Prince Harry’s births. And she is there in poignant little touches. For the American celebration of Mother’s Day, Meghan posted a photograph of her hands holding the exposed feet of newborn son Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. Prominently displayed in the background were forget-me-knots — Diana’s favorite flower.

Though the former Diana Frances Spencer was more aristocratic than the Mountbatten-Windsors, the official name of the ruling royal family, she was something of an outsider in that world, as Andrew Morton’s “Diana: Her True Story” — based on his
series of 1991 interviews with the princess — attests. That outlier status links her to her daughters-in-law, both of whom have been looked down on at different times by press and public. Remember when Kate was dubbed “Waity Katie” for her long courtship with William and decried for working in her parents’ lucrative party supply company? Though the family was upper-middle class with aristocratic connections, some sniggered at mother Carole Middleton’s former career as a flight attendant.

This turned out to be nothing compared with what greeted former “Suits” star Markle. At least, critics scoffed, the former “Waity Katie” was a true English rose. Meghan was not only an actress and divorced but she is — horrors — an American, with all the opinionated, ambitious directness inherent in our nationality. You could practically hear the former Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor — the American divorcée for whom Edward VIII, the Queen’s uncle, gave up his throne — howling with laughter from her grave.

And one more thing: Meghan is biracial with a dysfunctional family, something that has played no small role in scurrilous comments on both sides of the Atlantic. It has also set up a Kate vs. Meghan scenario, with the hometown girl coming out on top and rumors of feuds among the women and their hubbies, who were formerly known as the new “Fab Four.”

But why must it be either/or? The two women are complements. Kate, the United Kingdom’s future queen, is the traditionalist as befits her role as the wife of the heir to the heir and the elder, more structured brother. Her charitable concerns reflect this — children, gardening and the arts. She was an art history major at the University of St. Andrews and is an accomplished photographer, with her own brood — including daughter Charlotte — among her most cherished muses.

Meghan is a passionate feminist with commitments to environmental issues and anti-poverty programs that predate her marriage to Harry. Her casual, hands-on style suits his freewheeling, heart-on-his-sleeve nature. (To see his over-the-moon announcement of the birth of his son was to know what true love is.) A former devoted blogger, Meghan has lent her voice and her hand in the couple’s new, informal Instagram account. 

The couples are also complements. Again William and Kate are the traditionalistic heirs — meeting the press hours after the births of their children, looking polished. (Kate’s ability to color-coordinate everyone is unparalleled.) In photographs, Kate holds the babies; William does the driving. There’s little public displays of affection between them in public. Their children have historic family names.

Harry and Meghan opted out of the just-gave-birth-and-had-a-blow-dry sweepstakes, meeting the press two days after their son was born. Harry held the baby. Meghan put a protective hand on his back. Their choice of the name Archie and decision to forgo a title for him says, “We aren’t the heirs and we’re OK with that.”

In some ways, though, the two women have a lot in common. They both love fashion and tennis. (Will we see them together again at Wimbledon this year?) And they both draw strength from the women in their families. Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, a California yoga instructor, went to England for the birth of her first grandchild. Carole Middleton is a big part of her grandchildren’s lives.

Along with their husbands, Kate and Meghan have been patrons of The Royal Foundation, a charity that the brothers established in 2009 to support such organizations as the mental health initiative Heads Together, the Invictus Games for wounded warriors and United for Wildlife. Even here, though, the two couple’s have different roles in and approaches to nonprofits. That’s reflected in reports that Meghan and Prince Harry are leaving the foundation to pursue their more flexible interests.

Ultimately, Kate and Meghan’s bond will undoubtedly be their children. Recently, Kate visited a D-Day exhibit at Bletchley Park, where her paternal grandmother and great-aunt, twins, worked as codebreakers during World War II. While there, a group of schoolchildren gave her four stuffed animals for her three children and new nephew, whom she was to meet for the first time later in the day.

“They love wild animals,” Kate told them. “They will look after these.”

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