Royal wombs often play havoc with the public imagination. What happens inside the human body and behind closed doors — sex, gestation, birth — is usually dark matter. But royalty, together with the questions of succession that come with it, lends to the ordinary business of breeding a mystique that makes it at once more remote and more public, and therefore open to bizarre forms of collective curiosity and fascination. Think of how the drama of King Oedipus’ birth fired the imagination of the Greeks, and became one of the founding stories of Western modernity. Yet, it is this very modernity that gives to the perception of monarchy, especially that of the Windsors, a peculiar doubleness. Enduring fascination and relentless caricature come together in the way their own subjects, former colonies and the rest of the world regard this family today. Sometimes, this might take a strange and macabre turn, as when people found themselves compelled to imagine, in gruesome detail, an unborn child that may have died with the Princess of Wales after her speeding car crashed in Paris. Sometimes, the strangeness becomes ungovernably comic, as with the little farce of royal mimicry played out recently in a private hospital in London around the newly-pregnant Duchess of Cambridge’s morning sickness.
A bunch of Australian broadcasters managing to fool the nurses in London’s most exclusive private ward into letting out confidential information about the duchess’s condition, in spite of their accents, takes journalistic prurience to another level of mischief and delectation altogether. Pulling off an impersonation of the queen calling the hospital to find out about her “grand-daughter’s tummy bug” and rudely asking her son, the Prince of Wales, to shut her corgis up, as two other broadcasters yap like the dogs in the background, is at once an endorsement of the residual mystique of the Windsors and a comically irreverent act of turning that mystique upside down.
In quite another setting and scale, the kingdom itself pulled off a feat almost as bizarre as this when a queenly body-double came tumbling out of a helicopter in a parachute during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, sewn up in a replica of the salmon dress worn by the real queen on that occasion. This professional stunt-man claims to have been chosen for the role because of his “queen-style legs”. But he was not allowed to keep the dress for future use, for that kind of doubling would be stepping too far across the line of decorum. The unusual spectacle of two men falling out of the sky to land eventually on a bridge, one dressed as the British queen and the other as James Bond, while the real queen takes over in the stadium nearby, turns the aura of royalty into a wholly modern madness that cannot but become part of the darker fantasies of its origins.