Rumblings in the House of Windsor

March 31, 1992

Given their history as former colonial subjects, many Americans have little use for royalty except as objects of derision or envy or entertainment. So it's no surprise the news of a marital breakup between Britain's Prince Andrew and his wife, Sarah Ferguson, was greeted in this country with the kind of mocking voyeurism generally reserved for such exotica as the annual mating ritual of the giant pandas in Washington's National Zoo.

There is a certain element of what the Germans call Schadenfreude, or joy in other people's misfortunes, in all this. Part of it is aimed at the British public's fascination with royal doings that are viewed by some as an unseemly anachronism. And part of it has to do with the traditional American lack of sympathy for the "poor little rich girl."

Yet one wonders how anyone could sustain a successful marriage in the fishbowl existence to which the British royal family is consigned. The British monarchy asks fairly ordinary people to fill impossible public roles, then exposes them to worldwide obloquy and scorn when they fail.

Tolstoy wrote that all happy marriages are alike, but every unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way. Queen Elizabeth's children certainly seem to bear him out. Princess Anne, her only daughter, separated from husband Capt. Mark Phillips after 16 years of marriage in 1989. A decade after their storybook wedding, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, and his wife, Princess Diana, appear resigned to a painful arrangement under which each spends as much time as possible away from the other. Prince Edward, the youngest son, hasn't been able to hook up with any woman on a long-term basis. And now Prince Andrew's much-heralded marriage has collapsed.

The House of Windsor will muddle through this crisis, as it has previous ones, with a stiff upper lip and an unshakable conviction in its historical indispensability. The rest of the world may snicker and smirk at its foibles, but the British monarchy will outlive all the laughter and the tears.

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