Royal wedding: Prince William and England are lucky to have Kate Middleton Sensible, steely but warm-hearted, Kate Middleton will bring a refreshing informality to the custom-bound royals, says Allison Pearson.
Two portraits, one formal and one more casual, show the couple smiling and embracing after the announcement of their engagement last November Marrying the man you love might be considered enough of a first for any woman. But on Friday at 11am, when Catherine Middleton steps into Westminster Abbey to exchange vows with Prince William, this commoner will become a true royal pioneer.
Kate will be the first royal bride to have a university degree, the first to have lived with her husband before marriage, the first to have a mother who used to be an air hostess, the first to be raised in a house that has a street number instead of a fancy name and a moat with swans. Whatever snobs may say about the suitability of the match between the middle-class Miss Middleton and the monarchy, there can be no doubt of one glorious fact: some day, she will be the first Queen of England to have fallen over at a roller disco in a pair of yellow hotpants.
It is Kate’s only serious slip-up so far. Not bad for a girl who has had to endure the longest job interview in history. Kate was 19 when, in 2001, she met William during their first term at St Andrews University. They became friends – and, eight months later, more than that. Fast forward eight years and Kate was two months away from her 29th birthday when their engagement was announced.
Eight long years in which the quiet, sporty brunette, famous at school for her record-breaking high jump and tenacious character, earned the humiliating nickname of Waity Katie. Why didn’t the art history graduate use her brain and find herself a proper job, demanded the press. Kate’s failure to get a ring on her finger became a national joke.
But, as a friend in the couple’s circle points out, to get the promotion to fiancée, Kate couldn’t risk accepting any job that made her look like she was cashing in on her boyfriend’s name: she was stuck between a hard place and a rock. And not just any rock; it was the £250,000 sapphire and diamond ring that had belonged to William’s adored late mother.
Here is a modern woman, who, like Diana, Princess of Wales, is known for her kind heart and love of dancing, wears £40 polka-dot dresses from Topshop, and found herself auditioning for a role in a cantankerous institution that still runs according to rules that would make Queen Victoria feel at ease. Only Jane Austen would have guessed that the perfect person for the role would turn out to be a Miss Catherine Middleton of Bucklebury, Berkshire.
“Kate’s not necessarily the most dynamic girl on earth, but she’s been hemmed in by not wanting to do anything wrong,” says the friend. “She is bright, artistic and a hard worker. If she hadn’t met William, she would have had a conventional career, but she’s been driven by a desire not to do anything that’s tricky for him. She never wanted to do anything that could harm William.”
Or harm her own prospects of getting her hands on the ultimate prize, some might add. The girl who at school was said to “never do anything wrong” is possessed of a steely inner resolve. “Kate isn’t interested in [social] position,” insists another royal insider, “her attitude is, ‘William’s my man.’ There’s this incredible possessiveness and she was damned if she would lose him to another girl who loved him less than she does.”
Jewellery designer Claudia Bradby, who worked with Kate when she was employed as a part-time junior buyer for Jigsaw, the clothing store, and will attend the wedding, says: “Kate is straightforward, nice, composed, feminine and very English. Discreet and quiet, but with a strong sense of herself. She’s a classy girl.”
The royals have their own definition of classy. As second in line to the throne, William was expected to pick his princess from a select group of well-bred young fillies. Hot favourites included Davina Duckworth-Chad and one Isabella Amaryllis Charlotte Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe. Enough hyphens to make plain Catherine Middleton feel a little inadequate, you might think. Except that, when a friend at St Andrews told Kate how lucky she was to be going out with Prince William, a smiling Kate replied: “He’s lucky to have me.”
Her confidence is largely down to her parents, Michael, 61, and Carole, 56. Their story of rising from British Airways officer and stewardess to multi-millionaires, thanks to Carole’s mail-order Party Pieces firm, is well known. Michael – known as Mike or even “dad” by Prince William – is descended from middle-class legal stock. Carole’s parents, Ronald and Dorothy Goldsmith, a builder and sales assistant, began married life in a condemned flat in Southall.
Every family that enjoys a remarkable jump in status has an engine. For the Middletons, it was Kate’s tiny, birdlike granny. A coal miner’s granddaughter, she was known as Lady Dorothy to relatives because she was a snob who “wanted to be the top brick in the chimney”. Dorothy, who died in 2006, was fanatical about keeping up appearances and raising her children, Carole and Gary, for a better life.
With her mother’s fierce encouragement, Kate eventually blossomed. But her background remained an issue. The Middletons have been mocked for their origins and aspirations. The Prince’s friends reportedly sniggered “Doors to manual” in Kate’s presence, a cheap jibe at her mother’s career. Meanwhile, Kate and her younger, minxier sister Pippa were nicknamed the Wisteria Sisters because, as one wag put it: “They’re decorative, fragrant and have a ferocious ability to climb.”
