She looks good on camera, there’s no known scandal in her background, and she’s never acquired a serious profession. So much for the points of similarity. In almost every other respect, Kate Middleton—whose engagement to Prince William was announced today—shares nothing with the last young hopeful to marry an heir to the British throne. And if Diana Spencer’s marriage to the Prince of Wales back in 1981 had the throwback quality of a dynastic union, Kate Middleton’s looks like a very 21st-century affair.
The differences start with background and ancestry. OK, the young Kate studied at a classy boarding school and her parents have a handsome house in a smart patch of the English countryside. But she is no aristocrat. Princess Diana was raised in a stately home with an earl for a father and a pedigree that linked her to almost every other blueblood in the land. Kate’s mother once worked as an air hostess; her father made his fortune with a mail-order business selling toys and games that she now helps to run.
And then there’s the college education. Kate, now 28, looks set to become the first British queen in history with a degree. It was at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland—a popular choice for rich but not-so-academic Brits—that she met William. (He spotted her when she was modeling underwear at a charity fashion show.) By contrast, Diana belonged to a last generation of toffs to regard a college education as strictly optional for girls. For a product of her class and time, Diana followed a more conventional path: a few years in London and some work in a posh kindergarten—then marriage.
But the biggest difference is the exact nature of the relationship. Like every previous bride-to-be of a future king, Diana came to marriage without any record of serious romantic entanglements. The policy went unspoken, but Buckingham Palace still wanted a virgin bride for the heir to the throne: no unfortunate ex-boyfriends with stories to tell. So much for the past. Kate Middleton has been luckier. At university, she shared digs with her future husband, and since then has enjoyed a relationship as close to normal as any prospective royal can expect.
For the House of Windsor, that’s one huge and overdue step into the modern world. Fusty ideas of correct behavior helped mess up the lives of senior royals until the late 20th century. Love has collided with protocol with disastrous effect. Only remember how an unfortunate passion for an American divorcée, Wallis Simpson, cost Prince William’s great-great-uncle, Edward VIII, his throne back in 1936. William’s own great-aunt, Princess Margaret, was pushed into refusing marriage to a divorced man as late as the 1950s.
Even the marriage of William’s father, Prince Charles, to Princess Diana was blighted by the insistence on maintaining the old codes. The artificial and chaste circumstances of their courtship were a poor start to a marriage that ended in divorce 15 years later. After today’s announcement, the Prince of Wales told the BBC he was “thrilled, obviously,” about the engagement. “They’ve been practicing long enough,” Charles commented. Said with feeling, perhaps. With Diana, practice was out of the question.