What'll Kate do next?
EVERY little girl dreams of being a princess, and no sane woman would consider it. Not since Diana. Before Diana there was still some mystique - the illusion of romance and wonder behind the closed doors of splendid Gothic castles. When Diana got engaged and floated up the aisle of Westminster Cathedral in that Cinderella dress, she looked truly enchanted, and ready to step dr
EVERY little girl dreams of being a princess, and no sane woman would consider it. Not since Diana. Before Diana there was still some mystique - the illusion of romance and wonder behind the closed doors of splendid Gothic castles. When Diana got engaged and floated up the aisle of Westminster Cathedral in that Cinderella dress, she looked truly enchanted, and ready to step dreamily into happy-ever-after; back then, we didn't know that the glare of the paparazzi cameras was already blinding her. What happened next was of course the ruin of a life. It was also the ruin of the fantasy.
It wasn't only the way she died. The prison of her life seemed all too clearly the stuff of a different, darker type of fairytale - Grimms' perhaps - where the princess is walled up in an impenetrable tower or laid under glass and preserved as though dead. Diana was a truly modern princess, with almost less freedom than a beggar maid.
And like all good fairytales, there's a curse that came with this one. The curse of Diana is that the very people who hounded her to her death have been frantically searching for a replacement ever since. First it was Sophie Rhys-Jones, briefly and unconvincingly lauded as 'the New Diana' when she became engaged to Prince Edward, and barely seen since the marriage. Not because she isn't around to be photographed, but simply because she doesn't fascinate.
Now there's a new 'New Diana', a decent Home Counties girl from a solid middle-class background. Kate Middleton is the 25-year-old girlfriend of Prince William, and may or may not one day be queen.
The couple have been together for four years, since they met at St Andrew's university, where they house-shared along with two others, for two years. Recently though, speculation that they may be about to announce their engagement has created a frenzied flurry of media attention, with photographers camped day and night outside the London apartment where Kate lives, and a certain amount of excited, hateful speculation as to whether she is or isn't still a virgin - a traditional prerequisite for any royal bride.
Officially the line from the Palace is that no engagement is on the cards, and William himself has said that he has no plans to marry in the near future. But Woolworths think differently and are already preparing a line of commemorative mugs, mobile phones and bunting ready to move smoothly into gear at the first sign of an announcement.
A discreet and quiet girl, Kate seems to have almost no history, certainly no outrageous personality traits that would bring her to the world's attention. Although she has adopted a certain trick of Diana's for the cameras - the downcast eyes and swift upwards glance - there is neither appeal nor mischief in the look, as there was in abundance with Diana. She is a sensible and middle-class girl, her feet firmly on the ground, who is reported to have responded smartly "he's so lucky to be going out with me," in response to one friend who congratulated her on her royal catch. It is Kate who is credited with persuading William to stick it out when he was tempted to quit St Andrew's during his first year, a move which earned her the gratitude of William's family before ever they met.
Kate's job as assistant accessories buyer for highstreet chain store Jigsaw isn't particularly glamorous, but then neither was Diana's role as nursery school teacher in the days before Prince Charles swept into her life. And Kate is not a particularly glamorous young woman; she is smart, emotionally robust, pretty rather than beautiful, sporty and a good sport.
Her dress sense is perhaps the greatest echo of Diana; there is something of lamb-dressed-as-mutton about her choice of sensible heels, decent hemlines and strong, solid colours. Diana herself is acknowledged as a style icon now, but back then, her particular brand of high-powered resort-wear seemed far more safe than stylish. And although some over-eager commentators are trying to hail her as 'the new Kate Moss,' right now, Kate is unlikely to have any real impact on what young girls in South London are wearing. Unless those girls aspire to looking like they were dressed by their mamas. However, style icons are made as well as born, and Kate is close to Sara Buys, wife of Tom Parker-Bowles and fashion features editor of Harper's Bazaar, who is well capable of engineering a right royal make-over.
The comparisons with Diana are inevitable, disappointing and meaningless; and the closer one looks, the less meaning there is. Nothing, so far, in their stories suggests any significant similarity, except the prince by their side. Although both are, in the charming parlance of royalty, commoners, Diana Spencer's lineage can be traced back to the dawn of England, and the Earldom of Spencer dates back to Georgian times. In fact, when she first started dating Prince Charles, some of Diana's Sloaney friends mocked her for taking up with such a parvenue; as a Windsor, Charles' family only dates as far back as 1917, when George V took the name in replacement of the original Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
The Spencer girls always married well, it was something of which the family were both careful and proud, and although Diana's starry match was certainly the apex of the tradition, the practice had ensured connections to many of the most aristocratic families in the UK.
Kate on the other hand comes from more of a Posh Spice-type background - rich but routine. When they met, her father was an airline pilot and her mother an air hostess. They then turned to business, with considerable success, and these days run a multimillion mail order business - selling children's party goods such as balloons, hats and streamers. But the family don't appear anywhere in Debrett, that bible of the class-conscious, and "can't be traced much further back than the suburbinization of Berkshire," as The Spectator magazine rather snootily wrote in a cover story on the young princess-apparent during the summer. More importantly, Kate's childhood in the family's five-bedroom Berkshire home - described as a "typical stockbroker pile" - seems to have been a happy one, and she is very close to her parents and little sister and brother. Diana's on the other hand was rich, miserable and neglected; as with so many scions of the upper-classes, her upbringing was entrusted to the remote care of nannies and paid help rather than loving family.
