The first time I saw Carole Middleton, mother of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, in the flesh, was on the dance floor at a summer party four years ago. It was two a.m. and she was dancing vigorously with a much younger man. It can’t have escaped his notice that he was throwing shapes with the mother of England’s future queen consort. She made for an arresting sight—tanned and trim, brimming with life, and dressed alluringly, like an elegant French MILF. She looked like she was loving every second, while her more diffident husband, Michael, looked on as he chatted with friends.
What struck me then, and has in subsequent years, is what a hoot she appears to be. There are no airs and graces, but neither is there anything unseemly to her. Yet she is often portrayed in upper-class circles as a pushy Mrs. Bennet, a steely matriarch who has coached her children to behave a certain way in order to achieve the imagined goals she dreamed of while growing up in very different circumstances to the one her family now finds itself in.
A recent story in Tatler, the fashion magazine and chronicler of high society, which ostensibly sought to celebrate her daughter with the cover line “Catherine the Great,” couldn’t resist having a dig at the duchess’s humble upbringing and her mother’s former career as an air hostess. The press attacked the magazine for monumental snobbery. (“Have these stuck-up snobs learnt nothing about the dangers of judging someone because of their social background?” wondered The Sun.) But it was the insinuations in the piece that seem to have struck a chord: William’s apparent closeness to Carole, whom he is said to think of as “the mummy he always wanted”; Kate’s plummeting weight, saying she “has become perilously thin”; the reference to her “spine of steel” and how she feels “exhausted and trapped” because of Megxit, followed by the description of her mother’s involvement in the redecoration of the Cambridges’ Norfolk estate, Anmer Hall, as being “very Buckinghamshire” (a slight that implies middle-class values) with its “cushions plumped and candles lit.” This is what drove William and Kate to take the unusual move of threatening to launch legal action against the publication.
She made for an arresting sight —tanned and trim, brimming with life, and dressed alluringly, like an elegant French MILF.
There is more to this than just a magazine trying to write lively but thin copy. Aristocratic Brits are a confounding little species. They have always excelled at the sport of social obfuscation, something which exercises visiting Americans no end: one minute you are welcomed as if you were the most interesting person in the room, full of pleasantries and “You must come for dinner” parting shots, to never hearing from that person again, or worse, being blanked by them at your next encounter. The upshot being that the ancient sport of class snobbery, so coruscatingly observed by Thackeray in his social-machination novel, Vanity Fair, is still alive and well in 21st-century England.
For once, the British tabloid press is not to blame. The Tatler viewpoint speaks directly to the reductive and outdated noblesse oblige standards of a dying-out faction of public-school Brits, one which is coincidentally reflected in the style of government we have today—a hubristic one that believes itself to be above the people it represents. There is plenty of appeasing and mollifying “You must come for dinner”-style rhetoric, but little substance or follow-through. It is a way of life that will hopefully die out when this generation of political dinosaurs are thrown out following their atrocious handling of the coronavirus.
Back to the vastly more entertaining Middletons. I spoke to several people who have come across the family socially, and that distinct undercurrent of “Gosh, yes, they are so lovely, I mean a little bit, you know … ” was all pervasive. The word “common” hung unspoken. But that was all they could level against them. “They are the closest thing we have to an apple-pie family,” said an astute observer, who described Michael Middleton as “a terrific guy, solid as a rock.” Kate is universally seen as a good egg, albeit a little distant and inscrutable at times, but then who can blame her? Many praised her fortitude and kindness. “She’s more interested in others than herself, she’s well brought up, the definition of a good character, the opposite of pretentious,” said one, while another commented, “She’s cleverly not turned herself into a fashion icon or the center of attention.” Of the family in general, one thought stuck out: “It’s like they have forensically studied the ‘what not to do’ rule book and are happy to be seen as boring. That’s why William is so happy when he’s with them.”
All the stories told of a tight family with a strong and charismatic matriarchal figure at its helm, whose children, admittedly all a little less lively than their firecracker mother, are a reflection of the industry, loyalty, authenticity, and comportment instilled in them. Much like, dare I say it, the Britain of old.
Heaven forbid that this new generation of monarchy might be known for their family values, rather than a parlous lack thereof, as has overwhelmingly been the case to date. The aristocracy would do well to take note, and care less about the provenance of their heritage or the arrangement of their cushions. They might start having to prove themselves in a more altruistically balanced world, or, even better, learn to get on with their children rather than outsource them before they can barely speak. Carole Middleton might yet prove to be the patron saint they are looking for.
Vassi Chamberlain is an Editor at Large for Air Mail based in London