The Kate Question: More or Less of Diana?

She seems sensible and proper, almost to a fault. Can she fill the Diana-shaped hole in Britons' hearts?

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PA / Landov

Kate Middleton in February 2011

Kate Middleton seems like a nice girl from a solid middle-class background. She's jolly sensible and keeps her mouth shut, and as far as we can tell, Prince William has found a keeper. That seems to be the consensus, perhaps comforting, certainly less than sensational. So have the media just confected interest in Kate, hoping to sell newspapers and magazines? Or does the endless coverage — speculating on everything from the designer of her dress to what her parents will pay for the wedding — reveal a deeper story?

Regardless of how much information we have been force-fed about the Prince and his wholesome, girl-next-door bride, many have been bored. Kate had a poster of Prince William on her wall when she was at school? We yawn and return to worrying about the Middle East or reading the latest literary sensation.

Or so we pretend. But more of us than we like to admit are quite riveted. It's odd. Aside from fulfilling a fairy tale — ordinary girl marrying a prince — in which we no longer believe, Kate, 29, has led a pretty unexceptional life.

She was born in 1982 in Berkshire, in southeast England, to parents who had met while working for British Airways and now run their own business. Educated at Marlborough College, one of Britain's leading private schools, she traveled for a year (very common among British teenagers) before attending St. Andrews university in Scotland, where she graduated with a degree in the history of art. She likes sports, sailing and hill walking. All in all, it's a pretty conventional story — the key elements are private school, gap year, St. Andrews, history of art, love of the outdoors — of a daughter from the upwardly middle class of what the British would call the home counties.

The absence of fascinating detail in Kate's life makes me think that to explain our interest in her, we have to look back to the Diana years. Before the Princess of Wales exploded onto the scene, the royal family was largely perceived to be incredibly dull, especially by the intelligentsia.

True, in working-class communities, like the one in which I grew up in the north of England, there was greater enthusiasm for the royals. For the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, I remember the bunting hanging in treble layers for the street party and the adults standing solemnly, if a little drunkenly, to attention when the national anthem played. My father, like many immigrants (he was from Bangladesh), was respectful of the monarchy. So I grew up — unlike many of my friends from white middle-class liberal homes — without having a republican agenda inculcated in me. But neither did royalty interest me. It was unremarkable.

Diana changed all that. You never knew what was going to happen next. Although her life became a soap opera, she raised serious issues, campaigning for AIDS awareness and against land mines. At times she chose to reveal so much about her personal life — her bulimia, for example — that useful national debate opened up about formerly taboo subjects.

In her time, Diana was sometimes said to be a threat to the very institution of monarchy. But she is now often credited with making it more flexible, open and responsive to the public mood. When she died, the argument goes, the massive outpouring of public grief prompted the royal family to attempt to reinvent itself.

There may be truth in that. When details of William and Kate's wedding plans were released, there was careful emphasis on the relatively modest nature of the arrangements at a time of national austerity. But Diana also reignited our fascination with royalty. It took ironclad determination to be uninterested in her. It was Diana — giggling, hugging her boys, crying, confessing, campaigning and even, on occasion, lashing out — who for the first time in British history gave royalty a truly human aspect.

We all felt, in some way, that we knew Diana. So now we want to know Kate too — there's a Diana-shaped hole that we're hoping she is going to fill. But we don't have much to go on. Apart from their official engagement interview (which was pretty uninformative), Kate has not yet spoken publicly. So we resort to analyzing her background (stable, secure, loving immediate family; slightly louche more distant relations) and, above all, scrutinizing her clothes.

What seems to me likely — and in some ways unfortunate — is that Kate's long induction into the ways of royalty, coupled with an awareness of the heavy price Diana paid for striking out on her own, will return us to the old days. In the pre-Diana age, a princess was expected to keep her opinions to herself and, the odd charity engagement aside, stand silently by her man.

If Kate wants to keep her sanity, that may seem a sensible strategy. But it won't stop us from inspecting every outfit, every gesture, searching for the flesh-and-blood person wrapped up in the blanket of royal protocol. Continued interest in Kate won't be limited to the tabloids poring over her wardrobe or hairstyle. The upmarket media — and their consumers — will be tracking Princess Catherine's progress as she is launched into the First Wives' Club and the middle-class girl from Berkshire is asked to compete with Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama. The pressure on her will intensify. How will she handle it? What kind of mother will she be? Will she become passionate about any causes? Will she ever allow us a glimpse — as Diana did — of what lies beneath the surface? Will she ever let us in?

I doubt that she intends to. She has her feet too firmly on the ground. On the outside, we're a little conflicted about this. Although part of us longs for more royal drama of the Diana kind, we would like things to work out this time around. Kate Middleton's easygoing manner and ready smile have charmed us. But given the glare of worldwide attention to which she is about to be subjected, it will take real backbone for her to be her own person and to maintain the reserve to which she is entitled.

Ali's Untold Story, a novel inspired by Princess Diana, is published by Doubleday in the U.K. and will be published by Scribner in the U.S. on June 28