Last week, the Duchess of Sussex, who is perhaps still better known as Meghan Markle, made her début as an author and as a royal patron with the public launch of “Together: Our Community Cookbook.” This volume, an instant best-seller on Amazon, is a collection of recipes gathered by women whose families lived in Grenfell Tower, the West London high-rise where, in the summer of 2017, seventy-two residents died because of a disastrous fire. Markle began making off-the-radar visits to the Al Manaar mosque, which serves as a community center for displaced residents, last winter, and upon discovering that a kitchen formed by the women of Grenfell—known as Hubb, the Arabic word for “love”—was only operational two days a week for lack of funds, proposed making a cookbook as a fund-raiser. The book, the production of which is Markle’s first substantial charitable undertaking since her marriageto Prince Harry, earlier this year, was launched with a garden party held at Kensington Palace, the couple’s present home, which lies a couple of miles south of Grenfell.
The launch was held on a blustery day under a marquee, in an authentically British attempt to maintain an outdoor lifestyle in an indoor climate. Markle, who was born and raised in California, has adapted her wardrobe admirably to her new environment: she wore a teal overcoat, which she boldly risked spattering as she shovelled green rice from pot to platter and showed off her skills with a spatula and a chapati. The event was a solid public-relations win for the Duchess and her cause, and the atmosphere of warmth was heightened by the slightly goofy antics of Prince Harry, who gesticulated deferentially, like a footman from a Disney cartoon, when first ushering Markle into the event (her début, his millionth such outing), and who was later spotted by TV cameras trying to hide a napkin-wrapped handful of apparently purloined samosas behind his back.
Charitable works are what you do as a British royal, one of the side effects of having a head of state whose powers are ceremonial rather than political. For anti-monarchists, the vestigial political consequence of the royal family has always been one item on a long list of arguments for the monarchy’s abolition. In today’s global political climate, however, when the most powerful man in the world is a would-be king whose longing for a golden crown is so acute that he shapes his hair into one, the constitutional impotence of the British monarchy seems like its biggest selling point. Markle, with her experience as an actor and a celebrity, seems possibly even overqualified to fulfill her marital and professional role as an uncontroversial doer of good.
And yet: despite the convention that royals refrain from making any remarks or statements that might be perceived as political, Markle thus far has shown a willingness—or at least what her liberal fans have interpreted as the whisper of an indication of a willingness—to make her feelings on some issues known. At the beginning of the summer, at a reception at the American Ambassador’s residence in Dublin, Markle was reported on Twitter to have remarked that she was “pleased” by the result of Ireland’s recent referendum on abortion, which overturned the country’s long-standing prohibition against the procedure. This is hardly a controversial opinion in Britain, where polls show that seventy per cent of the population supports a woman’s right to choose, and where the effort by the religious right in the United States to curtail access to abortion is seen as no less barbaric and nonsensical than the enduring American commitment to guns and the death penalty. Nonetheless, Markle’s alleged remark was a departure from protocol, and the revelatory tweet, which had been made by Senator Catherine Noone, the deputy leader of the Irish opposition party, was swiftly deleted, presumably after a call from the Palace.
At the Grenfell-cookbook launch, Markle again spoke in terms that, while mild in content, were radical for a royal. In her remarks, she recalled how, as a new resident of the U.K. herself, she was moved to discover the wide range of places from which the residents of Grenfell hailed. (As Andrew O’Hagan wrote in the London Review of Books earlier this summer, “There was scarcely any floor on which more than two families were born in the same country.”) It was remarkable, she said, “to be in this city and to see in one small room how multicultural it was.” The Duchess, who is biracial—and whose mother, Doria Ragland, who is African-American, attended the launch with her—added, “On a personal level, I feel proud to live in a city that can have so much diversity.”
To praise an international city for its diversity may seem like stating the uncontroversial obvious. According to the most recent census, which was conducted in 2011, thirty-seven per cent of the residents of London were born outside the U.K., and a quarter of the city’s residents had moved to the U.K. from countries beyond Europe. Less than half the city’s population belongs to the category of “White British,” which was introduced in that census to distinguish between Caucasians of differing national descent. Yet British life and politics continue to be roiled by the crisis of the country’s onrushing deadline for exiting the European Union, next March, the result of a referendum held in 2016 that revealed, among other things, the extent of White British alarm over European and British immigration policies. In this climate, even to speak warmly of London’s multiculturalism amounts to making a political statement. When Markle did so, it was quickly seized upon by, among others, the online commenters at the Daily Mail, the country’s most popular middlebrow right-wing newspaper. (A representative example: “very few [London residents] can speak English, other than to say where is my free house and my money.”)
Princess Diana learned on the job the tremendous influence that a well-chosen charitable gesture can have: her willingness, at the height of the aids crisis, in the late eighties and early nineties, to embrace and shake hands, glove-free, with patients sick with symptoms caused by H.I.V. was widely regarded as having helped to lessen the stigma of the disease at a time when public fear of aidspatients was widespread. Markle’s gesture toward the women of the Hubb Kitchen suggests a mature, considered consciousness of the potential power she holds in speaking to, and for, members of the British public who are in danger of being marginalized. The cookbook introduces each recipe with a brief note from the woman who contributed it, such as Ahlam Saeid, who earned a master’s degree in chemistry in her native Iraq, from which her recipe for green rice originates, or Lillian Olwa, whose recipe is for chapatis like those she ate while growing up in Uganda, and who took up cooking in the wake of the Grenfell fire, after growing tired of eating packaged food while living in temporary accommodation—Londoners both. As a new Londoner herself, Markle may find other subtle ways to speak for the sixty per cent of the city’s residents who voted against Brexit, it being plainly against the spirit and interests of the capital city to cut itself off from Europe or beyond. And, as the Duchess of Sussex, perhaps she will also find ways to speak to the razor-thin majority that—in the county from which her title derives, as in the country at large—voted in favor of a less international Britain. Let’s hope she does; it certainly looks like she’s got the appetite.