Certainly, their rise has been so rapid they needed breathing apparatus. To go from a condemned council flat to Buckingham Palace in two generations makes Elizabeth Bennet’s bagging of Mr Darcy look like a doddle. At Edinburgh University, the vivacious Pippa ended up sharing a flat with the sons of two different dukes. Friends say Pippa, who will be her sister’s chief bridesmaid, has made no secret of wanting to “marry up”. The bar has been set high by Kate. Carole Middleton has her future son-in-law as a screensaver on her mobile phone. Just picture that cat-got-the-queen smile.
However, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a girl with hair that long and swishy must be in possession of a Plan. “Kate has played a brilliant waiting game,” says one royal source. “Even when William dumped her in 2007, and she was terribly hurt, she acted with dignity, kept her mouth shut and didn’t bleat to the media.” Indeed, she did what any resourceful Austen heroine would do. She wore a spray-on mini-skirt, got an edible, caramel self-tan and went on the town looking like Cindy Crawford’s sexier kid sister, confident she could provoke William to see what he was missing, come back and grab it.
According to Katie Nicholl, author of The Making of a Royal Romance, “William is stubborn by nature, but Kate has this incredible ability to read how he’s feeling. If they have people over and he’s tired she knows when to wind the party up, she knows when he’s feeling claustrophobic… On the two occasions when they split up – neither of which were what Kate wanted – she knew he needed space and time. She stepped back and she gave it to him. She is intuitive, she gets William in a way no one else does.”
While William trains as a search and rescue helicopter pilot, he and Kate have been living in a remote five-room, whitewashed farmhouse on the Isle of Anglesey, lashed by a causeway to the wild, westerly tip of Wales. They prefer to get by without any domestic staff. Kate is the bossier of the two at home, but it balances out because she defers to him in public. Friends say that the couple are eager to snatch as much real life as they can before they enter the goldfish bowl for good.
“It’s good that Kate seems to lack ambition,” says one member of the royal circle. “She’s strong, not a pushover, but her job is to be two steps behind him. If someone likes being in the spotlight – well, that’s when the trouble started with Charles and Diana. The best royal marriages are when the consort keeps her head down.”
That said, Kate has already made the monarchy less custom-bound. Instead of a traditional wedding breakfast, they’re having a buffet – frightfully middle class, darling! She has insisted on doing her own make-up for the big day. The request for charity donations in lieu of wedding presents has caused heart attacks among the old guard.
And it’s hard to picture Kate, raised in such a warm family, tolerating the cold formality of the Windsors.
Much will change when the Queen dies. Kate’s family is important to her. Indeed, many believe the comforting embrace of the Middleton clan will preserve and protect Kate – and William – once she becomes royal.
The couple’s plans after the wedding may also buck convention. William’s driving ambition, says a friend, is “to stay in the military for as long as he conceivably can and not get sucked into full-time royal stuff. He’s always been keen to live life his own way, and that’s been evident in the way he’s taken so long about making this decision. They’re very determined not to make their domestic happiness a casualty of royal life.”
What everyone knows, but no one is saying out loud, is that this is one royal marriage that simply has to work. Jennie Bond, the veteran BBC Court correspondent, goes so far as to suggest that the break-up of Prince William and Catherine would be such a disaster it could herald the end of the monarchy itself.
“They took so long getting engaged because they are aware they can’t ever get a divorce,” confirms someone who has talked to William a lot. “It never crossed their minds that they would be able to split up, so the question was not, will we be married for ever, but will we be happy? They spent a long time dwelling on that.”
To understand how the Prince came to believe that Kate was the woman for the top job, you have to grasp that trust and loyalty are such huge issues for William that he tells untrue stories to friends to see if they turn up in the papers. Even before the death of his mother, William was a damaged and angry young man, acutely aware he was a prisoner of fate.
The lowest point came when William’s housemaster at Eton gave the boy special permission to watch his mother’s interview with Martin Bashir. Diana had promised him that he had nothing to worry about, but, as Katie Nicholl recalls, when Diana talked about there being “three of us” in the marriage, “William’s eyes filled with tears of fury. He could not believe his mother had invited cameras into his home, to betray his father and their family in such a public way.” He wouldn’t speak to her. He forgave her, but he could never truly forgive her. And then she died.
Until the day of their engagement, Lady Diana Spencer had to call Charles “sir.” On the night before her wedding, she was left alone in Clarence House, with supper on a tray. Diana said that walking down the aisle, she felt like “a lamb to the slaughter”.
William is determined that Kate will not be hurt as Diana was hurt. All those years when William seemed unable to commit had nothing to do with his love for Kate, and everything to do with his fears. Although Kate is, in many ways, the anti-Diana – wiser, calmer, a woman not a child – only a Windsor who had been raised by Diana’s rebellious, loving spirit could have chosen her. How fitting that the couple made an emotional pilgrimage to Diana’s grave at Althorp last week.
When Kate walks down the aisle of Westminster Abbey on Friday and into history, the ghosts of two remarkable women will be with her. The mother-in-law who taught her son to protect and love, and her grandmother Dorothy, who always did want to be the top brick in the chimney.
Kate was right all those years ago. William is lucky to have her. And so is England.