Prince William's engagement a rebirth for Britain

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 12:03 AM

To the relief of the British public and taffeta-craving masses elsewhere, Prince William announced Tuesday that he was officially engaged.

He proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Kate Middleton, while on vacation in Kenya a few weeks ago, according to a statement issued by palace officials. A wedding is planned for the spring or summer of 2011. Other details were meted out, most notably that the engagement ring presented to Middleton, a brilliant oval sapphire surrounded with smaller diamonds, had once belonged to William's late mother. "It was my way of keeping her close to it all," William said of his mother's memory, in the couple's first, much-anticipated and much-deconstructed, television interview on BBC.

The symbolism awakened a faint flutter of hope: The era of Diana has returned.

William's nuptials will likely be Britain's grandest royal wedding in nearly 30 years. But more than that, the young lovers represent a royal redemption, a rehabilitation, a reboot from the fraught triangle of Charles and Diana and Camilla. Over the past two decades, the reputation of the entire royal family has steadily declined from regal to rancid. There was the divorce of Charles's brother, Andrew, not to mention further dramarama earlier this year when his former wife, the Duchess of York ("Fergie"), was caught on video arranging payment for access to her ex.

Queen Elizabeth II - herself besieged by a burnt palace and a tax scandal, and portrayed in her own 2007 biopic as kind of a jerk - once declared 1992 as her "annus horribilis."

It is now up to Prince William to transform 2011 into an annus mirabilis.

"It's great to have a piece of unadulterated good news that everyone can celebrate," jubilant Prime Minister David Cameron told his equally jubilant cabinet. "I'm sure this is something [that will see] the country come together."

"I think the monarchy has really fallen in tattered times," said Kitty Kelley, the biographer and chronicler of the Diana-era monarchy in "The Royals." "There is a movement afoot to really run the monarchy out" after the death of Queen Elizabeth. A royal wedding of this magnitude, Kelley said, makes the whole family look good.

"William is young, and he's fresh, and he grew up in the shadow of the real tragedy of his mother," Kelley said. "His father - about the best thing you can say about Prince Charles is that he's well-dressed and he's an environmentalist. The hopes and the dreams of the people have been invested in Wills."

In England, Londoners received the news with relief, as if already looking beyond the Charles years before they've even begun. "It's lovely to see a member of the royal family marrying someone who is down to earth, someone you can relate to," said Natalie Varney, a graduate student. "The younger generation will get more interested in the royal family."

"I think Prince William will make a good king, way better than Prince Charles," says Philip Demesquita, a retired fashion business owner in London. Charles "doesn't seem to have adapted to the modern world."

The couple met in 2001, studying at the University of St. Andrews - geography for him, art history for her - in a coastal Scottish town with castle ruins and cobblestone walks. They were flatmates in a group house, just friends, they said, until suddenly they became more. The "more" was rumored to happen when Kate was wearing less, strutting the catwalk in lingerie for a student fashion show.

Her wealthy parents had made their money in a party-planning business; her mother had once been a flight attendant. The lingerie, the frivolous money, the friendly skies - all of it together made the relationship seem a tad declasse, prompting the public to question whether the prince's commoner girlfriend was fit to marry their Wills, about whom the nation had come to feel protective. The media derisively dubbed her "Middleclass Middleton" and then, years later, after William still hadn't proposed, "Waity Katie." For years, their relationship was cloaked in mystery and speculation - first due to the royal family's request that William be left alone during his college years, and then due to the couple's own media reticence.

But gradually Middleton began to appear at public events, smiling graciously and consistently on William's arm and wearing the enormous froufrou hats required of British swells, with far more aplomb than could be expected from a recent college grad.

On Tuesday the couple, both 28, sat for their first public interview, Kate in a snug, plunging-neckline dress that perfectly matched the sapphire on her hand.

"I'd been carrying it around in my rucksack for months," William said of the ring, gamely playing the part of the guy who didn't know if she'd even say yes. She did.

This was the Wills and Kate debut, a Meet Your Royals opportunity for the viewing public, and as such, the reporter, Tom Bradby, asked the questions one would ask of any commoner-cum-princess.

Is it true, he wanted to know, that a young Kate had kept a photograph of William plastered to her bedroom wall?

"More like 10," William mock-preened.

"I had the Levi's guy on my wall," Middleton said apologetically.

"Me and the Levi's guy," His Majesty insisted.

The audience was treated to other tidbits of their daily life (He cooks! Badly!), but for the most part the couple answered with the vague platitudes of any two people who are asked to publicly dissect their relationship. Middleton's mother was "over the moon" when she learned of the engagement, the bride-to-be says. They were glad that they were friends first and that their relationship "sort of blossomed from there," said William. About their infamous 2007 split, which some thought might signal the end of their relationship, "We were both defining ourselves," William said. Kate added that the break gave her an opportunity to know herself as a person.

Once the mystery of the couple began to fall away, they sounded . . . shockingly like any other humdrum 28-year-old couple. Except for this:

Asked why it took him so long to propose, William said, half-seriously, "I wanted to give her a chance" to witness the incredible pressure of living in a fishbowl and, if she didn't think she could handle it, "to back out."

The office of the prince has not announced further details of the wedding. There was speculation that the date was set for 2011 instead of 2012 so as not to interfere with London's Summer Olympics hosting duties.

"It really cannot interfere with the queen's birthday or the queen's Jubilee," says Kelley, on the difficulties of planning a royal wedding. "It can't interfere with the queen, period."

"This is going to be a different kind of wedding than Charles and Diana's," said Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty Magazine. "Britain in the 21st century is a different country than it was 30 years ago. The wedding will be big but it won't have quite the status that we saw" with William's parents.

When Charles and Diana were interviewed shortly after their engagement, a reporter famously asked if they were in love. A glowing Diana demurely replied, "Of course." But Charles dismissively snarked: "Whatever love is."

The same question was not posed to William and Kate Middleton on Tuesday. Britain has grown wiser, perhaps, in the past 30 years, knowing to avoid questions with potentially awkward answers.

The couple was, however, asked to articulate what they liked about each other. "When I first met Kate, I knew there was something special about her," William said, later describing himself as "massively excited" about the wedding.

Massively excited. Hardly an effusive declaration of eternal love. But compared to his father's answer - and in terms of preliminary repairs to the royal household - it practically sounded like Shakespeare.

Staff writer Anthony Faiola and Washington Post special contributor Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi contributed to this report.

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