Royals expert Carolyn Harris on our Princess Diana fixation

If there is one person in the city who has emerged as an all-purpose authority on all things blueblooded, it’s Carolyn Harris. Ready with a soundbite, she has been particularly busy of late – what with the ongoing dramas of William and Kate and Harry and Meghan, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the passing of Prince Philip, and, later this month, the 25th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. Harris is, indeed, someone I have been known to ring up to find out why westerners wear black to funerals (answer: Queen Victoria) and why brides traditionally don white (again: Queen Victoria).

“The question I often receive is, ‘Have you met any members of the royal family?’ which is sometimes followed by questions about whether I own a lot of hats and fascinators,” Harris says with a laugh. “Then I explain that my work as a royal historian does not involve wearing hats and attending garden parties.”

An instructor at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and the author of three books, including “Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting,” the Etobicoke-raised 38-year-old is often beamed into news shows to provide context during royal events. When not doing that, she’s writing for publications like Smithsonian magazine as well as guest-lecturing. Libraries, museums – even cruise ships.

One pivotal summer, in 2001, lit the match that fired up her interests. That was the year her family traveled to England, France and Scotland, visiting such castles and palaces as Windsor, Versailles, Blenheim, Skipton and Inveraray. “I really enjoyed being immersed in the history of these places,” she says. “There’s something really awe-inspiring about walking around Windsor Castle, knowing that it had been a royal residence since the Norman Conquest and had been rebuilt and renovated by generations of kings and queens, most recently following the fire of 1992.”

Time traveler

If Harris could travel to a particular royal era, where would she want to land? Possibly 1901. “Royal tours in the 21st century are rarely more than a few days in length, with numerous engagements scheduled in a short period,” she says. “From March to November 1901, the future King George V and Queen Mary, as Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, undertook an eight-month tour, where they opened Australia’s parliament and spent a month traveling across Canada by train.”

Likewise, from 1953 to 1954, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip spent six months touring the Commonwealth by ship. “These kinds of tours with long sea voyages and cross-country train journeys no longer take place,” she says, “and it would have been incredible to see them unfold.”

Here in 2022, she attributes the never-ending interest in Diana – as seen in Netflix’s “The Crown,” a recent biopic starring Kristen Stewart, and the just-out HBO doc – to her combination of glamor and vulnerability. “She was one of the most photographed women in the world,” Harris says, “but she also spoke openly about her private struggles and connected with people on a personal level.”

This summer Harris spent time mired in Monaco’s House of Grimaldi, in part as a guest speaker aboard the Regent Seven Seas Explorer. The day before the ship arrived in Monte Carlo, Harris gave a presentation on the marriage of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainer III.

Fit for a queen

Back on land in Toronto, Harris extracts inspiration from places like the Fairmont Royal York, where members of the royal family stay when visiting. On the mezzanine floor, she says, you can see a variety of photographs, including one of a dinner in honor of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their first visit to Toronto, in 1951.

“In addition,” she says, “there are so many places in Toronto that were opened or visited by members of the royal family, including the Princes’ Gates at Exhibition Place, Princess Margaret Hospital and Queen’s Park.”

Unsurprisingly, the home she shares with her husband, Bruce, in the Yonge-Eglinton neighborhood, also has its share of regal nods, including a French print of one of Marie Antoinette’s sisters-in-law, the Countess d’Artois, that Harris found in a Mount Pleasant antique shop. She also has a set of Russian dolls depicting the last imperial family of Russia, purchased at the 2019 One of a Kind Show, as well as coasters featuring the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

All of which will no doubt serve as motivation while Harris works on her latest project, co-editing a four-book series titled “English Consorts: Power, Influence, and Dynasty.”

“Royal private lives,” she says, “have been the focus of scrutiny and speculation for as long as there has been a recognizable royal family.”

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