Styled as a royal biography, this clever and witty debut follows a fictitious princess whose svengali is a mechanic who takes his advice from Bruce Springsteen.
- Grand Central Publishing
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Princess Izzy and the E Street Shuffle
By Beverly Bartlett
5 SpotCopyright © 2006 Beverly Bartlett
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAs far as he was concerned, the great tragedy in the otherwise comfortable life of His Royal Highness the Prince of Gallagher was that he knew from the time he was twelve that he could not, would not, should not even dream of marrying for love. His mother and father had made that clear. On the rare occasions when the royal family dined alone, they would always go on and on about the troubles that had recently plagued their British cousins in the House of Windsor. The scandals, the divorces, the unending criticisms of the royal family.
"But that," King Philippe would proclaim, "is what happens when heirs to the throne do not marry wisely."
So Raphael began to settle into the notion that he must marry sensibly. He couldn't be bothered with what he might personally find attractive or interesting; he was to think solely about the good of the country and of his family. He had to find a woman who was handsome enough to represent a good-looking country, but not one who was too caught up in looks and fashion and all of that. Such interests, he observed, brought nothing but trouble.
In fact, it would be preferable if the woman in question had no interests at all. The ability to feign interest-that was the important quality in a princess. A princess-orprince, for that matter-who is genuinely interested in things is bound to start thinking that the clinic she's touring might need money more than it needs royal visitors, or that the Saudi government's desire to dress her in black garb on state visits is inexcusable, or that, my word, Prince Andrew really is an old bore and must they invite him to the wedding, third cousin or not?
Far from the popular notion of a princess being privileged and spoiled, a good princess is the most undemanding of creatures. She smiles at anything placed before her. She is impressed by anything people attempt to impress her with. ("Well now, look at how the children used macaroni to spell out 'Welcome Your Highness'! I must say, I've never seen its equal!") Above all, she must be absolutely uninterested in her own feelings, which are the hallmark conversation topic of common women. Such nonsense, Prince Raphael had noted, tended to annoy even his professors at school, educated but common men, all of them. So for a crowned prince like himself, well, it would just be ... unbearable.
No, his parents were quite right. He should not marry for love.
At least that was his thinking as a boy, and as I said, he later considered it one of the great tragedies of his life. But if you assume, therefore, that the prince did not love Isabella Cordage, then you are assuming a bit much. For the truth is, despite all that talk of duty and family loyalty and the good of the country and other such sensible nonsense, when it came time for Raphael to marry, he paid no more attention to his parents than most young men do. He married exactly whom he wanted to. He just didn't admit to doing so.
And the fact that she had some noble ties and was very presentable and could feign interest at even the most dreadful exhibit of mid-twentieth-century household tools was so much the better. The truth was, he adored her. He just didn't realize it.
He had known Isabella, of course, since he was a small child. Her father was of minor but storied nobility, having inherited the title "Earl of Cordage" from the legendary man-child who had, six centuries earlier, played such a critical role in the War of the Hundred Hills. But there is no need to get bogged down in that sort of familiar history. The point is that her minor nobility was just enough to make Isabella Cordage a suitable playmate for the little future king. So she was among about two dozen children, all about the prince's age, who were regularly summoned to the castle-via elegant hand-painted invitations, of course-for small circuses and large birthday parties.
At first they played together with the unself-conscious abandon of all small children, unconcerned with their differences in gender or the degree of their nobility. But as the years wore on, the relationships became more strained. The boys and girls resented the adult expectations (which, by puberty, hung in the air like the stifling humidity of the worst summers along the Bisbanian Sea) that they would, out of all the world, date and marry only within this small circle.
Furthermore, the boys resented that they were so obviously a mere consolation prize compared to one particular classmate. The girls, meanwhile, were annoyed that in the whole melodrama of their young and difficult lives, the only story anyone cared about was which of them would marry Rafie.
Isabella, being among the least noble of the children, perhaps resented the whole thing more than most. In her teenage years, she developed-in addition to a small acne problem and the fine, flyaway hair that she battled through life-a tart tongue and smart attitude with His Highness, once famously going so far as to tell him that any modern woman would consider a man with a crown about as desirable as a man with a sexually transmitted disease.
"If she wants money, there are plenty of men who have that," she said, loudly enough to be overheard by guests at the largest ball of Bisbania's summer racing season. "And if she wants fame, a good rock star will do nicely. What does marrying a king get you except endless grief, tawdry speculation about your reproductive system, and a steady stream of editorials saying you're too formal and frumpy or else asking why you don't carry yourself with more grace and poise? A princess can't win, can she? If I were you, I'd worry about whether anyone would have me."
