The disappearing Duchess

Kate’s recent seclusion has gossip mills churning. But it’s all part of the plan.
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 29: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge arrive to open the new Oak Centre for Children and Young People at Royal Marsden Hospital on September 29, 2011 in Sutton, Greater London, England. (Photo by Danny Martindale/FilmMagic)
The disappearing duchess
Danny Martindale/FilmMagic/Getty Images

William and Kate’s appearance last Thursday at the Royal Marsden hospital was the most ordinary of royal engagements. The duke and duchess of Cambridge opened a new children’s cancer centre. It’s the sort of duty that royalty undertake every day. Yet the visit was accorded superstar treatment by the world’s media, largely because it was just the second public engagement for the couple since completing their tour of Canada and America on July 10.

So an event that lasted a few hours generated stories well past the weekend—he’d pulled a 24-hour shift as a search and rescue pilot in Wales before rushing to the Surrey hospital, her engagement ring vanished during the visit! (She’d removed it and washed her hands before meeting patients with low immunity.), a site devoted to Kate’s fashion, saw its visitors on Thursday jump from an average of 8,000 a day to more than 20,000.

While gossips postulate Kate’s seclusion is because she’s either pregnant with twins or depressed because she’s too thin to conceive, the reason is more prosaic: it’s a long-term strategy by the royal household to ease her into a life of duty and unceasing attention by a curious world. Earlier this year, Judy Wade, the royal editor of Hello!, said, “We were told she’s not going to do much in the way of official engagements at all in the first few years because they want the marriage to work and they want her to have a gentle introduction into royal life.” (The recent royal tour is seen as a one-off variation from that plan.)

Royal officials have two reasons to be cautious. Their names are Diana and Fergie. When that duo were plunged into royal ribbon cuttings and hospital visits, the results were overinflated egos and publicity-seeking behaviour. No one wants a repeat of that. So after putting on Diana’s famous ring in November, Kate undertook 10 engagements at William’s side before the royal tour, such as meeting the Obamas and going with the Queen to the Epsom races.

Since returning from North America, she’s done just two more, including a post-riot visit to a Birmingham community centre; officials say they’ll continue on the average of one every three to four weeks. By contrast, Prince Philip, who turned 90 in June, undertook 308 engagements last year. Things are so low-key that the online version of the Court Circular, the official record of royal duties, hasn’t yet created a searchable pull-down tab for Kate.

Late last month the royal household felt obliged to issue a press release explaining why Kate’s public schedule is so empty. She’s working privately to get “to know a number of charitable causes and institutions related to national life better, so she can make well-informed decisions about her future role.” The Telegraph revealed she was receiving exclusive tutorials by experts on “government, the arts and the media.” The palace also revealed that she and William, “like any other young married couple, regard these months as a special time for them.” And any thought of Kate undertaking events without her husband, busy with his full-time RAF job, were scotched. Richard Palmer of the Express was told that “historically, women joining the royal family do not begin undertaking solo engagements until around two years after their marriage.”

Despite Kate’s disappearances for weeks on end, interest hasn’t quelled. Far from it. Even the most prosaic encounters spawn a feeding frenzy. Last Monday evening, Kate popped out for a little clothes shopping in London. Behind her at the cash was a goggle-eyed royal fashion blogger. “I was so star-struck that I was shaking and I had to ask myself, ‘Am I alive?’ ” she wrote. That Kate used her Topshop loyalty card while spending $170 on a spotted pencil skirt and bouclé jacket and even put back a $14 pair of earrings were taken as signs of her ordinariness.

The duchess will have plenty of time to hunt for bargains while she’s preparing for her lifelong role; palace handlers have set “no firm end date to this process.” Though no upcoming events have been announced, her next official appearance is likely Remembrance Sunday, more than a month away.