Monday, 30 November -0001

A tale of two Duchesses

Both are stunningly stylish ‘commoners’ who won a prince’s heart. But while Wallis Simpson nearly destroyed the British monarchy, The Duchess of Cambridge, who this week celebrates her first wedding anniversary, has reinvigorated it for the 21st cent

Written by Anne Sebba, Wallis Simpson's Biographer

It is a tale of two duchesses; and the superficial similarities between them are obvious. They are both stunningly stylish commoners who won a prince’s heart and have had a huge impact on the British monarchy. But while Wallis Simpson, who would become the Duchess of Windsor, brought the crown to its knees, nearly taking the empire down with her, Catherine Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, has done quite the reverse, reinvigorating the monarchy for the 21st century.

And there the comparisons should probably end. Wallis, whose biography I wrote, was not only an American, but a woman of the world, twice married, with both husbands still living at a time when divorce was rare, difficult and a disgrace. She was also, of course, behind a king’s scandalous abdication.

Meanwhile, Catherine has little experience of life beyond what she has discovered as William’s partner. Nevertheless, she has been allowed to grow into her public role, to discover gently with guidance from other members of the Royal Family, how to behave as a royal consort in the 21st century. And she has grown into it so very well.

Some of this is down to timing. It is unthinkable, even a generation ago, that the heir to the throne would openly cohabit with a girlfriend who was not his wife. Yet these two have more or less lived together since meeting as students at the University of St Andrews in 2001. This has meant that Catherine, now 30, has had years to get used to cameras flashing in her face; and now always responds with a dimpled smile and a very natural spontaneity.

Wallis loathed the press, and the intrusion into her life, fearing whenever she saw a flashbulb pop that someone might be aiming a bomb at her. As a consequence, she was never loved by the public.

So what is the secret of Catherine’s success… and what pitfalls might she face? She is undeniably beautiful and any clothes she wears immediately become bestsellers. Better still, not everything she wears is a designer outfit. She has cleverly patronised high-street stores and regularly recycles older clothes, too, increasing her appeal among a much broader public. The coral-coloured jeans she wore when she played hockey with the British Olympic team, for example, provided a brilliant photo opportunity and sent jeans sales soaring. Asda reportedly saw sales of their £14 coral jeans soar 88 per cent – even though Catherine’s were a rather more expensive £190, from designer label J Brand.

kate-wallis 382Visiting Fortnum & Mason in London

But the fact that she is so constantly in the public eye also leads to unfair, dark mutterings, too. Is she too thin, commentators so regularly ask? And that has led to comparisons with Diana, Princess of Wales, another outsider if not a commoner, who would have been her mother-in-law, a girl sucked into the Royal Family, and admonished when she displeased. But then perhaps one of the reasons the public so admires Catherine is that, after the Diana tragedy, when feelings for the monarchy hit rock bottom, she has done so much to make it possible to love the Royal Family again. She has diverted gossip away from Diana. She does not look like Diana, she is better educated and a lot savvier than Diana.

But, like Diana, her picture sells newspapers and has broadened the appeal of the Royal Family to a new generation. She provides the monarchy with an appropriately 21st-century face. On a recent outing to Fortnum & Mason with the Queen and the Duchess of Cornwall as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Catherine pinned a simple daffodil brooch for St David’s Day on her blue Missoni coat, and she looked like one of us. It was a clever touch.

Indeed, while her radiant good looks are an incalculable benefit for the British fashion industry, she is much more than a clothes horse. There is a wisdom and an intelligence, too.

She studied Art History at St Andrews and the interesting choice of five charities she is to patronise reflects this. Alongside the high-profile National Portrait Gallery is a little-known charity, The Art Room at Oxford Spires Academy, which offers art therapy to children. Cleverness, however, can lead to questioning – and the monarchy is sometimes best accepted without too much of that. At its best, it is, after all, a brilliantly-staged performance with a shimmer of unreality, a show during which children long to catch a glimpse of a fairy princess. But it is also about duty.

Wallis referred to the Silver Jubilee of 1935 – which raised many thousands of pounds for good causes – as the ‘Silly Jubilee’, an indication of just how little she understood the importance of the Royal Family’s public responsibilities. It is certainly well nigh impossible to imagine Catherine saying such a thing.

By playing down the opportunities and riches that flow from being royal and treating life as a job requiring plenty of hard work, Catherine seems to have found the key to the monarchy’s popularity with the 21st century British public.

It also helps that both Middleton parents work, were not born to riches and have made their own way in the world. Even when Prince William embarked on his duties as a helicopter pilot in the Falklands, Catherine undertook solo engagements and was extremely poised, engaging and natural. ‘I’m missing him,’ she told a stranger, without a hint of complaint in her voice.

There are, of course, challenges ahead – who, after all, would want to be a young woman with the whole world wondering when your first child will come. But if her first year is anything to go by, Catherine will go from strength to strength.

Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman: The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor, published by Phoenix, priced £7.99.

On the list

List: you only have to say the word to a busy woman and she will show you a rather long one. ‘To do’ list; ‘Thank you’ list; mundane ‘Shopping list’. And the ‘Wish List’ (Caribbean holidays and new kitchen).

But only 100 people make it each year on to Time magazine’s Most Influential People In The World List. And it can come as no surprise that the Duchess of Cambridge is on the list this year.

Justifying her inclusion, Time said: ‘The Duchess of Cambridge continues to raise spirits and burnish the Windsor family name through her solo appearances as the patron of several charities.

‘Whether greeting cancer victims or cutting ribbons, she demonstrates a common touch without sacrificing the mystique of royalty. The future of British monarchy appears to be in secure hands.’

Some reporters have noted that neither Prince William nor Prime Minister David Cameron were included. But as any husband might gladly concede, ‘Lists’ are not their territory.

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