Not even a flicker of reaction passed over the prince's face as he replied simply: "How interesting."
And he walked away.
Isabella was unreasonably flustered by his even, royal response. The prince, despite his decorum, was hurt and strangely intrigued. There were a hundred women at the ball, and he thought only of her: Why doesn't she like me?
But do not misunderstand. This is not one of those predictable romantic comedies in which the man and the woman spit fire at each other for dozens of episodes before falling completely in love. It is true that Isabella and Raphael were often curt, sour, or standoffish with each other. But it wasn't so bad as all that. They were just children, after all. They sparred at times, but they also quite enjoyed each other. The tabloids reported the "sexually transmitted disease" comment many times over the years, but they mostly never bothered with what happened a few days later, when Raphael and Isabella saw each other at the races and Isabella, who had managed to find a way to pull her problem hair into an attractive bun, tried to smooth things over. "Oh, Rafie," she said, "I'm afraid I was dreadful the other night. I was trying to start a philosophical discussion about the unreasonable expectations of royal women, but I fear it came out like some sort of disrespectful rebuke."
She smiled here in what she hoped was a winsome way and pinched his arm in a friendly guy-chum manner. "I'm sure you'll find a woman who is quite up to the job," she said. "Someone who will not only appreciate you for your own sweet nature but will think of all the good she will someday do as queen."
Raphael brushed off the incident as though he barely remembered it. "Oh, of course, I knew quite what you were getting at. If I appeared put off, I was just rather distracted by the visiting grand duchess. She does take quite a lot of attention."
Then they smiled weakly and cheered the horses, and Isabella cashed a very nice ticket by correctly putting a little money on a long shot named Apology Accepted.
(I assure you that truly was the horse's name. For all my faults, I'm not so silly and pedestrian as to make up far-fetched but insignificant details like that. Not that a name is ever completely insignificant. You can tell so much about people by what they chose to be called. And people do choose for themselves, ultimately. Your mother might call you Araminta, but you can introduce yourself as Minty or Ara or Tiny or-why not?-Scooter. You have a choice, and the choice you make reveals much about you. But a horse, of course, has no choice at all, and the name he is given does not, to the dismay of amateur bettors anywhere, have any impact on his racing ability. So the name Apology Accepted was, as I said, completely insignificant.)
After Isabella's apology, everything went on much the same as before. If anything, her friendship with Raphael warmed a bit. Isabella was always the prince's first choice when he needed a partner in a card game. And it was always a sweet relief to be seated next to her at state dinners, which would often happen if there was no visiting royalty who needed tending. Isabella was the only woman Raphael knew who didn't start looking around the room in a distracted way when he shared his thoughts on the ethics of using drug therapy for lisping problems in children. (The mechanics of speech were an interest of his.) And she had a wonderful little wiggle in her waltz that he admired on the dance floor. At the racetrack, she shouted and yelped in a lusty manner when her horse was headed toward the finish, so unlike most of Bisbania's noblewomen, who would merely clap their hands in a patty-cake fashion: fingers pointed straight upward and palms tapping together in an unenthusiastic, robotic motion. Once he believed that he even heard Isabella call out, "Move it, nag face," as her horse headed down the stretch. But when he asked her to repeat herself, she claimed to have been clearing her throat. "I have a bit of a cold," she said.
Isabella was a delight.
So no one should be surprised that Raphael found himself smitten when Isabella returned home after studying at Yale, an American school where she picked up some appalling Americanisms as well as a master's degree in art history and a preference for lower-cut blouses. Gone was any teenage brittleness, and they quickly fell into a routine of riding and tennis and conversations that lasted a bit longer than average in receiving lines at holiday banquets.
Then one day Raphael's valet, Vreeland, mentioned while selecting the prince's wardrobe that Edwina, the crowned princess of the Selbar Isles, was growing into quite a young woman, and the prince suddenly realized what had happened.
It was all over. Without so much as a kiss or any event that you could call a date, without consulting his parents or Vreeland or any of the assorted advisers who had chosen his school and his major and even his hobbies, Raphael had chosen a wife. And she was not Edwina, the crowned princess of the Selbar Isles. She was Isabella.
Raphael acted upon this decision with all of his characteristic impulsiveness and insensitivity, failing to appear for a snorkeling date with Edwina the very next morning by explaining that he was busy selecting mushy poetry to send to Isabella. Obviously, this not only crushed Edwina's fragile ego but also angered her father, King of the Selbar Isles and Beaches, and thus caused endless grief for King Philippe. In fact, the missed snorkeling date is the real reason behind that year's devastating Bisbania-Selbar Isles waterway dispute, the one that stranded fishing boats, tourist ferries, and, rather famously, a certain former U.S. president in the company of an attractive young woman (not his wife).
