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She and her new spouse recently moved out to Kensington Palace, Diana's former residence, but maintain offices at St. James's, and for a few days in the fall they rode to work on London public bicycles, available to rent at stands across the city center. Police officers trailed in their wake. This was not a stunt, an official says, but reflected an impulse surely doomed toward the normality of ordinary existence.
Kate's is "a small office," says the official. "Four or five people. Most are not that much older than her. These are not fuddy-duddies, not men in suits. The mood is informal. They're quite smart, but there's a kitchen downstairs and people often gather in the kitchen making coffee." While William continues his career as a search-and-rescue pilot for the Royal Air Force, Kate is accumulating survival skills of a different kind: the choreography of royal events, the briefings, acclimating to a security detail, coming to grips with the intricacies of the court and the constitution, deciding which worthy causes to support.
She is winning praise from those involved in the process for things that look simple. Robin Boles, the CEO of In Kind Direct, which distributes manufacturers' surplus goods to charities, enthuses that Kate was "absolutely brilliant" as a last-minute stand-in for Prince Charles at the organization's October dinner, her first solo royal engagement. What did this involve? Reading a brief and asking bright questions, says Boles. "There could have been a few times where people complimented her and it would have embarrassed her, but she just took it and giggled and moved on. She's going to be great for the royal family. She's mature and intelligent."
Sensible and levelheaded are adjectives that crop up frequently in conversation with palace officials. They like her. She's nice. She remembers names. The sharpest comment comes from a woman: "I think it's a mistake for her not to work. She shouldn't just take on charity patronages. She should really work for the charities."
Chatting with Kate at the Buckingham Palace reception added a few more layers to her wholesome image. She triggers memories of girls at school who were sporty and good at exams and never smoked behind the bike sheds or acquired piercings or tattoos. She seemed as excited to be in the presence of royalty as the people thronging around her. She radiates a palpable happiness.
That's in keeping with our ideas of what a princess is and does. Ladylike and gracious, Kate is rarely less than demure, often in accessible fashions. A surge in orders for a knee-length $274 dress from U.K. fashion chain Reiss that she wore to a meeting with the Obamas during their May state visit to London crashed Reiss's website. She has sparked a revival in tan pantyhose. She used to wear short skirts and V-necks, but as a royal fiancée her hemlines inched lower and her necklines higher. In the full bloom of youth, she appears in day wear that wouldn't look out of place on a maiden aunt in the 1940s. She doesn't do sexy. She doesn't do edgy. The Duchess never, in the parlance of upper-crust Brits, frightens the horses.
It has become fashionable among fashion editors to lament that she takes too few risks. The reality is that whatever Kate wears and however nice she is, she will never escape censure in one corner of the media or another. Becoming a Windsor bride is no fairy tale, thanks to two diseases afflicting British public life: snobbery and a legendarily unscrupulous popular press.
It's hard to disentangle these phenomena. Britons' vocabulary of class is every bit as extensive as legend suggests. Red-top tabloids are aimed at the lower orders. Mid-market titles like the Daily Mail see themselves as the voice of Middle England. Broadsheets look down long noses at the rest. Yet across the range, there's been a surprising unanimity of response to the Middleton family. A desire to move up the social scale might be lauded in other countries. In the U.K., it's more liable to attract mockery.
Kate, descended on her father's side from the professional classes and on her mother's from miners and laborers, tripped the cultural alarms that come built in with English heritage. The ring on her finger affords some protection she is no longer, in tabloid terminology, "Waity Katie" but her family remains fair game. Kate's younger sister Pippa, thrust backward into the public eye by her sinuous bridesmaid's dress, reportedly split from her aristocratic boyfriend Alex Loudon in November, unleashing schadenfreude in the Daily Mail. The posh Loudons had been "lukewarm" about their son's liaison with the "newly wealthy" Middletons, the newspaper reported, citing no sources more solid than a clutch of unnamed "friends," a "palace insider" and an anonymous interviewee who once visited the Loudons' garden during a charity open day.