I fell in love with a prince once. He was lounging against an oak tree. He looked as though he'd stepped out of a Brideshead Revisited set, dressed in a tweed jacket with an angelic face and dreamy expression.


Britain's Prince William and his fiancee Kate Middleton announce their engagement at St. James's Palace, central London, on Nov. 16, 2010. A week later, they said the wedding would take place on April 29, 2011 at Westminster Abbey. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

My school friend nudged me as we poured over the grainy black and white photograph in The Times and the story about Prince Edward's 18th birthday and how he was getting ready to "go up" to university.

"He looks just your type," said my friend. "You'll only be a few years behind." (I was preparing for Cambridge at the time.) "I bet you'll meet up."

Alas, I flunked those entrance exams and the prince and I never crossed paths in real life. (Though I did get to cover some of his siblings' royal functions as a local reporter.) But in my fantasy world, it was a different story altogether.

"It's the fantasy that you never have to work again, you never have to wait for a bus in the rain, you never have to get your own shoes heeled or buy yourself a new handbag. It all just comes to you," says British writer Rosalind Miles, who I consulted when preparing last week's Cross Country Checkup on this most recent royal engagement.

I'd phoned Miles because I wanted to understand why, after decades of experience, including watching my prince grow bald and make a fool of himself and his family on reality TV, I was yet again being sucked into the pleasures of the princess fantasy. 

A fairy tale for men and women

The embarrassing truth is that I just can't tear myself away from the TV coverage of the Kate and William engagement or stop flicking through the keepsake magazine specials.

Miles is a helpful person to turn to on this. A feminist historian (Who Cooked The Last Supper: A Women's History of The World), she has also written a shelf full of historical novels inspired by such characters as the imperious Elizabeth I.

Kate, we are told, is the first commoner to marry an English king-in-waiting in over 350 years. (The late Diana, though fondly known as the People's Princess, was in fact descended from the aristocratic Spencer family who trace their lineage back to William the Conqueror.)

I've been reading about how down-to-earth Kate is, with her coal miner grandfather and former air hostess mother.  A true 21st-century Cinderella. Already strong but waiting to be transformed into a princess nonetheless.

Miles, however, had a different take.   "The job she's taken on is utterly ghastly. And she has already demonstrated her royal credentials by showing she's prepared to walk two steps behind her spouse, and keep her mouth shut," Miles noted, referring to the sweetly demur engagement announcement that I had found so impossible to switch off.

Nevertheless, Miles agreed that she also found the love story seductive.

And one of the reasons that it is both so compelling and delusional is that it's propelled by a princess fantasy that appeals to both men and women.   For women, there's that prince who will always love and take care of us. (And as a royal you never have to worry about even carrying your own front door key in your purse.)

The male fantasy, Miles observes, is "a woman who so loves you and is so indebted to you that she will never argue with you and she will walk behind you and dance backwards all her life."

The danger of course is that this fantasy can lead us into completely false expectations. Miles sighs and points to the "tragic story" of Charles and Diana. "They both went into it with utterly sincere and utterly deluded notions of what that union would bring them."

It is also a fantasy that's fed by a glut of celebrity magazines as well story books and movies that we imbibe from a very young age.

Not all twittering birds

Beth Marshall teaches education at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and has her own little princess-wanna-be.


Cautionary tale. A commemorative poster of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 is displayed at a London shop in November 2010. Not all fairy tales last. (Reuters)

She agrees that we only have to remember Diana's life and times to see that being a princess is certainly not all "singing birds and carriages, and pretty dresses."

But Marshall points out that the princess archetype is so woven into our popular culture — the story re-cycled through the generations from the Brothers Grimm to Disney's princess franchise — that it's impossible to jettison the fantasy altogether.

In the case of Disney alone, the silk-clad cohort of Jasmine, Snow White, Aurora, Cinderella, Pocahontas, Ariel and the rest reel in a cool $4 billion from princess movies, dolls, erasers and pajamas, coming soon to a Christmas stocking near you.  And that's not including the newly spun Rapunzel story.

Marshall gets concerned when traditional fables like these get so entwined with the corporate bottom line. But at the same time, she thinks that real-life royal stories, like the Kate and William engagement can open up conversations with girls and boys about what the life of a "real" princess or prince might be like. ("Bloody awful," according to Ros Miles.)

Marshall sees her own daughter "trying out what it means to be a girl." (She asked about a year ago when her hair would be blonde, Marshall told me.)

"It's my job and my husband's to help her know that there is a range of ways that she can be a girl." And that it is more about independence and intelligence than catching a prince's eye.

A human craving

So should I begin to steel myself — and my kids — against a royal fantasy fest? Shall we limit our bedtime stories to Robert Munsch's revisionist The Paper Bag Princess?

That's the one that ends with the princess saying: "Ronald, your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are bum." And then she dances off into the sunset on her own.

The truth, of course, is that whatever our age, we all have a human craving for something more exciting than the life we are living.

Maybe there are easier ways that desire can be satisfied than wearing a tiara. And I've never been very good at dancing backwards.

As I write this, my home office is a disarray of paper and banana skins and bits of Lego and crayons, and a new filing cabinet waits to be organized. These days, it's not me that needs to be swept off but my desk.   I don't know where to start. Now where is that prince, the one I married?