But none of that mattered to Raphael, who argued to his father that if Edwina was going to be as sensitive as all that, she would have made a horrible Bisbanian queen anyway. Isabella, he suggested, would have handled a canceled date with far more panache, though he did not plan on testing the matter. For Raphael did not even once stand Isabella up, though their relationship did have the usual peaks and valleys.
There are some biographies out there that will get into all the nitty-gritty of the courtship, that will tell you about their first kiss and their first argument. These biographies will tell you exactly how many times Isabella considered moving back to America and how many times Raphael thought that Bisbania was perhaps ready for a bachelor king.
But I don't want to tell that story, and you don't want to hear it. They were just two young kids dating. They had, in the parlance of the time, "issues." Who cares? If you want that story, you can get plenty of it at your local junior college. Just go sit in the cafeteria and ask some woman how her boyfriend is. You'll hear enough, and it will be no different from this.
Here is all you need to know: They dated for two years. He hinted at his intentions. She expressed reservations. He persevered. His parents were concerned because Isabella could be a bit of a handful, but they could hardly complain, given that they had included her in the circle of suitable young women since the beginning. ("She was supposed to be the one who made the others look good," Queen Regina hissed to her husband when they recognized what was going on.)
Finally, they went for that walk in the gardens of Glassidy Castle, and Raphael put his question to Isabella in a simple, straightforward way. "Please, Isabella," he started. Then, in a calculated attempt to use less formal language, he finished with "Won't you marry me?" Isabella said yes. They held a press conference. And when some silly young reporter asked her if she was ready for the royal family, she threw back her head, laughed, and said, "Maybe the question is: 'Are they ready for me?'"
The media would play that bit a million times over the years, and it became a standard piece of her story. But that only goes to show you the power people have when they're the ones editing your video. You could point to that remark and say it meant something, but you just as easily could point to the moment earlier, when someone asked how she felt and she said: "Humbled, really. All I want is to be a good wife and someday a good queen."
Did either comment really mean anything?
We'll see. As I said, I don't editorialize until the end.
The announcement was a big hit and got a good deal of world attention. Ever since the troubles in the House of Windsor, the world rejoices when a seemingly mature, suitable woman becomes engaged to a prince. (Even if it's just the Prince of Gallagher, the heir to a mere slip of a throne, the kingship of a tiny city-nation so snugly nestled between the Bisbanian Sea and the southernmost Alps that, for many centuries, it could be reached only by foolhardy climbers and expert seamen.)
To help with the wedding preparations, the castle immediately assigned Isabella a maidservant, a middle-aged woman named Secrest who had recently inherited the job from her mother. (The famously lucrative royal pension plan meant that castle positions were often handed from one generation to another, assuming the family had the appropriate work ethic and skill at keeping secrets.)
Isabella, in a meaningless burst of egalitarianism, insisted that Secrest's job title be changed from maidservant to "royal associate." The formal proclamation, signed by the princess in what now seems a youthful, carefree hand, incorrectly lists Secrest's name as Secresta.
But neither the name nor the title made much difference to Secrest, who did not get a raise or even a noticeable increase in respect with the "promotion." The change did, however, make the appropriate splash in the tabloids-and the more serious media. Conventional wisdom suggested that using nonservile titles like "royal associate" demonstrated Isabella's thoroughly modern spirit. "I'll associate with this royal any day," Ethelbald Candeloro wrote in the gushing style typical of the media during the engagement.
So the world celebrated. Stamps were issued. Plates were created. Oh, you remember the whole thing, I'm sure. And if you're not old enough to remember-which, silly me, I guess most of you aren't (it's been so long ago!)-then just think about one of the other recent weddings, and you've got the idea. They're all the same, really.
Isabella wore white, of course. But she made a bit of a splash by having some color woven into the silk gown. The neckline was embroidered with a royal blue pattern of tulips, a tribute to some Dutch blood on her mother's side. Around the wrists and hem, the tulips were red.
It was stunning. You forget now how stunning and bold and beautiful it was. It was copied so much later that it became sort of cliché. Another great idea spoiled by mass production. But isn't that always the way?
Excerpted from Princess Izzy and the E Street Shuffle by Beverly Bartlett Copyright ©2006 by Beverly Bartlett . Excerpted by permission.
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