Royals living among the commoners! The very idea! That’s what’s so delightful about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s declaration that they’re going to “step back” from royal life and become financially independent. They’re headed to North America; which neighborhood in Toronto best suits former royalty? Will Silver Lake dads spot Harry at the gym? Will Meghan work her shift at the Park Slope Co-op?
Of course, they’re merely replacing their titled richness with an untitled almost-as-richness—it’s unlikely the two will actually struggle like, you know, schlubs. But the news sent me back to one of the great comic novels of the 1990s, an exploration of Britain’s relationship with its royalty, and vice versa. In Sue Townsend’s 1992 The Queen and I, it’s not just Harry—then a schoolboy—who leaves the trappings of royalty behind. It’s the entire family, ousted by a Republican election and sent to live among normal citizens on a council estate called Hellebore Close. “Why they moved a posho in Hell Close?” their new next-door neighbor asks her husband as the Queen begins unloading her furniture out of the moving van. Charles and Diana move to Hell Close too, Diana “dressed for adversity” in denim, Charles excited to finally live the simple life. The Queen Mother and Princess Anne get the flats down the street.
In The Queen and I, Townsend—best known as the author of the beloved Adrian Mole series—showed the ex-royal family confronting the reality of everyday life when you don’t have a palace, a staff, and a bazillion dollars insulating you from it. The Queen—now known, by law, as “Mrs. Windsor”—learns to dress herself (“What a ludicrous device a brassière was! How did other women cope with those hooks and eyes?”) even as an unshaven, enraged Duke of Edinburgh refuses to get out of bed. Charles gets arrested and thrown in the dock by corrupt police. They must wait in lines for everything from doctors to groceries to government benefits. And everyone’s carpets, brought over from Buckingham Palace, are much too large for their new homes.
Meanwhile, the residents of Hell Close adapt to their new neighbors even as they wonder how to talk to someone “whose head you are used to licking and sticking on an envelope.” They make polite small talk and forgive the former royals’ excesses. (“Who did that one?” a neighbor asks of a picture on the wall. “Titian,” replies the Queen.) A religious Jamaican immigrant keeps the Queen Mother company and looks the other way when she bets on horses. The Queen’s next-door neighbor Beverley brings her cup after cup of tea in her good mug—the uncracked one, not the one that says A BONK A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY. And a local carpeter named Spiggy buys a van off his earnings from cutting priceless Persian rugs down to council-flat size.
One great thing about The Queen and I is that it was written at basically the last possible moment when it was acceptable to make fun of Diana. In 1992, Andrew Morton’s biography of the princess revealed Charles’ affair with Camilla and Diana’s desperate unhappiness; five years later, she would be a candle in the wind. But here, in The Queen and I, Townsend revels in the utter frivolousness of Diana, Princess of Wales, who bemoans her lost Mercedes, scorns the other women of the close for their trashy clothes, and spends her entire food budget on new paint and a stolen VCR. She worries after her husband Charles, whom Townsend portrays as a dope who just wants to putter in his backyard garden, battling Mrs. Windsor’s sole remaining corgi, who keeps peeing all over his plants.
The novel is mercilessly funny about the foolish royal family while also treating the fallen Queen with great affection and respect. Of all the royals, Mrs. Windsor is best able to roll up her sleeves, learn about her new world, and adapt to it. (Well, Princess Anne does read a DIY guide and plumb her own washing machine.) As a figurehead-less Britain falls to ruin, the former Queen, worried she’ll be called back to the palace, rebuffs royalist revolutionaries in politely-worded letters.
And Harry, who would indeed, eventually, yearn for his own version of everyday life? He and his brother fall into a pack of boys in Hell Close and are occasionally seen yelling from burnt-out cars. I wondered how much better Harry’s attempts at being a regular guy, circa 2020, might go if he had spent some actual time in Hell Close in 1992. And I worry Harry might one day rue the words of his fictional Hell Close neighbor Mrs. Christmas, who grumpily complains about the out-of-touch weirdoes who’ve come to her quiet block. “I mean, what are the Royal Family for,” she says, “if they’re goin’ to be jus’ like ordinary people?”