“Invasion of the Harry Hunters”

When reading a story today about the upcoming Royal wedding, I was reminded of a Newsweek piece from several weeks ago. While it may not be surprising that some young British women might be trying to catch the attention of Prince Harry, it is more interesting to read about young American women who have become “Harry hunters”:

Fleming is part of a small but resolute group of American “Harry hunters,” aspiring princesses who are crossing the ocean in hopes of capturing the redheaded royal’s heart (and the tiara that comes with it). Some rely on semesters abroad to lend an air of social normalcy to their excursions, while others simply count their pennies—or lean on their parents—to fund extended vacations in Britain. But the goal is always the same: to live happily ever after with a prince of the realm.

These days, their mission has taken on a distinct sense of urgency. Next month Harry’s older brother, Prince William, will wed Kate Middleton—a commoner herself, the Harry hunters note optimistically. But even as these earnest, young crown chasers devour royal-wedding news, the nuptials are a source of serious anxiety. When it comes to available slots on the Windsor family tree, explains author Jerramy Fine, whose 2008 memoir recounts her own unsuccessful efforts to marry into the monarchy, “Harry is now their last chance.”

This reality is not lost on Taylor McKinley, a sweet 21-year-old George Mason student who recently began a semester abroad at the University of Leicester (two hours outside London). McKinley takes her princess prep seriously. She reads magazines with names like Majesty and Royalty. She studies the historical monarchy. And in high school, she even abstained from dating, figuring she would “hold out for royalty.” Now, she spends her weekends dragging classmates to Harry’s favorite restaurants and waiting for fate to strike. Her parents are skeptical, but McKinley is confident she will one day find her prince. “I’m one of those people who only reads books with happy endings,” she says.

McKinley’s tactics are mild for a Harry hunter.

How come the story doesn’t include any reactions from family or friends of these girls? While these girls supposedly take heart that Kate Middleton is a “commoner,” in order to be a “Harry hunter,” it seems like one has to be rather wealthy and have time on her hands. Studying abroad is a clever tactic but the story also discusses a woman who works part-time and takes her summers abroad to try to catch Harry’s eye. I know “commoner” means “non-royal,” but it is not like just any American young woman could fly to Britain and attend the sorts of events that Prince Harry might be at.

I wonder if we will hear more about the story in the next few weeks as we get closer to the wedding date. I’m sure we’ll hear theories or ideas about why a good number of Americans seem to be fascinated by a foreign country’s royalty.

UPDATE 10:09 AM 4/13/11: One more thought came into my mind about this story:

The news story gives us two examples of American women that are doing this and then says little about how many people are actually doing this. We get two small clues. Regarding the American women, we are told these two are  “part of a small but resolute group.” Regarding British women, we are told that “London’s Daily Mail frequently chronicles the exploits of young British socialites who spend weekends trolling the prince’s favorite bars.” While this may be an interesting story that grab’s people attention (like me), if there are only 5 or 15 or 25 people doing this, does it matter?

This is an example of a type of story that bothers me as a social scientist. It is interesting but it seems to be based on two cases with little attempt to ascertain whether this is a broader trend or not.

The familial link between Kate Middleton and Harriet Martineau

As the press continues to look for news on Kate Middleton in advance of the royal wedding, a sociologist popped up in Middleton’s family tree. Through a common ancestor, Middleton is related to early woman sociologist Harriet Martineau. Here is a description of Martineau’s life:

Harriet Martineau, to whom Kate bears more than a passing resemblance, is today a largely forgotten figure, yet during the Victorian era she was a powerhouse, a towering intellect who braved male prejudice to carve out a unique career in the world of letters. She is generally acknowledged as the first woman sociologist.

Born the daughter of a Norwich textile manufacturer, she grew up in a household dominated by Unitarianism and underpinned by a progressive attitude towards the education of girls. By the time she was 21 she had published her first article: perhaps unsurprisingly, “On Female Education”.

She moved to London and soon came her first book, Devotional Exercises for the Use of Young Persons in 1826 – but this was merely a warm-up: her big plan was to write books on politics and economics for the ordinary reader. Illustrations of Political Economy, which followed, was an instant success and brought her financial independence at a stroke…

Her circle included Thomas Malthus, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë and Wordsworth. These people, the heralds of change, thought they could improve the world and, to a greater or lesser extent, did so. Buoyed up by their vision of the new, Harriet yearned to experience nascent cultures for herself, and at a time when few of her age or class undertook such solo trips, she sailed to the United States in 1835.

While The Telegraph may suggest that Martineau is unknown in the UK, she is certainly known to sociologists. There is (or was) a Harriet Martineau Sociological Society and there have books written about her (an example here).

While Martineau’s accomplishments are impressive for her era, it is amusing that the news story continually tries to link Middleton to Martineau. Here are some of the comparisons:

Miss Martineau was renowned for her zeal and her intellectual rigour while, on the surface at least, Miss Middleton is better-known for her saintly patience in waiting for her prince and her impossibly glossy hair.

Harriet counted among her friends the reformers and intellectuals John Stuart Mill, Sydney Smith, Florence Nightingale and Thomas Carlyle. Speak it not unkindly but Kate, though photographed often, has rarely been seen with a book as a companion…

Quite how much of that rebellious streak still resides in the sleek Miss Middleton’s DNA is hard to judge… But it does raise the question: is there a Harriet lurking inside Miss Middleton ready to burst forth?

This is silly: how much can someone of today really resemble an ancestor of over 100 years ago? However, we could ask if Middleton was to act like a feminist today or to undertake activities similar to Martineau, what would be the public’s response be to her joining the Royal family?