With all the fuss around Kate Middleton’s happy gestational news, you could be forgiven for thinking that there's only one Royal pregnancy in western Europe right now. You'd be mistaken. Princess Charlene of Monaco, the athletic, South African bride of Prince Albert, is also with child.
The Prince’s Palace has confirmed she is pregnant, and that a baby is due in December, but have not reacted to claims from one of Charlene’s South African family friends that she is pregnant with twins. Nor will they be drawn on speculation in Monaco society that the pregnancy is a result of IVF treatment.
But at least one child is due to be born before the end of the year, and, in a rare moment of agreement for the legendarily vituperative Monegasques (as the residents of Monaco are known), everyone in the principality concurs that this is a good thing. Former playboy Albert has at last done his duty and provided at least one legitimate child (hopefully there will be a boy), following two illegitimate ones.
And Charlene? Well, she may be “common as muck” as one part-time resident of Monaco scathingly describes the daughter of an IT developer and a swimming instructor from a middle class South African town (in Monaco, as in France, your provenance is everything) but “at least she has proved herself capable of reproducing.”
Hideous misogyny? You may well think so. The enormous wealth of Monaco’s citizens (the gross average income exceeds $180,000 and is the highest in the world) casts a glossy glow of modernity to the outside world, but delve below the surface and many of the attitudes held there - racism also abounds openly - are practically medieval.
Sources tell the Royalist that Charlene had been becoming increasingly depressed over the last three years by her failure to provide a son and heir to Albert, and although the pregnancy has not been easy, she is relieved that an end to the ordeal of the last three years is in sight.
“She does not expect to be suddenly warmly welcomed into Monaco society, but she does think that after giving birth – especially if it’s a son--she will be more free to go off and do her own thing,” says one member of the European society circuit. “She has made little secret of the fact she would rather be back in South Africa, or London, or Paris, or anywhere but Monaco.”
To be fair, Monaco must be a very odd place to live. You get a shiver just driving over the border. Inhabited by paranoid billionaires as it is, it’s something of a police state--phone calls, for example, are routinely monitored and you can be summarily expelled without an explanation--albeit a consensual one.
Although the entire principality is no bigger than Central Park, thanks to the reforms and tax breaks (notably a 0% rate of income tax) instituted by Albert’s father, Prince Rainier, Monaco is the richest country on the planet. Its streets are jammed with supercars, tens of millions are wagered in Le Grand Casino every night, and the combined value of the yachts in the harbor would wipe out the national debt of many a sovereign nation.
But, for all that, there’s not much to do. Spiteful gossip fills the gap nicely.
There are a lot of very bored women in Monaco. And when Charlene arrived on the scene it was almost too good to be true. A girl from South Africa, with short hair and a sour face marrying the Prince? They laid into her.
Charlene, it must be said, has not helped herself. In an interview with British Tatler she said she hadn’t made any proper friends since moving to Monaco. "Although I have met some wonderful people since I’ve been living in Monaco, I regard them all as acquaintances. I only have two people I consider friends here," she said.
She has also refused to learn French, which has gone down badly (although it should be noted that Albert’s first language is English, which he spoke with his mother, Princess Grace, and when he speaks in French, he stammers, a legacy of his domineering father to whom Albert was obliged to speak in French at all times).
Her Serene Highness also appears to have taken solace in extensive surgical alterations to her body over the past three years. One local says, “A lot of people are hoping she will just stop the plastic surgery now she is finally pregnant.”
Charlene has faced an incessant barrage of criticism and hostility since she married Prince Albert in a controversial ceremony in July 2011 that was marred by a false claim made by a French newspaper--and repeated in the Sunday Times which was forced to issue an apology--that she attempted to flee the principality of Monaco two days before the ceremony was to take place.
The story of the "Runaway Bride" may have been comprehensively shot down by lawyers, but not before it had gone viral on the Internet. The rumors that all was not well in the new house of Grimaldi were fuelled by an amazingly awkward photograph of the wedding day kiss between Albert and Charlene.
It was a bad start, and since then things have not improved.
The Monegasques resented Charlene from day one. They felt that a middle-class girl from an unsophisticated town in South Africa simply wasn't grand enough to fill the shoes of Albert’s mother Grace Kelly, the legendary Princess of Monaco who died in a car accident in 1982 on one of the serpentine mountain roads on the French side of the border.
While her husband Prince Rainier had concentrated on the finances of Monaco, making it an attractive year-round home for the ridiculously wealthy--"a sunny place for shady people" in the famous formulation of Somerset Maugham--Grace, who married Rainier in 1956, is credited with injecting the principality with glamour, taking it in the popular imagination from being a forgotten backwater comprised of fishing villages on the French / Italian border to a glamorous vacation spot for her Hollywood friends.
However, many Europeans still regard Monaco with deep suspicion. “It’s the most appalling dump,” sniffs one European snob of my acquaintance, before adding, “I do feel quite sorry for her,” of Charlene.
Part of the problem, some say, has been Albert’s older sister, Caroline Casiraghi, who it is widely thought would like to see her eldest son, Andrea, as the next occupant of the Monaco throne. She has done little to help Charlene settle in, but there were some encouraging signs this year that Albert was beginning to fight back against his domineering older sibling.
At the annual Red Cross gala this summer, the biggest fundraiser of the year, held in the legendary Salle Des Etoiles restaurant which features a retractable roof, Caroline and Albert’s younger sister Stephanie were, for the first time in recent years, both not present.
It was a--perhaps slightly clumsy but ultimately well-intentioned-- attempt by Albert to cement Charlene’s center-stage status. In a sign of the kind of pettiness that dominates Monaco, there are also persistent rumors that Caroline and Stephanie stayed away because they objected to Charlene’s choice of the singer Diana Krall as the musical entertainment.
Of course, some loyal subjects insist that all is well in the Palace.
“People were warming to Charlene already, and everyone loves a baby, so this is just the icing on the cake,” says Ian Brodie of Monacolife.net.
Undoubtedly, Albert is a nice guy. People who know him speak of a relaxed and charming man, remarkably free of arrogance or unpleasantness. But will marriage to this ‘nice guy’ and a new baby be enough to keep Charlene sane – or make her happy – in Monaco?
Most people – and they will only speak off the record - think not. Says one person with close knowledge of the principality, “She is isolated and sad. She has no friends. She will crack in the end.”