Sarah Caden: 'Outsider Kate Middleton leaves royals in her wake with new roles'
Kate is no longer the blow-in commoner but is setting the standard for her in-laws to follow
The Christmas photos were all fabulous. The turquoise sea, the sun and the sand and the several different bikinis worn on the beach, diving off boats and diving into the waves.
In all these photos, Pippa Middleton seemed to be having a marvellous time, relaxing at Eden Rock, the exclusive St Barts resort owned by the parents of her banker husband, James Matthews. Pippa's brother, James was there too, with his French fiancee, as were their parents, Michael and Carole, the latter stunning everyone with her lithe figure.
What a way to spend Christmas and New Year. What a world away from the photographs we saw of Pippa's elder sister Kate over Christmas, introducing her children, George and Charlotte, to the post-church meet and greet in Sandringham, spending the season with the royal in-laws.
Until recent years, Kate and William more often spent Christmas with her family at their home in Berkshire, instead of with the Windsors. William spoke of those visits in the past as almost part of a post-Diana healing process for him. The jolly cosiness, the board games, the sense of belonging. The normality, you could say, which he and Kate have now pretty much opted out of, as their significance in the royal pecking order has increased.
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They're not the kids any more. The Queen is now in her 90s, Charles is edging towards becoming a rather older King in his 70s - should his mother see fit to stand aside - and William is the up-and-coming. Charles will be no real breath of fresh air for the royals when his time comes, despite his reported plans to trim the family to a core group.
William, now, is the one looked to as the new generation and he is, with his mental-health activities and, personally, the very warm and open way he has embraced parenthood, making his mark.
It is Kate, however, who is on a steadily upward trajectory as the star of the family. Her ready smile, her easy laughter, her steady radiation of warmth wherever she goes has been winning people over in recent years, and as 2019 ended, it was reported that the Queen herself is very impressed with how Kate, a commoner, don't forget, is adjusting to the role of queen-in-waiting.
It is Kate's "quiet dignity" that the Queen admires. No fuss, no drama, an apparent sense of duty even though she wasn't born to it, and a steady message, in her conduct and cordiality, that she not only enjoys the role, but feels lucky to have it. Which, let's face it, matters when you have Harry and Meghan moaning and groaning about it.
Of course, we know that on many levels, Kate Middleton should feel lucky. She lives a life of immense privilege without ever having to get a proper job or worry about money or the future, for herself or for her three children.
However, when you gaze upon her sister Pippa sunning herself in St Barts, you realise that Kate was the kind of girl on a path to a life of privilege anyway. Kate could have done similar to her sister and married into wealth and had all the lovely life that Pippa has, without any pressure to be dutiful, press the flesh, parade herself and her kids for the public and put up with the bizarre and difficult restrictions of being royal.
By now, we know that marrying the prince is far from a fairytale. We hardly regard Kate Middleton as having landed the ultimate prize in marrying William. In fact, one can be sure that their marriage is as complicated as any, and as any in royal history, but what sets Kate apart is the lightness with which she bears all of this. This is what makes her a potential star of The Firm, one which will only continue to rise in the year to come.
One has to wonder if it was the arrival of Meghan Markle, a more obvious potential star, into the family that spurred Kate on to become a more stand-out player. And, further, you have to wonder if she has watched how Meghan and Harry's mithering has done them no favours, and decided to go the entirely opposite direction, into an attitude of utter grace and apparent gratitude.
Whatever made her raise her game in the last year or so - in her activities, her clothes, her attitude - Kate has most definitely set herself apart. She's not the commoner blow-in any longer, she's the confident woman who stands beside the Queen, at the Chelsea Flower Show, on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, as they parade out at Sandringham - and strikes the perfect balance of deference and warmth. Which is not easy when one is as tall as Kate Middleton, literally leaning over to point out plants, comment on the cold, or encourage her child to curtsy to great-granny.
William and Kate apparently have a series of big announcements to make in 2020. They are, it would seem, settling more deeply into their role as leaders, positioning themselves more securely as the future of their family.
And it is now their family. Not just William's any more, not just that which Kate married into. She's part of the fabric now, as interwoven as he is. So while the Middletons get to mooch around St Barts, she does the bracing cold of Sandringham and schools her daughter in good grace.
It's not what she was born to, and it's not necessarily the better option, but my, how the girl once dismissively tagged Waity-Katie has risen to the challenge. More royal than the royals at this stage, she may well leave them in her wake in 2020.