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.