Andrew Morton Reigns as Royal Biographer

`IN 12 days time, I shall no longer be me," Lady Diana Spencer announced to a friend, during the countdown to her wedding with Prince Charles. The friend, according to British biographer Andrew Morton, noted an ineffable sadness surrounding the words as they were spoken. With rather ominous prescience, this shy yet fun-loving, upper-class young woman of 20 knew that the person she was then would soon be, in an instant, gone forever.

A similar observation could be made of Mr. Morton himself. Not the adjectives, mind you; but there is an analogous abruptness in the massive upheaval that overtook his own life the moment last June that his book, "Diana, Her True Story," hit the bookstores. Within hours, no copy of the book could be found anywhere in Britain.

In a mere few months, his book has gone on to sell well over 3 million volumes worldwide in hardback and another 1 million in paperback. It has topped the major best-seller lists in both formats - something of a literary coup - in the United States as well as in Britain.

All of this has catapulted Andrew Morton, in Britain at any rate, to household-name status. The masses of periodical pulp generated from the biography ("I think half the Brazilian rain forest has been chopped down as a result of the musings of this book," he observes) invariably refer to or quote Morton. Moreover, no one has seriously denied, including Buckingham Palace officials, the general accuracy of what is now widely viewed as a royal-reportage landmark. With the official announcement by Prime Mini ster John Major in Parliament last week of the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales, Morton's biography takes on even greater resonance.

The author is, understandably these days, a very busy man. Recently bestowed the Scoop of the Year prize by the London Press Club, he is constantly being barraged with requests from the media, both at home and abroad, for a quote here, a sound bite there.

Managing, finally, to pin Morton down for a more in-depth kind of interview, I found him to be a refreshing surprise. Chatting in his cramped, back-street London office - from which he has no intentions of moving despite the acknowledged millions he has made from his recent enterprise - it seems that he is not someone who is motivated solely by money. Intelligent, unstuffy, articulate, with an irrepressible zest for the job, he quite simply loves what he does. Indeed, when asked if perhaps some of the en thusiasm might be, after 10 years, slightly on the wane, he exclaims, "My goodness me, no! I find [royal reporting] absolutely fascinating."

But there are those who, with his latest book, accuse Morton of going too far; they place much of the blame of the couple's breakup on the pressure created by the author's titillating tome and the subsequent media feeding frenzy that it has fueled.

When the criticism is put to Morton, he is adamant: "What I did was really just articulate and make public what had been well known to the royal family ... and to, as it were, polite society for some time. By chronicling it and making it public, I wasn't adding to the problems. I was merely saying, `This is the situation."' How much is too much?

Another common criticism of Morton's book, and of other media, is: How important is it actually for the public to know such details of Charles's and Diana's private lives?

To this, Morton is equally firm. "In the great scale of things, no, it is not important," he replies. "but if you are doing somebody's biography, [these details] are integral to the story."

That said, Morton does feel strongly that if Britons are to understand themselves and their society, it is essential to at last throw open the doors on the House of Windsor - to know the difference between fairy tale and fact regarding royal life. If a nation bases its totems on illusion and delusion, he maintains, this makes for an unhealthy society.

"I believe it is far healthier to know what really goes on in the big chief's wigwam than not," explains Morton. "And what disappoints me is that so many people say you shouldn't write about members of the royal family [in such detail] and to kindly leave them alone. Well, they are incredibly influential in our society. They are part of the warp and weft of our social fabric.... And it seems to me wrong-headed not to want to understand more about your society. Indeed, it is almost criminal neglect for a journalist not to want to understand how that institution works and what motivates the people behind it, if that is your specialization. And it always strikes me that what we see in the monarchy tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the institution."

Morton believes the current, admittedly serious, image problem of the royal family has little to do with journalists writing about it and far more to do with the behavior of the protagonists themselves. Taking a historical view, he points out that, in the 1920s and '30s, the royal family commanded a great deal of respect by restricting their role to civic duties - opening town halls, new roads, and the like. This helped to perpetuate a certain aloofness, which allowed it to maintain the public relations image devised in Queen Victoria's day of being the nation's "ideal family."

By the 1980s, with the royal family's de facto powers much diminished, its social role, quite naturally, expanded. The obvious area in which to expand was charity work. With this came increasingly frequent exposure on TV - and, Morton avers, to greater peril.

"If you hitch your wagon to television," he says, "the inevitable trivialization that TV brings about also trivializes the institution."

As for the "ideal family" shibboleth, it simply could not be sustained given the close scrutiny of TV and the realities of royal family life. This, for Morton, is the nub of the issue for those marrying into it: to be brought up royal means to be brought up to hide one's true self behind a mask, virtually non-stop. In time, says Morton, the inner person becomes obliterated.

"If, from birth, you know that you have always got to be cautious and never trust anybody and always put on a facade," he notes, "eventually, when it comes to important decisions like falling in love with somebody, you will find it hard to relate, to get the answer from yourself, because `yourself' does not exist: You have become the mask." Royal family a fixture

Despite the problems, Morton insists there is hope. During moments of national celebration and sorrow, the British people have, and probably still will, gather outside Buckingham Palace, not the Palace of Westminster. The royal family, as an institution, will undoubtedly remain the spiritual focus, however illogical, of the nation for some time yet. In order to help this to continue, though, Morton believes that a few fundamental points must change as we move into the 21st century. The royal family, firs t and foremost, needs to become significantly more informal and approachable. Equally, British society has to learn to lower its expectations of these people to a more realistic level.

All of this will be difficult to achieve, but it can be done, if the royal family accepts, observes Morton, that the genie is out of the bottle and can never be put back in; it really has no choice but to change accordingly.

"People are now talking about the Scandinavian and Dutch monarchies," says Morton, "as being refreshing examples of informality, yet standing for the basic job of monarchy, which is to represent the nation.

"And that is what our monarchy has got to go back to. It can no longer stand for an idealized family. Nor should it."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.