Princess Charlene of Monaco at the Musee d'Orsay for a dinner during World War I commemoration ceremonies in Paris, France, in 2018.
Princess Charlene of Monaco at the Musee d'Orsay for a dinner during World War I commemoration ceremonies in Paris, France, in 2018.
Image: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

I think we can pretty much conclude that being a princess is not all it's cracked up to be. It used to be that you turned your pumpkin into a crystal carriage and departed into the sunset with your prince and a tiara. Your life became a glowing reflection of goodness and a type of femalehood that other women and little girls aspired to. I mean, who doesn’t want to live in a palace?

Not so much anymore — if the troubles besetting latter-day princesses are anything to go by. Diana met with her fate in a terrible tunnel after years of trying to escape. Meghan decamped to Hollywood, where she knows the rules and can play by them: note her latest manifestation on Ellen’s show, where “relatable” takes on a whole new cast. The Japanese princess Mako just dropped her title and her royal privilege to  move to New York with her “commoner” husband, running away from imperial patronage like her life depended on it.

Princess Latifa made a break from her coddled life in Dubai. Twice. The first time she was caught somewhere in the desert. The second time, after an elaborate escape plan involving yachts, jet skis and more smoke and mirrors than found in Versailles (we shall not speak of the revolution) she was caught by the Indian coast guard and restored to her father’s palace. She's now being trotted out like a show pony, probably dosed up on more sedative drugs than is necessarily legal — to present proof positive that she's alive and very much kicking in her gilded cage.

And the latest runaway princess, our very own Charlene Lynette Wittstock of Monaco by way of Benoni, is a big sad cipher on the international princess firmament. The tear-inducing, hand-drawn notes of her beatific Grimaldi twins flashing from the balcony on the occasion of National Monaco Day, telling the world that they miss their mommy, has cast the entire mysterious episode in a tragic light. Was it really her sinuses or was she just over it all? And where is she now? What institution has she retreated to? What is this extreme fatigue? What is she so tired of?

Somehow, in the figure of Princess Charlene, all our exhaustion at the tropes forced onto these women and how they should be in the world is made manifest. It is deeply tiring — all these seductive princess ideals of grace and beauty, charm and goodness and an impassive acceptance that your role is to be a repository of all expectations about a particular kind of womanhood.

How can we find ourselves in 2021 and this stuff is still with us? I thought Disney had moved on. Back in 1959 Audrey Hepburn played the role of a runaway princess in Roman Holiday. She ends up being feted about town on the back of a Vespa by Gregory Peck, a newspaper hack with high hopes for a scoop.

The princess tastes freedom for a hot Roman minute. But, because this is 1959, she goes home and her chief of staff lectures her about her “duty”.

The princess answers “Your Excellency, I trust you will not find it necessary to use that word again. Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and to my country, I would not have come back tonight or indeed ever again!”

• This article was first published by the Sunday Times.

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