The notable characteristic of the royal families of Europe is that they have so very little of anything remotely resembling true power. Increasingly, they tend towards the condition of pipsqueak principalities like Liechtenstein and Monaco -- fancy-dress fodder for magazines that survive by telling us things we did not need to know about people we have hardly heard of.
How then have kings and queens come to exercise the mesmeric hold they have upon our imaginations? In On Royalty renowned BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman examines the role of the British monarchy in an age when divine right no longer prevails and governing powers fall to the country's elected leaders. With intelligence and humor, he scrutinizes every aspect of the monarchy and how it has related to politics, religion, the military and the law. He takes us inside Buckingham Palace and illuminates the lives of the monarchs, at once mundane, absurd and magical. What Desmond Morris did for apes, Paxman has done for these primus inter primates: the royal families. Gilded history, weird anthropology and surreal reportage of the royals up close combine in On Royalty, a brilliant investigation into how an ancient institution struggles for meaning in a modern country.
As Paxman seeks to fathom the mesmeric hold of monarchy particularly British on our imaginations, his remarkable access lets him spy closeup on today's royals. At a royal house-party at Sandringham, Prince Charles offers a world-weary explanation of monarchy's function: "we're a soap opera." An out-of-the-blue lunch with Princess Diana, who strikes him as a lonely woman who wanted someone to talk to, leads him to ponder the public passion she inspired. And the prospect of meeting the queen at a Buckingham Palace press reception finds the seasoned BBC host with staunch republican sentiments strangely overcome by nerves. Examining how royalty actually becomes royalty, Paxman examines how a monarch finds a throne (Albania invented a king in 1923 and sought an English country gentleman for the post); the matter of producing an heir; royalty's role of being, as one of Queen Elizabeth's secretaries put it, "in the happiness business." This wide-ranging work tackles everything from the enigmatic cuckolded husbands of Edward VII's mistresses to contemporaneous comparisons of the last moments of Charles I to the passion of Christ; George V's abandonment of his cousin the Russian czar; and the sticky finances of the House of Windsor and Charles's eccentricities. Paxman proves a vastly knowledgeable and tartly entertaining guide to a magical realm that is stranger than fiction.