It was strangely jarring, last weekend, to see Kate Middleton peering out of the front pages of Britain’s Sunday newspapers.
Dressed in a crisp cornflower blue Catherine Walker coat dress with her hair tucked neatly under a floral headpiece, Kate was pictured smiling and laughing with friends at the wedding of her friend, Sophie Carter.
Kate was shepherding her two elder children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, who were immaculately dressed as pageboy and bridesmaid, into St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk, just down the road from Kate and William’s massive country home on the Sandringham Estate.
Her attendance at the wedding was a private affair. But then, Kate has been almost entirely absent from public life since the birth of her third child, Prince Louis, a few weeks before Prince Harry’s wedding in May.
Her public engagements since the birth of Louis can be counted on one hand; she has attended the Trooping of the Color (the Queen’s official birthday) in June, the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the RAF and the men’s and women’s Wimbledon tennis finals.
Maternity leave might at first seem an odd concept when applied to royal duties, but few would begrudge Kate the opportunity to spend a few months with her kids without having to think about hair, make-up, speeches and outfits.
Even fewer would argue that Kate should go on extended worldwide tours right now, as Queen Elizabeth did when Charles was a toddler.
Charles did not benefit from his mother’s workaholism. In one authorized biography he bitterly recalled a childhood during which the nursery staff, not his 'emotionally reserved' parents, were the people who “taught him to play, witnessed his first steps, punished and rewarded him, helped him put his first thoughts into words.”
Old-school tradition still reigns at the palace, including when it comes to gender roles.
As Robert Lacey, the author and historical consultant for the Netflix series The Crown, told the Daily Beast: “Kate's main job now is raising her children. Few things could be more important so far as the future of the monarchy is concerned. These are the crucial developmental years for her children.”
That said, Kate’s withdrawal from public life was so sudden and so complete that it could hardly go unnoticed. In particular, her non-appearance in a major documentary about how the queen is handing over to the younger generations much responsibility for the Commonwealth did look rather peevish, and attracted some comment.
A half hour sit down with a camera crew for a TV show about your grandmother-in-law seems a not-unreasonable ask of anyone, even a new parent.
Predictably, perhaps, without Kate’s presence the documentary became a celebration of Meghan, who was only too happy to allow her emotional reunion with her wedding dress to be filmed, and herein lies a vivid illustration of what might happen when Kate returns to active duty next week (just in time, some might say), visiting a London school.
Any photographer who works the royal beat will tell you that Kate is as unhelpful a subject as Meghan is helpful. When Kate steps out of a car, she almost always chooses the non-photographer side, when she passes the bank of photographers, she speeds up, flicks her hair and looks the other way.
It is perhaps understandable (if counter-productive) that the royals don’t feel it’s appropriate to stop and pose for photos. The Queen doesn’t, but she doesn’t with grace; there has never been any feeling among the royal press pack that her behavior is remotely petty or malicious in the way that Kate’s (and William’s, it should be added) is interpreted.
But Meghan works the press at her engagements like the screen star she was long before she married Harry. She waves from the car as she approaches. She gets out on the right side. She comes over to the press pen, and while she does not pose, she pauses, hovers even, which is super-helpful to the snappers. And, miracle of miracles, she has even got her husband to cheer up a bit too.
She’s also attentive to small touches connecting her to a narrative of normalcy. This week, a small section of the internet went into paroxysms after Meghan closed her own car door, citing it as evidence that she really is a new and approachable kind of royal.
The crazy reaction also showed how haughty and out of touch William and Kate have become.
When Kate disappeared from public view, a few weeks before the birth of Prince Louis, there was no reason to suspect any other attitude would ever be necessary.
But returning to the fray five months later, Kate will find a very different landscape. Yes, there was massive excitement about Harry and Meghan’s impending wedding when she left front-line duties, but it was widely assumed that Meghan-mania would die down and things would soon return to normal.
That very definitely has not happened.
Meghan has transformed our expectations of how a royal can behave.
Imagine taking a few months off work and coming back to find your bosses had hired a new person in a job very similar to yours, who was rather better at it than you, and seemed to enjoy all the stuff you hated—and they had also moved all the office furniture around.
That is what awaits Kate.
Most observers suspect that Kate’s response to the Meghan factor will be to double down on her rather boring image, and position herself as ‘the serious one’ in a future-queen role.
Penny Junor, a royal biographer who has spent a lifetime at the coalface of royal reporting and has written a multitude of books about the royals, including biographies of Harry, William and a new tome on Camilla told the Daily Beast: “We might want William and Kate to be lovely and engaging and give us all the great photos, but William models himself on the queen, and I suspect Kate is holding back slightly to ensure she doesn’t overshadow her husband.
"That is what went so disastrously wrong for his parents. Hers is a supporting role, as the Duke of Edinburgh’s has been all these years. These two are going to be in the public eye for the rest of their lives and it’s important they don’t behave like celebrities who fall in and out of favor. But inevitably that will result in the media being more interested in Meghan, because they want people who engage.
“But they are all actually being true to themselves. Meghan is a star, an actress and she loves the limelight. Kate is more self-effacing, private and shy. Harry can afford to be a bit of a clown, his role is very different from William’s.”
But, Junor says, while it’s all good for now, adjusting long-term to the new dynamic will be key, especially if Harry and Meghan’s popularity continues to vastly outstrip that of the more senior couple: ‘The danger is William and Kate might get their noses put out of joint if they feel their activities are being ignored.”
That seems unlikely. There is still huge interest in William and Kate, but they may be wise to learn some new tricks from Harry and Meghan.