Both Kate and Diana qualify as sporty, outdoors types rather than particularly academic, but Kate progressed far further with her education than Diana, who left school straight after her O-Levels. Kate went to a smart co-ed public school, Marlborough College (currently attended by William's cousin, Princess Eugenie, and Sting's daughter Mickey Sumner), where her nickname, perhaps presciently, was 'princess-in-waiting'. A good all-rounder, she arrived as Catherine and left as Kate, having blossomed into a discreet and demure beauty in the intervening years and been nominated prefect for the last of them. Kate excelled only at the high-jump, but at that she beat all the boys in her year.
The picture that emerges of her at school is of a smart, sensible and decent sort - one girl younger than Kate distinctly recalls being told to "jolly well tuck your shirt in" by her, while one prize day Kate was awarded so many honours for her excellent conduct that she barely left the stage at all. It all seems very Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers, but that in itself is an achievement considering that the norm for the college in-crowd was more year-round sun and skiing tans, and posturing celebrity attitude. Despite media digging, no youthful indiscretions have been unearthed to shame the royal family; Kate seems to have steered clear of even the usual teenage excesses of drinking, smoking and necking.
Kate went on to St Andrews University in Scotland, and snide rumour has it that her mother persuaded her to abandon her first choice and relocate once it was known that the prince had accepted a place there. But since when is there anything unusual or ugly about mothers' matchmaking for their daughters? She graduated in 2005 with a respectable 2:1 in History of Art the same year that William graduated in Geography. He too got a 2:1, after Kate counselled him to change from the four-year History of Art degree he started, to the three-year Geography course. (In an academically undistinguished family, William's 2:1 makes him the highest qualified royal.) At her graduation Kate first met the Queen, who is said to have responded favourably to her sensible, approachable manner.
After college she tried to launch her own mail order company, selling high-end baby clothes, but a key investor backed out and the plan failed. She was then 16 months unemployed before landing the job with Jigsaw, owned by Belle and John Robinson, who are friends of Kate's parents.
In their four years together, Kate has accompanied William to many public and family functions, meeting the Windsors in a carefully-managed and low-key fashion, quite unlike the monstrously formal presentation to 'the firm' that Diana had to endure. She is a great favourite with both the Queen and Prince Philip, was present at William's 'passing out' ceremony at Sandhurst military academy and was even invited to Christmas lunch at Sandringham House recently, but declined in order to spend it with her own family.
The real differences between Kate and Diana are, most significantly, the emotional ones. Where Diana was a young girl quite out of her depth, a pawn callously used in the long game being played out between Prince Charles and Camilla, Kate is very much mistress of her own destiny. Diana's marriage was a match made by hers and Charles's grandmothers, one that may have looked good on paper but nowhere considered the temperamental suitability of the couple or took into account Diana's romantic, highly-strung nature. An independent, pragmatic girl could perhaps have made the marked hand she was dealt work for her, but Diana was anything but pragmatic, and her reaction to the gradual revelation of the extent of her role and corresponding limitations to her life, were far from discreet. Fragile, complicated and demanding, Diana was made for tragedy. Kate, hopefully, is built for something more mundane.
The differences between the two young women are maybe best summed up by two photographs. First there is the iconic shot of Diana, two young charges in tow, taken during the days of her engagement by Cork photographer John Minihan. She stands with her back to the sun so it streams through the diaphanous material of her cotton skirt and turns it totally transparent, to the utter oblivion of the shy girl smiling guilelessly into the lens. It is a photo that is weirdly echoed by a similarly suggestive shot of Kate, taken some years ago while she was still at college. Except that Kate's photograph - in which she wears a sheer dress over electric blue underwear - was taken with her full knowledge and co-operation. In it, she seems confident and even challenging. She was modelling for a St Andrew's fashion show, and Prince William was in the front row, having paid £200 for his ticket.
After all, Kate has made her own match. Whether or not she did change university in order to be close to the prince, she certainly built up a strong friendship with him from his early days there, moving into a shared house before they began their romance. And it's a relationship that seems built on solid lines, a match of equals in everything but that least important of details - birth. Kate has been spotted arguing furiously with her royal boyfriend in his VW Golf at a polo match and is known to have strong opinions.
Also, Kate is a couple of months older than William; Diana was 13 years younger than the slightly faded and embittered Prince Charles when they got engaged. Young as Kate Middleton is at 25, Diana's 19 years seems almost shockingly naive and unguarded in comparison. Diana was also, thanks to her unhappy family circumstances, rather alone and isolated, with no steadying influence or access to good advice.
Being William's girlfriend was always going to bring relentless exposure. Not just because he's a prince and second-in-line to the throne, but because actually, he is really the New Diana.
He has the same glamour, the same ability to project and connect and is, since his early tragedy, public property to an even greater degree that the royals usually are. To a world that watched him carry his mother's coffin and offer comfort to his father and brother, William will always excite more than average feelings of interest and ownership. His good looks have made him a pin-up for young girls ever since he hit puberty, while his motherless state excites a protective instinct in most older women. He is charming, elegant, discreet and doomed to a life of great care and responsibility. He may also be highly conscious that, in the 21st century, there is more than one way of ruining a young girl, but still just a single form of redress. Will he feel that after this degree of exposure and speculation, the only decent thing to do vis-a-vis Kate is propose? Even so, her answer isn't a foregone conclusion.
Amor vincit omnia. Love conquers all, and perhaps Kate is ready to stand by her prince, braving the hateful side-effects of a modern royal role. However, with the spectre of Diana hovering in the wings and the media busily spinning a curse into a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is just possible that sensible, decent Kate will be frightened away.