It’s a tricky thing, class snobbery. You’d think that the royal family would be, by any definition, at the top of the pyramid. And yet, in 1981, when Princess Diana was Lady Diana Spencer, there were rumors that the Spencers, and indeed many of England’s oldest families, considered the Windsors to sit a fair way beneath them on the English class scale. The Windsors only became the Windsors in 1917; before that they were the Saxe-Coburg & Gothas or, as my mother once put it, middle-class Hanoverians. The Spencers, on the other hand, go all the way back to the fifteenth century and have been “poshos” the whole time.
And if the Spencers had a problem with the Windsors, what must the English aristocracy think of the Middletons? One of Kate’s grandfathers was a builder and a grandmother was a store clerk. (She and her fiancé do, at least, have reprobate uncles in common. Kate’s mother’s brother is a coke-dealing, prostitute-supplying multimillionaire, and William’s uncle is that well-known friend of Colonel Qaddafi’s son, Prince Andrew.) Kate’s mother was an airline stewardess; there was a period, among William’s friends, when every time Kate arrived on the scene, a snigger of “doors to manual” could supposedly be heard. The Middletons now run a company called Party Pieces; if you go to the website, you can order anything you want for a “butterfly wedding theme.” “Her parents have a tarmac drive, for God’s sake,” said one anonymous member of the Gloucester polo set. Only parvenus travel to their house on tarmac; the upper classes are said to prefer to ride on gravel.
Ranking on Kate for her lowborn status has been a favorite pastime in English social circles since she first appeared on the scene. In addition to her questionable pedigree, she also had a job, as an accessories buyer at Jigsaw, a perfectly respectable high-end high-street clothing chain. She and her sister, Pippa, were known as “the wisteria sisters”: pretty, nice-smelling, and incredible climbers. They were compared with the Bouvier sisters, because they so obviously wanted to marry up.
Flight attendants, prepare for cross-check. When William and Kate broke up in 2007, the tabloids went crazy for a likely apocryphal story that they had split because the queen disapproved of the way her mother spoke: “pardon” instead of “what,” “toilet” instead of “lavatory,” and, worst of all, when her mother met the queen, she said, “Pleased to meet you.” For future reference, it’s meant to be “How do you do?”
Of course, what looks to some eyes like a story of social climbing can look to others like a true-love Hollywood fable. In this version, William and Kate have stepped out of an Anne Hathaway film, Ella Enchanted in the big city. She’s the striving, upwardly mobile pretty girl who is looking for a man to sweep her off her feet, and he is the very kind but repressed and tormented man who wants to break free from his social shackles. It’s exactly the kind of royal fantasy that Americans typically gobble up—not quite rags to riches, but definitely Manolos to tiaras.
It’s the type of story that’s only just beginning to be possible in modern Britain, aristocrats and commoners coming together in a friendly, backslapping, frat-party sort of way. Prince William and Kate Middleton were housemates at St. Andrews university, where he went by the name William Wales. The choice of both name and university were signs of William’s desire to lead as normal a student life as possible; protocol would have suggested HRH Prince William, and either Oxford or Cambridge. At first, Kate had a boyfriend and Will Wales had a girlfriend, but as their relationship developed, different kinds of feelings began to emerge. Then, one night, Kate modeled in her underwear for a student charity event, and William could never look at her as just a friend again. They went out for a few years, broke up, saw other people, then got back together and decided to get married; the happy union will take place on April 29. So far, so conventional—a college and postcollege romance. This sort of thing is undoubtedly playing out right this very moment at Colgate and Hamilton and Skidmore and Amherst and anywhere else people smart enough and rich enough and Barbour-jacket-having enough assemble to study art history and slum it with cheap beer. And sure, they come from different backgrounds; she’s the daughter of parents who run an online party-supply store (£31.99 for a Fairy Tale Princess Ultimate Party Kit, if you’re in the market), and he is the heir to the throne of England. But they love each other and it’s 2011, so surely England should be past such concerns.