Now that Prince William and Kate Middleton have finally announced their engagement, British bookies can begin to assign odds on the next inevitable speculatory salvos about the couple. Wedding date? First due date? And, of course, in a nation where the royal family routinely contributes to divorce statistics, how long the marriage will last.
Based on the couple’s first media appearance this week, however, they appear to be in it for the long haul—and decidedly on their own terms. That was evident with the surprising news that the prince had given his fiancée the much-knocked-off sapphire-diamond engagement ring his father, Prince Charles, gave his mother, Lady Diana Spencer, some 30 years ago. Some might balk at passing on a ring symbolizing a union that would come to be fractured beyond repair, but it was a masterstroke that felled the elephant in the room. The gesture elegantly, yet defiantly, salvaged family tradition. It recycled an heirloom, a nod to his father’s concern for the environment, while paying tribute to his beloved mother. “It was my way of making sure my mother didn’t miss out on today and the excitement and the fact we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together,” Prince William told a press scrum as a collective “whoosh” of the melting hearts of women over 50 echoed throughout the land.
The strategic brilliance of placing the ring on Middleton’s finger was consistent with the deliberation that characterized the couple’s eight-year relationship. In donning the ring, Kate was immediately linked to the mythology that still surrounds the beloved princess. “It’s very special to me,” Prince William said of the ring, which he asked for after his mother’s death. “Kate is very special to me as well. I wanted to put the two together.”
The sight of the ring on Middleton’s finger couldn’t help but underline the sharp divide between the match William is making and that made by his father when he married Diana in 1981. That spectacle occurred on the heels of a whirlwind engagement between two woefully incompatible people with a 12-year age gap. Their first media interview after their engagement was announced was cringe-inducing, punctuated by Diana’s giggles. In contrast, William and Kate, both 28, exuded easy familiarity. When asked what the two loved about each other, William laughed and asked, “Where do we start?” before referring to having a “great fun time” with Middleton and sharing a “down to earth” nature. Contrast that with his father’s answer to a similar question in 1981: “Whatever in love means.”
Royal watchers observe that William’s parents’ nasty divorce in 1996 coloured his attitude toward marriage. “He’s determined not to make the same mistakes his father did,” Richard Kay, a Daily Mail columnist and former confidant to Diana, once told Maclean’s. Hence Middleton’s long-term job audition as Royal Girlfriend. “I wanted her to see and back out if she wanted to,” Prince William said on Tuesday, referring cryptically to “lessons learned in the past.”
Despite all of the gushing about their “starting a new life together,” the couple has been living together off and on since 2002, shortly after they met at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In a sit-down interview, they spoke of forging a friendship before dating. “It blossomed from then,” William said, adding: “We’ve had a few stumbling blocks as every relationship does,” a reference to their split in 2007, allegedly due to William’s flirtatious ways.
Research on courtship shows that a long courtship does not guarantee a more stable union, but a harmonious one does, according to a landmark study by Ted Huston, a professor of human ecology at the University of Texas. Huston followed 168 couples for two decades from their newlywed days; he found that the closer a couple’s courtship was to just over two years, the more successful their marriage will be. Couples very quick or very slow to wed are more likely to divorce. Marital happiness is less a result of a courtship’s length than its quality, he discovered: harmonious courtships tend to presage happy marriages; turbulent ones foreshadow problems.
Taking a pragmatic approach to marriage that recognizes it as a business partnership that needs to last can almost be seen as romantic in this case. Added to the strains experienced by every marriage, there will be intense scrutiny from a media that William blames for his mother’s death. “He hates them without reservation,” says Kay. “His overriding wish is for the privacy his mother never had.” That was evident in his response to a question as to why the engagement had taken so long: “I didn’t realize it was a race,” he said, bristling slightly while smiling. “The timing is right now.”
Being the child of divorce, William is more prone to divorce himself, according to statistics. But he has also witnessed his father’s successful, companionable remarriage to Camilla Parker Bowles, the woman he let get away in his youth. Kate’s background offers ballast. Her parents’ 30-year marriage even provides a role model for the sort of working union their daughter’s marriage will be: together the Middletons built a thriving mail-order party supply company. William clearly has been drawn into the close-knit clan, referring to her parents as “Mike” and “Carole.”
Middleton too has earned the royal seal of approval. In addition to possessing the patience of Job, she’s evidenced a steely will, unassailable poise and a willingness to sue paparazzi who’ve breeched her privacy. Unlike Diana, she appears to fully grasp she’s taking on a role, and that every role requires following a script. That was on display as she answered a question about whether she was frightened of her new role with an endearing nervousness. “It’s quite a daunting prospect but hopefully I’ll take it my stride,” she said. “But William’s a great teacher, so hopefully he’ll be able to help me along the way.” Yet she firmly drew lines when asked about the engagement, saying it was “romantic” but “very personal.”
How long the couple can remain in the cocoon they’ve created for themselves is a question mark. Currently, the prince’s military career offers a protective scrim. The couple live in a rented cottage in Anglesey, north Wales, where William is a search-and-rescue pilot with the Royal Air Force and they’ve been spotted shopping at local convenience stores. They could be taking cues from Queen Elizabeth II, William’s beloved “Granny,” who has said spending some of the first years of her marriage stationed in Malta with her husband, then a Royal Navy officer, away from the public gaze were among her happiest.
But as soon as they walk down the aisle, if not before, pressure will be on Middleton to supply the British throne with a future heir and plenty of spares. To employ the odious parlance of celebrity tabloids, the press will be on “baby bump” watch; every time Middleton gains five pounds she’ll be fronting a magazine, an arrow pointed at her uterus. It won’t help that Diana became pregnant with William within months of her wedding. Or that the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 will be seen as the perfect place for a photo op with the monarch and her newest first great-grandchild—a future king or queen—in her arms. Both said children were on the radar. “I hope we’ll have a happy family ourselves,” Middleton said. “Let’s get marriage out of the way first,” her future husband cautioned.
Like Diana before her marriage, Middleton is a blank slate, known only as a master-class shopper and yacht-deck devotee. Yet already discussion is swirling about how “Catherine,” as she’s now referred to by the British media—will revitalize or diminish an imperilled monarchy and British economy, as Diana did. It’s possible that, like the princess, she might find that the life she put on hold to join “the firm,” as the royal family is known, is somehow not what she imagined. If family genetics offer any guidelines, William may not ascend the throne for another 20 years, making her a palace prisoner resigned to a life of cutting ribbons. For now, however, Middleton appears eager to follow the rules: “I don’t know the ropes,” she said. “I’m willing to learn quickly and work hard.”
Her future husband is protective: “It’s about carving her own future,” he said. “No one is trying to fill my mother’s shoes.” And if anyone would knows what a disaster any such attempt to fill those stilettos would be for the marriage—and the monarchy—it would be him.