The news this week that £2.4 million pounds of tax payers' money has been spent on the refurbishment of Frogmore cottage caused more than a few eyebrows to be raised. One commentator said the renovation of the 19th century grade II-listed property, turning it from five separate homes into a single property, appeared excessive and extravagant, while the Telegraph’s columnist Allison Pearson speculated that could Meghan be suffering from American Wife Syndrome? American Wife Syndrome describes the sort of woman who initially deems a listed cottage “quaint” then sets about essentially razing it to the ground.
It is an affliction that I recognise all too well as I suffer from this condition – as do most of my compatriots who are also American wives in the UK. Ask any of the builders, architects, designers, gardeners, nannies and cleaners who have to deal with us and they will all no doubt sigh a familiar sigh too.
Thirty years ago, an English friend living in New York warned me that I might want to have a “look” at my soon to be English husband’s bachelor flat in London before merrily moving in. How bad could it be? I thought. And then the horror unfolded.
The mildewy communal carpet sent shivers down my spine even before I entered the flat. New York apartments almost all have wooden floors: this one had patterned wall to wall carpets designed to cover up lord knows what spills and stains. And then there was the bathroom. No power shower here. To wash my hair, I had to perform gymnastic feats with a leaking hand-held shower head. The kitchen was vintage 1942. If you hoovered the living room, the lights blew up in the bedroom. Like many Americans, I put on a brave face, telling myself it was cute and quaint. This went on until I was safely married and my work could truly begin. I became so obsessed with house renovations that I even wrote a How To book, Home UK.
To get the names of all the top builders, designers and architects in the country I called my American friends because it is no secret that the reason that power showers, underfloor heating, walk in closets, laundry rooms, indoor gyms, wine cellars, yoga studios and home cinemas exist in the UK is because we brought them over. His and her bathrooms and walk in closets are pretty much the norm in any new build house in the US. In the UK, you have to remind the architect that you own more than two pairs of shoes (at which you will be met with scowls).
Many of my American friends are City professionals: they’re used to paying attention to detail and paying for consultants. The builders I know tell me that their American clients are the most demanding, insisting on seeing spreadsheets of expenses and weekly updates. They also think nothing of summoning their architects and builders at 7 am or 7pm or on weekends- or whenever it suited them.
I’m sure Meghan’s attention to detail might have something to do with the runaway refurbishment costs at Frogmore Cottage. All those things that seem charming at first in a country cottage rapidly get old. Those rustic ceiling beams soon become a liability to a woman in Manolos. Darkness might be useful for hiding dirt but it doesn’t work for someone brought up in Los Angeles sunlight. I gather Meghan and Harry have installed a “luxury” kitchen.
In the US, that comprises a room the size of most British homes with a pizza oven, two or more dishwashers, hot water taps and an industrial cooker that can roast at least two turkeys. Americans don’t have larders: they build separate “ante” kitchens so they main one doesn’t get messed up. I also wonder if Harry and Meghan have built an American style nursery (read indoor amusement park) with an en-suite nanny bedroom with her en-suite bathroom (Americans don’t ‘share’).
One of my American friends built indoor tunnels so her children could slide into the kitchen for breakfast. She also designed a dog entrance complete with a hot water tap and drying area with underfloor heating. This was the same friend who had showers built at shoulder height because she doesn’t like to spoil her blow-dry. Americans do not comb the British countryside looking for a signal: They install two or three wifi systems in case one goes down. When I first moved to Britain we would visit country houses where the heat was turned off come March even if was snowing. Not only were you expected to share the bathroom but also the bathwater. The beds were literally “wet”.
Fortunately, American Wife Syndrome seems have now spread to the countryside too. I recently stayed with friends who gave us a proud tour of their boiler room. They explained that they could heat the pool and refill twelve baths at the same time. The water pressure was as good as the Four Seasons in New York. Another friend brags of installing electric shades in the bedrooms to spare guests the tedium of pulling blinds up and down.
Closet envy no longer exists thanks to the proliferation of Italian companies like B&B Italia and Poliform that design and build them, often sacrificing a bedroom in the process. I’m sure Meghan has a fairly sizeable shoe collection: and the American wife in her would expect a purpose-built cavity for every labelled pair. And, don’t tell Harry, but AWS eventually infects all aspects of British domestic life. The Sunday roast that seemed cosy at the beginning of a relationship will soon get replaced with healthy protein salads and snacks packed in rucksacks (Americans use their Sundays to cycle, walk, jog, play tennis, not sit around digesting too pink lamb).
Formal dinner parties once conducted in crusty dining rooms are soon served in the kitchen, buffet style. Guests are invited for 7:15 pm so everyone can be in bed by 10pm (because the hostess never drinks and rises at 5 am to meditate). I can see the downside to all of this really I can and thirty years on I do try and rein in my American Wife side. Our floor recently buckled because of a major leak: I hardly notice it now (unless I trip.) It’s not so much that my standards are slipping, but because I know rampant perfectionism is a recipe for misery.
Watching New Yorkers complain about every single detail makes me appreciate the British tolerance for discomfort. One of my married friends across the pond has British Wife syndrome – she sleeps in a double so she doesn’t get used to cricket pitch size of American beds. “It keeps you real” she says.