Like many of you, I went out to the movies during the holidays. Maybe we saw some of the same films…Avatar, right? Sherlock Holmes? And despite the protests of hipsters and grinches, more than a few of you saw Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. I was pretty enthusiastic about the end-of-year blockbusters and/or Oscar bait, and my anticipation of classy period drama The Young Victoria had me doing the happy dance in my kitchen, every time I looked at the promotional postcard I had stuck to my fridge. Let me guess: not many of you were doing the happy dance over this flick, eh? I mean, how excited can you get over a bio-pic about the woman whose name is synonymous with nineteenth-century prudery and rampant colonialism?
In my case, quite excited — not just because I’m a sucker for historical films, and British things generally, but because I’m something of a monarchy addict. I am obsessed with kings, queens, rules of succession and divine right, both past and present. Sure, everyone likes fictional royalty, as evidenced by fifty million versions of the King Arthur legend, but as fond as I am of the Knights of the Round Table, I find real-life nobles, sans Excalibur and the Holy Grail, even more intriguing. Perhaps if I lived in a country with an active monarchy, I would feel differently. Maybe I would adopt the attitude of the British Republicans, who are appalled that they still live in a nation with a hereditary head of state. Then again, polls consistently show that the majority of Britons want to keep their royals (as opposed to…what? Deporting them to the Bahamas?), with support growing even stronger in recent years; of course, it helps that Prince William, currently second in line to the throne, is utterly adorable.
My preoccupation with royalty extends not only to the sovereigns and what they accomplished (or failed to accomplish), but also to tangential elements, like castles and palaces, etiquette and protocol. Who cares how many homes Queen Elizabeth owns? I do. (Nine.) Who gives a crap that Crown Princess Masako of Japan is losing her marbles over her failure to produce a male heir? I do. Who really wants to know that Henri II of France took a mistress twenty years his senior at the age of fifteen, kept her until his death at age forty, and felt quite comfortable sitting on her lap in the presence of others? I do. And admit it, that made you sit up and take notice, didn’t it? Kingly sex is especially titillating because a king’s DNA has so much riding on it — with the ”right” person, it determines the future of a state, while with the wrong one…well, it takes a lot of coin to support royal bastards in the proper style. Speaking of style, it occurs to me that my interest in royals is similar to the interest others take in Hollywood stars and out-of-control socialites: in both cases, we’re fascinated by the weirdness that money and power can breed. But real royalty takes it one step further, in that not only are these folks powerful and rich, but they truly believe that they have the right — and the responsibility — to guide the course of a nation and the fortunes of thousands, even millions, of people. No wonder Ivan the Terrible was such a prick.
For the most part, my jones for nobility is harmless. I mean, taking time to memorize the entire British line of succession from William the Conqueror to the present day may not raise my pay grade, but it keeps me from watching too much TV. And shelling out a few bucks to see the occasional lame historical drama (I don’t care what you people say, Elizabeth is a truly stupid movie) won’t kill me — in fact, it occasionally leads to a nice surprise (seriously, the use of Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack is more effective than you’d think). Only once has this fixation led me to the dark side: many years ago, I shoplifted a poster showing the British royal family tree from the gift shop at the Tower of London. Look, I was young and dumb, backpacking around Europe on a budget, and I just couldn’t justify laying out five quid for this absurd item — so I stole it. It was wrong, but in the long history of evil acts committed at the Tower — the assassination of Henry VI, the disappearance of Richard III’s young nephews, the executions of Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey — it’s small potatoes.
I’ll be honest, The Young Victoria is nothing to write home about, despite being crammed full of political intrigue, kissing cousins and giant bonnets. So skip the film and read up on the real woman, who despite presiding over the most body-shy period in human history, was something of a freak between the sheets (perhaps Prince Albert actually had…a Prince Albert?). Or head east and read about Frederick the Great, the creator of modern Germany, and his ”special friendship” with an army officer his father later had beheaded. Or, coming closer to the present day, chuckle over the seeming ordinariness of King Abdullah of Jordan, whose parents met on the set of Lawrence of Arabia. He is also a major Star Trek fan.
Is monarchy really such a bad way of running things? Just because we here in the Colonies didn’t like the way we were treated by one king in particular, that’s no reason to condemn the whole institution. Sure, you run the risk of having decisions made by a person who may have none of the qualities necessary for the job, but frankly that happens in democracies too, as was painfully obvious throughout most of the 00’s. At least when someone knows that he will, or at least might, be in charge of everything someday, he can spend a few decades studying up. And the sexism inherent in virtually every system of succession known to humanity can easily be dealt with — in fact, the U.K. has already begun to deal with it, with a bill introduced in the House of Lords to eliminate male-preference primogeniture. (Am I nuts for finding the word ”primogeniture” sexy?) Unfortunately, the peerage was blocked in its attempt to promote princesses by Tony Blair, of all people, whose government argued that such a change would raise ”constitutional issues.” Oh, the irony — to be prevented from bringing greater equality to the royal family by the petty political and bureaucratic concerns of the common folk! We are not amused. Off with their heads, and let them eat cake…in that order!