A friend of mine whose son dated Kate Middleton when they were both students at the same private school, Marlborough College, once told me that their overwhelming impression of Miss Middleton was that she was a nice, polite girl, who was—and, yes, this was meant as a criticism—“phenomenally straight.”
Kate is, to borrow that antic phrase, a “good girl.” In school as in royal life, she obeyed every rule and rarely put a foot wrong. One of her teachers once said that she was the kind of student who always had her pencils sharpened.
In marrying this super-straight, middle-class woman, Prince William was opting for stability over adventure and excitement.
Rose Hanbury, by contrast, has always been known as a wild child. She and her sister Marina were part of a party-loving set of models in noughties London that were famous for their Dionysian antics.
“Things could get pretty dark with those guys,” said one friend who used to hang out with the group occasionally.
There was a feeling that Rose, 35, had found a perfectly unconventional soulmate when she married David Rocksavage, 58, the film director who also happens to be the Marquess of Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley). His magnificent country residence, Houghton Hall, is just a few miles across the fields from William and Kate at Sandringham. The Cholmondeley estates are worth more than $150 million. They have now been married close on a decade and have three children.
The deep contrast between the characters of the two women, and the fact that William is believed to have enjoyed a dalliance with Rose while he and Kate were on a break, goes some of the way to explaining why rumors that Kate has fallen out with Rose commanded so much attention this week.
Reports that they had considered suing media outlets that ran obscure details of their disagreement added to the sense that there was more to this story than the media were prepared to let on. The Daily Mail, for example, posited that the row was over who was the “Queen Bee” of the Turnip Toffs, an unusually mild provocation for legal action.
However, the other reason this story generated so much interest is precisely because we know so very little about what Kate is actually like.
Biographically, of course, we know all the facts: her parents’ humble origins and their early careers working for British Airways (he was a pilot, she was a hostess) and their extraordinary success in parlaying a simple idea of a mail order party business into a multimillion-pound enterprise. There’s even a fair bit of intelligence on Kate’s school days, thanks in part to the many people, like my friends, with whom she crossed paths when she was a normal person.
But the moment she and William fell in love at St. Andrews University, the royal veil of secrecy fell around her. And she embraced it. Her few former boyfriends have remained publicly silent. Other friends who maintained the omertà have been rewarded with roles as godparents. Even though she worked as a buyer for the high street fashion chain Jigsaw, she was carefully protected from public scrutiny (and foolish indeed would be the high street chain that annoyed Kate).
It perhaps helped that there was clearly nothing to hide anyway: This was a girl whose greatest act of public daring was to walk in a student fashion show wearing lingerie. When she brought down the shutters on her private life, she did so with remarkable efficacy. She and her close family kept totally silent, to the extent that Carole Middleton gave her very first media interview only last year.
Indeed, Kate herself was almost as silent as her mother. She almost never speaks in public, and only did so for the first time in 2012, at a children's hospice.
But not having a voice, figuratively or literally, doesn’t appear to bother her.
Kate and William don’t have any time for the argument that they need to be more accessible. We have no idea what they get up to on a day-to-day basis, tucked away in their splendid Norfolk hidey-hole. They guard their privacy with a focused fervor.
Kate famously refused to disclose the name of her dog, Lupo, arguing it was “private,” and on the rare occasions their private world has been glimpsed, such as when Kate was photographed sunbathing topless, the response has been a furious reaction often supported with quite meaty legal proceedings.
This is not to say Kate is icy or dismissive. People who work with her and William are impressed by her friendliness and informality.
But, drawing valuable lessons from the Queen, Kate has seen the wisdom of cloaking herself in unknowability. She has sought to protect herself by saving her true self for the privacy of her own four walls.
From the outset, Meghan has seen a key part of her role as allowing us to see who she actually is. Her public and often politically tinged comments and actions have left little doubt of what is important to her. Her efforts to brief the press via friends, bypassing the official team provided for her at Kensington Palace, were largely born out of frustration at the royals’ overarching policy of not looking out for her.
Meghan was praised and mocked in equal part when she wrote affirming and empowering messages on bananas that were to be distributed to sex workers in care parcels.
Put aside for a moment whether or not it was the “right” or even a wise thing to write “You Are Loved” on a banana destined for a troubled woman, and consider instead how much that one action told us about Meghan’s personality, her hopes and fears and beliefs and passions, and there—not for reasons of decorum or precedent—you see why it is impossible to imagine Kate doing the same thing.
“We must not let in daylight upon magic,” the constitutional historian Walter Bagehot wrote in a famous retort to those who argued, even in the age of Queen Victoria, that the monarch should be more accessible and seen to be more engaged in the daily life of the nation.
Prince William, because of his parents, knows only too well the risks of daylight on a royal marriage. He and Kate are determined not to make the same mistake.