Wednesday, Apr. 18, 2012

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Pippa Middleton

To appreciate the remarkable rise of the siblings whose very name, Middleton, seemed to presage an unremarkable life among their fellow commoners, you must first appreciate the forces that keep most Britons in their place. Snobbery is one luxury all classes feel able to afford. The man and woman in the U.K. street are swift to mock the upwardly mobile. As Prince William whispered sweet nothings to his girlfriend, the press muttered nasty somethings about her supposed ambition to wed above her station. They dubbed her Waitie Katie and bracketed her with Pippa as "the wisteria sisters," determined to climb. Since Kate, 30, successfully scaled the palace walls, Pippa, 28, now globally recognized, especially from behind, has found herself under yet greater pressure. A photo editor at a British paper recently revealed he is offered as many as 400 paparazzi photos of Pippa every day.

Those images matter. The Middletons have become avatars of aspiration. Other women aim to dress like them, to emulate their easy athleticism and their more problematic slenderness.

How do the sisters feel about their influence? They aren't saying. Latter-day Mona Lisas, they smile mysteriously and keep their mouths closed. In an age of bleating, tweeting, confessional celebrity, the middle-class Middletons show real class.

Mayer is TIME's Europe editor