In the year since the world watched Kate Middleton glide into Westminster Abbey and emerge Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Britain’s future king has wowed Hollywood, been named to best-dressed lists and charmed the recession-weary by sharing outfits with her mother. She divides her time between a cottage in windswept Wales, where the Royal Navy has stationed Prince William, and Kensington Palace, where an apartment is being renovated to their specifications. She smiles, rarely speaks and looks princess-perfect in a hat.
She is, with her legions of fans, saving the British monarchy.
The irony is that in the year since the “wedding of the century,” Kate has managed to surmount Britain’s class system while reinforcing it. Her status as a commoner — her ancestors worked in coal mines, and her mother was a flight attendant — was a cause for criticism in media coverage during the years she and William dated. But now it has turned to Kate’s advantage, and the monarchy’s. Her appealing image as an ordinary woman who happened to marry a handsome prince has inspired an illusory sense of pride that the couple have leveled social distinctions in a historically class-conscious society. Yet the resurgence in the royals’ popularity entrenches those divisions even as Britain seeks to move past them.
In 2008, Britain’s Daily Mail reported that some in society had labeled Kate and Pippa Middleton “ ‘the wisteria sisters’ — highly decorative, terribly fragrant and with a ferocious ability to climb.” The nickname suggested the question underlying many articles: Could a commoner succeed as the partner of the future king? Class tension arose again and again, particularly in reports about the couple’s brief split in 2007, with many speculating that the middle-class Middletons simply weren’t posh enough to be royal in-laws.
After the engagement, The Washington Post reported that “royal watchers and the British media are not mincing words about the humble lineage of ‘Commoner Kate.’ . . . This is still very much a society where status is measured in birthright and breeding.”
The doubts about an outsider’s ability to marry into the royal family were grounded in the woes of previous generations. Just two decades ago, the Windsors’ future looked less than rosy. Queen Elizabeth II was unusually candid in a speech marking the 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne. She pronounced 1992 an “annus horribilis” and said it was “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” Her daughter, Princess Anne, divorced that spring; by mid-December, her sons Prince Charles and Prince Andrew had separated from their wives.
The granddaddy of royal tell-all biographies, “Diana: Her True Story,” incited scandal that year with its portrayal of the royal family as unwelcoming to the young Diana, a bulimia survivor who desperately hoped for her husband’s love but never stood a chance against Camilla Parker Bowles. A fire that fall damaged Windsor Castle, one of the queen’s government-owned homes — and the government’s suggestion that it would cover the repairs sparked outrage among taxpayers. In November it was announced that the queen, in a break with royal tradition, had volunteered to begin paying personal income tax; she also agreed to pay a bigger share of the royal family’s expenses.
The unexpected death of Diana in 1997 and widespread public grief compounded the monarchy’s turmoil. Polling by the British research firm MORI for ABC News the week after Diana’s fatal car accident in Paris found that the queen’s favorability rating was at 30; public confidence in Charles, her heir, had dropped 40 points between 1991 and 1997.
In November 1999, only 29 percent of Britons told Ipsos/MORI that they thought their country would have a monarchy in 50 years. That same year, Parliament passed the House of Lords Act, reducing the number of hereditary peerages in the upper house of the legislature.
Britain might not have been ready to ax the monarchy altogether, but the landslide that swept Tony Blair into the prime minister’s office in 1997, after 18 years of conservative rule, coincided with a low point for royal fortunes. Blair’s “New Labor” Party campaigned on modernizing government and soon transferred powers to assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Britons were warming to the idea that power and position should not stem solely from birthright and tradition. When the popular Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, died in 2002, the Guardian noted that “her death has revealed some significant divisions in the 21st century Britain she leaves behind. . . . The last time the Windsors unified the country was more than six decades ago: ancient history.”
In 2008, Charles became the longest king-in-waiting in British history. Although he worked hard to endear Camilla to the public, their image after their 2005 wedding — horses, Wellington boots and country tweeds — didn’t prompt widespread public excitement about the future.
The next generation, however, was faring better. Charles’s heir, William, was effortlessly popular, and interest in his love life was intense. Many watching the hordes following Middleton wondered about parallels to William’s mother, the “people’s princess,” who, after years of courting media attention, died while trying to flee paparazzi. His girlfriend radiated a star power similar to that of the late Diana. Would she hold up better in the glare of the spotlight?
So far she has, in part because of the road paved by Diana’s experience. During their engagement, William and Kate made only a few official appearances, choreographed to introduce the soon-to-be future queen in each of the United Kingdom’s four territories. Middleton has been slowly acclimated to life as a working royal: She did not appear at her first solo event until February and gave her first public speech only last month.
Those who wondered whether a commoner could handle royal life perhaps did not account for the strength that Kate’s solid family background had instilled. The tight-knit Middleton clan is also tight-lipped. The family does not comment on what is written about them, even when tabloids publish photos of Kate’s brother, James, in a maid costume or when her sister, Pippa, the bridesmaid who shot to worldwide fame, ruffled feathers while partying recently in Paris.
There is also the power that Kate’s ordinary-girl image has in an age of austerity politics. Britain is in a recession. The coalition government has slashed spending amid a national debate about taxes and lost work ethics. Much has been made of efforts by Prime Minister David Cameron, who was educated at Eton (like Prince William) and Oxford, to portray himself as part of the middle class. Against this backdrop, Kate wins easy points for buying clothes from chain stores (where her choices soon sell out) and living without a butler. She is a rarity today: an appealing face frequently seen but hardly heard. This makes it easy for people to imprint their ideas upon her. It’s why the daughter of self-made millionaires strikes so many people as ordinary.
The palace is conscious of both Kate’s appeal — last April, the share of Britons who thought the monarchy would be around in 50 years had risen to 56 percent — and the image she puts forward as Britain’s future. It was no coincidence that the duchess accompanied the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, for the event kicking off the monarch’s Diamond Jubilee tour this spring. Similarly, Kate, William and his brother, Prince Harry, will greet the Olympic torch at Buckingham Palace the day before the Opening Ceremonies for this summer’s Olympic Games.
Five weeks after William and Kate’s engagement made headlines in November 2010, Buckingham Palace tweeted that William’s cousin Zara Philips was also getting married. Philips, an accomplished equestrian, and rugby player Mike Tindall posed for impromptu photos in the snow outside their home — and observers pounced, sniffing at the “grubby” fingers that Zara’s diamond-and-platinum ring adorned. Whereas at her announcement, Middleton “flaunted the most perfect, discreet, Queen-to-be manicure possible,” one tabloid columnist wrote, the contrast of Zara’s natural look “spoke volumes about class and aspiration, about the suburbs that seethe with ambition and country houses stuffed with the idle and the noble. . . . Kate has a manicure that was born to rule. I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that on the strength of her Perfect Peach, all bodes well for the Windsor line.”
With the stroke of a manicurist’s brush, and a few keystrokes from an admirer, Kate went from commoner aspiring to the crown to princess perfection.
In fact, when Middleton walked up the aisle at Westminster Abbey, her nails sported a custom color. But whatever shade she’s wearing, the House of Windsor is in good hands.
Autumn Brewington is the editor of The Washington Post’s op-ed page. She anchored The Post’s Royal Wedding Watch blog during William and Kate’s engagement.