From Malia to Meghan - why are American women so keen on British blokes?

Meghan Harry
'The key to a happy Anglo-American relationship is to embrace your differences'

On the eve of my wedding (which took place over Thanksgiving weekend in Paris) one of my oldest friends said, “I always knew you would marry someone from Brideshead Revisited.” Today that show would likely be Downtown Abbey, but the sentiment remains the same: British men have always held a certain fascination to us American women and vice versa.

You could suppose that President Obama may have reservations about the news that his daughter Malia is dating Rory Farquarson, a former head boy of Rugby school whose wealthy family has links to the highest echelons of the British Royal family. While Michelle Obama was said to have forged a warm friendship with the Queen – the two women were once even shown hugging one another during a photo call – it’s no secret that compared with his predecessors, President Obama was the least Anglophile President for more than a generation.

When he took office in 2009 he replaced the bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office with a bust of civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr and on his ‘farewell tour’ he claimed that his special relationship had been with Angela Merkel, saying she had been his “closest partner” during his time in office.

Lately this attitude has seemed to soften, however, and he has always had a soft spot for the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry - another Brit smitten with a feisty, sexy American girl. Whatever private thoughts he may have had, I am sure he will have wisely kept them to himself. Upon hearing the news that I was dating a Brit —a public school boy with floppy Hugh Grant hair – my American mother advised me to proceed with caution because “all Englishmen are drunks.” 

However, she quickly changed her mind. The attraction became apparent at the first family meal he attended, when he stood obligingly by her seat until she took hers. She also quite liked the two-page handwritten thank you letter that followed in the post. But what she really liked were the manners. A well brought up Englishman thinks nothing of driving 20 minutes out of his way to drop you off or picking up the dinner bill in a restaurant. My mother, well,  let’s just say she got used to it. We had a lot of “maybe Charlie can pick us up at the airport” and so on.

'It’s also a British man’s humour which makes him attractive to American women' Credit: Phil Dent/Redferns

But it’s also a British man’s humour which makes him attractive to American women. Our family spends a lot of time discussing what irony is and why it is so badly missing over the pond. Brits don’t like frontal attacks so they go all oblique, which makes language a sort of abstraction. They don’t have much time for political correctness either. Fear of offence in the States is so great now (of any offence on any front) that people never seem to get beyond what my husband calls “hairdresser conversations”.

Americans complained that they could never really tell what President Obama thought. Maybe Malia is reacting to this: marrying a Brit is most certainly a rebellion in some US circles. Americans think British men are a bit rogue (especially if they’ve seen a lot of Hugh Grant films). My husband courted me with poetry and roses: American men consider that weird.  

I suspect Malia’s boyfriend has had the sort of upbringing that means he drops her at her dorm after a dinner together

Malia and Rory of course are just the latest in a long line of transatlantic liaisons that have caught the imagination of the British public. The obvious example that immediately springs to mind is Prince Harry and Meghan Markle who are thought to be on the brink of announcing their engagment. Taylor Swift is well known for having had three British paramours in quick succession.

The relationship whose shadow loomed largest over the royal family for generations is King Edward VIII’s incendiary romance with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. But even by the time they met, women from wealthy US families had been crossing the pond in search of eligible gentlemen to marry for more than 50 years.

The author with her British husband

Marrying an American in British circles is regarded a bit as a business decision. Many British fortunes have been in need of replenishing and marrying a well-heeled American does just the trick. Diana, Princess of Wales, was the great-granddaughter of Frances Ellen Work, an American heiress who married the beyond-feckless James Roche, the 3rd Baron Fermoy.

Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874, was one of the first of these American marital pioneers, young women like Consuelo Vanderbilt who was just 18 when she married the 9th Duke of Marlborough in a lavish wedding in New York. And of course the fictional Lady Grantham all sponsored a roof or three.

American women have always been irresistible to British men. We’re raised like boys, almost playing competitive sports from day one and expected to be as independent as our brothers. “I like them,” Albert, Prince of Wales once said, “they’re livelier, better educated, and less hampered by etiquette.

They’re not as squeamish as their English sisters and they are better able to take care of themselves.” Certainly, we were expected to go to mixed sex schools, which is I think a fundamental difference and can work in our favour.  American men are simply not in awe of American women whereas nice English public school boys, starved of female attention for all those years, are simply enchanted. 

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I suspect Malia’s boyfriend has had the sort of upbringing that means he drops her at her dorm after a dinner together and maybe even sends thank you cards in the post. In the States, getting a text after a date is considered a big deal. I’m all for equality between the sexes, but American boyfriends used to ask for the bill (which we split) as soon as he had eaten his main course. One simply couldn’t see the point of lingering and chatting over coffee, which of course is the best part of any dinner; British men are never in such a hurry to get away.

My husband courted me with poetry and roses: American men consider that weird

The other attraction is how polite British men are, showing their American counterparts up as brash and direct. In any Anglo-American relationship you have this up and down of communication skill styles resulting (at least our marriage) in me doing most of the vocal complaints because my husband thinks losing his temper is rude. He believes in elegance. It is inelegant to scream your head off at airports or to yell at women. That British reserve is a sort of muscle that allows ample room for manoeuvre.

I have learned a great deal by watching him negotiate using manners and self-restraint. Americans - New Yorkers especiall - are always on attack mode which can be exhausting. This is why the Brits are so adored in the US: they don’t push or curse or shove or threaten to call a lawyer whenever something goes wrong. I even admire British stoicism though I don’t practise it. 

The key to a happy Anglo-American relationship is to embrace your differences and ensure the other benefits from your strengths. My husband has had to accept certain things about me: I shop, I will never get embarrassed, I will never tolerate bad service and I will escape the British climate on every possible occasion. 

After 29 years together, I think our relationship has given our children an advantage too. Rather than absorb only one mode of acting: they get to pick and choose. They can talk about their feelings but they can also shut up about their feelings. My boys have learned over the years that complaining in a restaurant is actually the right thing to do. They don’t really like writing thank you letters but they understand that they have a big effect on those who receive them. 

Most of all, they’re funny. They make great dinner party companions. I feel sorry for my friends who live with earnest, law abiding, football watching non-ironic American men. They don’t laugh as often as we do and they certainly don’t receive flowers for no reason. I am sure Malia and Meghan would say the same.