That was 30 years and a lifetime ago, and there was to be no happily ever after for Prince Charles and Diana, the Princess of Wales. (He turned into something of a frog; she grew, in life and in death, to be more Evita than Cinderella.) In retrospect, it was probably not very helpful that the groom’s sometime mistress and future second wife was among the wedding guests.
A generation later, another girl would meet another prince and the inexorable machinery of a new royal marriage would be set in motion. The outer trappings are the same — the stuffy announcement from the palace, the formal photographs, the staged interview with the deferential journalist. But the romance between Prince William, the heir to the heir to the throne, and his longtime girlfriend, Kate Middleton, is an altogether different sort of fairy tale from Charles and Diana’s, “Pride and Prejudice” perhaps, with a bit of “Pretty in Pink” thrown in.
Prince Charles seemed like a classic “Monty Python” upper-class twit when he and his bride-to-be first faced the press together (“Whatever ‘in love’ means,” he notoriously mumbled, when asked if he was in love). But in his and Miss Middleton’s meet-the-press interview, Prince William came across as a relatively normal person (whatever normal means).
True, William did not use the word love when referring to his bride-to-be. Nor did he sound like the most romantic person ever when he described how their friendship had blossomed into something else: “We just spent more time with each other and had a good giggle.” Also, he added, he liked Kate’s “really naughty sense of humor.” Diana Spencer was 19 and had no idea what she was in for when she got engaged; Miss Middleton is 28 and has had a great deal of time to ponder the potential consequences of marrying into a family not known for its high levels of emotional intelligence. But she clearly feels ready. “It’s been how many years?” she joked in the interview, referring to a courtship so long it earned her the catty tabloid nickname Waity Katie.
And William said he felt “massively” protective of her and was aware of the great pressure on her and her family, something no one seemed to think much about when his mother accepted his father’s proposal and turned from innocent civilian to sacrificial lamb in the space of days.
“I want to make sure they have the best guidance and the chance to see what life has been like, or what life is like, in the family,” said William, referring to the Middletons. “I’m trying to learn from lessons done in the past.” He also said their long courtship had given his fiancée the opportunity “to back out if she needed to before it all got too much.”
Diana was the daughter of an earl whose title dates from 1765. Her betrothal to Charles seemed to be proof of the rigidity of the British class system, of a world where aristocrats marry one another and the pool of appropriate brides for a future king is very small. But Miss Middleton’s emergence may be proof of just the opposite, a vivid confirmation that social mobility does exist in this class-conscious society.
Her parents, Carole and Michael, met at British Airways, where they worked as a flight attendant and a flight dispatcher, respectively. According to a chart printed in The Times of London, Carole Middleton’s father was a builder and her mother a store clerk. Several generations back, Mrs. Middleton’s great-grandfather worked in the village of Hetton-le-Hole in a coal mine that, as it happened, belonged to the rich Bowes-Lyon family — one of whose descendants would go on to become William’s great-grandmother Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
The Times described, with a hint of the old-school snobbery about people “in trade,” how Kate Middleton’s parents grew rich enough from their business, a mail-order company selling paraphernalia for children’s parties, to buy a “wisteria-clad” house in Bucklebury, West Berkshire, and to send their three children to expensive private schools. “Yet even now, as they sold princess bags by the crateload, it must have been too great a stretch of their imagination to picture their own daughter blossoming into a royal bride,” the paper said.
But that is exactly what she plans to be, and who knows how this particular story will end? William may be relaxed and modern, but he still belongs to a family riddled with dysfunction and lashed to the mast of tradition.
Beyond that, how will a country buffeted by budget cuts respond to what is sure to be a wedding extravaganza? And how will Miss Middleton and Prince William adjust to a life together that will increasingly be dictated by public duty instead of private happiness?
“I’m willing to learn quickly and work hard,” the future bride said.