An Old-Fashioned Wedding?

As rumors swirl about William and Kate, Andrew Morton says the whole thing feels like a time warp. She only exists to please him; and he and his fellow royals are clueless about the changing times.

PA Wire / AP Photo

This week, Prince Charles was in the land that time forgot, the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. He was warning about species facing extinction, though curiously he failed to mention himself or the other rare breeds that roost under the eaves of the House of Windsor. Perhaps he knows something we don’t.

He named a baby giant tortoise after his eldest son, Prince William, as speculation hared through the European media that he was intending to wed his longtime, on-off, on-again girlfriend Kate Middleton this summer. No less an authority than Point de Vue, a French magazine that once intimated that Princess Anne had been, shall we say, “overly familiar” with an entire soccer team, announced that European royals had been told to clear their diaries for the big event.

We have of course been down this road before. In 2006, long before the receivers were called in, the forward-thinking management of Woolworths unveiled designs for mugs, thimbles, mouse mats, and sweets to commemorate the expected engagement of the heir to the throne. At the same time, Britain’s major commercial station, ITN, filmed a showpiece documentary about the couple, their confirmation of a royal marriage based on “impeccable sources.” Or should that be “sauces.” A few months later, in April 2007, the couple confirmed that they had split. Woolworths is now defunct and ITN on the endangered list, shedding jobs and programs—both victims of the laws of economic natural selection.

Whatever becomes of Kate Middleton, she will always be marked by the man she knew rather than what she knows. If Michelle Obama seems the acme of social modernity and progress, the romance of Kate and William harks back to another arcane era.

Meanwhile the House of Windsor plods on, its 1,000-year-old shell seemingly impervious to the shock of the new. Other European royal families have faced extinction because they have continued to paddle in the shallow end of the gene pool, insisting that royalty marries other royalty or high nobility. When the Windsors played the aristocrat card, their search for a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant virgin yielded Lady Diana Spencer, and look what a fine mess that got them into. William’s long, slow courtship of a privately educated, perfectly pleasant, middle-class girl owes much to the disastrous union of his parents. Adapt and survive is the Windsor motto.

Yet there is an unmistakeable “back to the future” vibe about their relationship. For a start, William is beginning to look like his dad. He’s lost those boyish good looks along with his hair and, just like when his father was in the Navy, has decided to grow a beard.

At the same time, with no career to speak of, his girlfriend is a lady in waiting, spending her days grooming and hanging around waiting for her prince to come calling. Dubbed “Waitie Katie” by the tabs, she confided to novelist Kathy Lette during a polo match that she had to concentrate on every play so that she could discuss it with the heir later. Even in her salad days, Diana was never that enthusiastic about the game. Thus in this off-the-cuff comment was revealed a young woman whose self-defined role in life was accommodating her man. Her mission is to blend in and to conform, to choose the correct wardrobe—demure but flattering—for the three costume changes a day required at Balmoral or Sandringham. Is this then the ultimate ambition for the best and the brightest of her generation—to find and snare a man?

On this calculated throw of the dice she has gambled her entire future. If she fails to win her prince, no matter what she does in her future life—find a cure for cancer, rid the world of landmines—she will always be defined as the girl who tried and failed to get her man.

While comparisons are odious, the life of America’s new first lady serves as a telling counterpoint to the 27-year-old possibly-one-day-queen of England. Michelle Obama has it all because she has had to do it all: raise children, hold down an executive job, feed the family, and support her husband. Her achievements mean that a generation of women swell a little with pride when they see how far one of the sisterhood has come.

By contrast, whatever becomes of Kate Middleton, she will always be marked by the man she knew rather than what she knows. If Michelle Obama seems the acme of social modernity and progress, the romance of Kate and William harks back to another arcane era.

Indeed there is truly a whiff of Gatsby in the air. As unemployment in Britain reaches levels not seen in a generation and a mutant variant of the IRA resumes killing soldiers and policemen again for the first time in more than a decade, Kate is busy choosing her outfits for a reported $70,000 skiing vacation with her prince charming in Switzerland.

Not her fault, but we live in rapidly shifting times where yesterday’s million-dollar bonus is today’s presidential admonition. Would, for example, Prince William’s jolly jaunt with an RAF Chinook helicopter when he landed in Kate’s parents’ back garden last year be looked on quite so indulgently in today’s changed climate, where the divide between the haves and have-nots is sharply exposed and resentment and anger fuels the body politic?

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In the past, royal events have somehow managed to capture the spirit of the times: the queen’s coronation, presaging an Elizabethan age of hope and renewal; Prince Charles’ investiture, capturing a sense of modernity and tradition; and even the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, revealing the shifting tectonic plates of contemporary Britain. As Kate Middleton lies back and thinks of England, it may well be that a royal wedding would break the first rule of natural selection for the survival of a modern monarchy—relevance.

Andrew Morton is one of the world's best-known biographers. His groundbreaking biography of Diana, Princess of Wales, is a modern classic, while his latest bestseller , on Tom Cruise, has made headlines around the world. Morton’s portrait of Monica Lewinsky revealed the young woman behind the blue dress, while his biography of Madonna nailed the myths and legends surrounding her controversial life.