Meghan Markle, Good English Housewife

At a global moment rife with militarized borders, unease over refugees, and anti-immigration rhetoric, Meghan Markle’s royal marriage to Prince Harry provided a timely opportunity to showcase the inclusivity of the historically exclusionary white monarchy. Several aspects of the ceremony foregrounded blackness: for example, the significant position that Markle’s black mother, Doria Ragland, occupied; the East London choir’s hopeful rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”; and the galvanizing sermon on radical love and the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. given by Bishop Michael Bruce Curry, the first black head of the Episcopal Church. Against the backdrop of revamped calls to “put the Great back into Britain,” the thinly-veiled xenophobia and racism of the Brexit referendum, and the government threatening to deport black Britons of the Windrush generation, the 2018 Royal Wedding pointedly elevated black culture and celebrated its well-deserved and long-overdue place at the monarchical table. And yet, it is important to recognize how the cult of Meghan Markle’s fairytale wedding has been forged by a fantasy of whiteness that engulfs and neutralizes racial difference. There is a desire to downplay Meghan Markle’s Otherness and present her as a good English housewife instead.

Cutout of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Lavender Field (photo by Peter S.)

The British monarchy absorbed Meghan Markle’s difference from the get-go—with the public announcement of her engagement to Prince Harry in November 2017. The politics, fantasies, and fiction of white domesticity were on full display. In an interview with the BBC and against a backdrop of lush greenery, the happy couple nestled on a comfortable couch in a relaxed family living room, a far cry from the gilded grandeur and formality of Kate Middleton and Prince William’s engagement announcement seven years earlier. The engagement happened “here at our cottage; just a standard typical night for us, just the two of us,” Prince Harry claimed. They were “roasting a chicken [on] a cozy night, so sweet and natural and romantic,” Markle added, evoking an idyllic, English setting par excellence. The opulence of the royal palace was muted, and the legion of staff managing it were nowhere to be seen, their labor invisible. Instead, the symbolism of domesticity took center stage at an event introducing a biracial foreign woman into the bosom of a white and insular institution. The modest setting not only departs from royal formality but suggests that, despite her markers of difference, the new royal lady is truly English at heart. Indeed, the flowers of Britain’s former colonies, woven into Markle’s long silk bridal veil, hammered the point home at the royal wedding.

The equation of true Englishness with gendered domesticity can be traced back to the early modern period’s treatment of foreign queens. I want to focus on one resonant example that makes the connection apparent: the wide circulation of Queen Henrietta Maria’s cookery books as evidence of her quaint Englishness. Here, I draw on the work of Wendy WallLaura Lunger Knoppers, and Patricia Akhimie, who have deepened our understanding of the ways in which conduct manuals and cookery books were gendered and racialized.

To be sure, Henrietta Maria, the French consort of King Charles I, was not a crowd-pleasing princess. French and Catholic, Henrietta Maria was perceived by her Puritan detractors as a Popish infiltrator whose sexual and political influence threatened the Church of England. One 1628 pamphlet attacked her as a “daughter of Heth, a Canaanite, and an idolater.” Henrietta Maria’s critics demonized and racialized her by aligning her with other powerful foreign women, from Cleopatra to Jezebel to Margaret of Anjou, the much-maligned “she-wolf of France.” Unsurprisingly, Henrietta Maria’s critics held her responsible for her husband’s disastrous reign.

Laura Lunger Knoppers has argued that the royalist supporters of Henrietta Maria countered the demonizing discourse surrounding her by publicizing her cookery books in order to re-frame her as a quintessential English housewife. Henrietta Maria’s quaint recipes revealed that she was more English than the English, her thriftiness, earthiness, and loyalty to her adopted country all buttressing her undeniable position as England’s  queen. Henrietta Maria’s cookery books, through which royalist supporters affirmed her Englishness by attesting to her domestic know-how, existed within a larger pattern in which domestic manuals made Englishness legible in the early modern period. Wendy Wall has shown how the domestic labor of the English housewife underwrites Englishness in housewifery books such as Gervase Markham’s Country Contentments, or The English Huswife (1615). Likewise, Patricia Akhimie has unpacked how conduct books assume foreigners lack the capacity to conform to white-coded behavioral norms.

The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet (courtesy of https://bit.ly/2HGAxuq)

This technique for diffusing the threat of Otherness survives in the present. Meghan Markle, albeit in another time and from another country, occupies a similar position to Henrietta Maria in the British imagination. Almost every account of Markle foregrounds the fact that she is a divorced, biracial American actress who is older than Prince Harry. Not since Wallis Simpson, whose engagement to King Edward VIII provoked a constitutional crisis and ultimately forced the king to abdicate the throne, has an American woman so destabilized a mythical fantasy of Britishness. Markle, however, seems attuned to the cultural anxieties surrounding a foreign royal woman, and her self-presentation seems designed to assuage such anxieties in terms that echo the way in which Henrietta Maria’s supporters fashioned her as a domestic goddess. Of course, Markle does not have the political sway that Henrietta Maria’s detractors feared she exerted; nor is Markle expected to cement diplomatic alliances. But, in symbolic terms, Markle challenges the public persona cultivated by her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton: deferential, flawless, white. Her racialized Otherness is affirmed in the many firsts she seems to have introduced to the exclusionary white monarchy, its titles and entitlements, lineage and rank, so as to accommodate difference. At best, however, Markle’s inclusion and tradition-breaking remain deeply conditional, predicated on the expectation that she will perform the role of a good English housewife, like Henrietta Maria before her.

Mira Assaf Kafantaris is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at the Ohio State University. Her current project focuses on royal marriage, foreign queens, and the discourse of race in the early modern period. Most recently, her work has been published in The Palgrave Handbook of Shakespeare’s Queens (2018).

The contributors to this special issue were participants in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Colloquium on “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies.” Organized and facilitated by Kimberly Anne Coles and Ayanna Thompson, the year-long colloquium met monthly to study a range of early modern cultural artifacts and texts. While exploring the Folger’s extensive collections, the participants also pursued innovative methods for bringing gender and race into dialogue with each other. Patricia Akhimie asked participants specifically to consider how questions of gender and race might be analyzed “in relation both to early modern texts and our own personal and contemporary experiences.” The contributions in this issue represent our efforts to do just that.

Mira Assaf Kafantaris

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