More than two years after her marriage to Prince William, and two months after the birth of her son, Prince George, the Duchess of Cambridge, better known to the world as Catherine “Kate” Middleton, remains something of an enigma. As the first “middle-class” woman to marry a direct heir to the British throne since Anne Hyde married the future James II in 1660, Catherine is described as both a cornerstone of the modern monarchy and a social climber. The Duchess received near universal acclaim from the public in Canada and the South Pacific during her overseas tours but has been the subject of scathing critiques by prominent Britons including award winning author, Hilary Mantel and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.
Now that baby George has arrived, Catherine’s choices as a mother are under intense scrutiny because the decisions she makes and the products she purchases will influence millions of parents around the world. Meanwhile, William and Catherine have said little about their relationship on the record since their engagement interview. In response to the royal couple’s discretion and determination to protect their privacy, speculation regarding their courtship, marriage and parenting has flourished.
In Kate: The Future Queen, Katie Nicholl, Royal Editor and columnist for the Mail on Sunday and contributing editor to Vanity Fair attempts to separate the facts about Catherine’s life from the speculation through extensive interviews with teachers, friends and acquaintances. This fascinating biography fills in key gaps in Catherine’s biography such as when she first met Prince William and how the supposedly “middle class” Middleton family were able to send their children to some of the best schools in the United Kingdom while they built the Party Pieces business that would make them millionaires.
One of the greatest strengths of Nicholl’s work is her decision to place Catherine firmly at the center of the story. Too many books about William and Catherine focus on the impact of the Duchess and the Middleton family on the monarchy. In contrast, Kate: The Future Queen focuses on Catherine’s life before she met William and how her life changed once she decided that the Prince was the man she wanted to marry. Although Nicholl states that William and Catherine chose to omit the word “obey” from their wedding vows because it “somehow seemed so incompatible with the equality on which their relationship was founded,” the courtship brought more changes to Catherine’s “middle class” life than William’s royal existence.
Nicholl provides vivid descriptions of Catherine’s life before William and how dating a Prince changed almost everything. Before William, Catherine Middleton had a wide and varied social circle, held a diverse range of summer jobs from waitress to deckhand, traveled to Florence as an anonymous art history student and was involved in amateur theatricals as well as sports. Life with the Prince entailed sharply curtailing her social circle to include only the most discreet friends, adapting her work schedule to the William’s calendar of military training and royal engagements, and avoiding activities, such as a planned charity Dragon Boat race across the English channel, with the potential to attract a media circus. Certain aspects of Catherine ‘s life before William have survived her transition to Duchess of Cambridge, most notably her close relationship with her family, but Nicholl’s sources demonstrate just how great a change occurred in her life when she began the path to royal life.
Nicholl is at her best when she writes about Catherine, her family and the pressures of dating and marrying royalty but the brief sections involving royal history could have used a little more attention and expansion. There are a few typographical errors – such as King George VI being referred to as “George V” in a passage about the Queen’s engagement to Prince Philip and there not enough comparisons between Catherine and other royal spouses who faced a similar situation to her own. The correspondence of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon reveals that she hesitated before accepting the future George VI’s proposal and the life of royal duty that accompanied it. More comparisons between Catherine’s situation and that of other non-royals who married royalty would have enhanced Nicholl’s work.
Advance reviews of Kate: The Future Queen focused on Nicholl’s controversial evidence that Catherine changed her university plans once William’s intent to attend St. Andrew’s were made public. Nicholl certainly implies that William’s university plans influenced Catherine’s decisions about her future but she allows the reader to draw the final conclusion, writing, “The truth is Kate did change her mind and reapplied to St. Andrews, knowing that the prince was going there, but only she truly knows whether her change of heart was because of William.” Since William and Catherine remain private about the circumstances of their courtship, the Duchess of Cambridge will remain the focus of conjecture but Nicholl’s engaging biography provides fresh insights about her life as well as informed speculation about how she found her prince and what her future will hold as a wife, mother, philanthropist, Princess and Queen.