Unlike her future sisters-in-law, the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York, Rhys-Jones was profiled by all the glossy magazines months before Prince Edward had even proffered her a ring. Unlike any other outsider to marry into the Windsors, she has long been considered their only hope of rehabilitation.
"Can Sophie Rhys-Jones save the Royal Family?" asked the cover of Harpers & Queen magazine in February last year. It is what we are all wondering.
When she finally ties the knot, Rhys-Jones, 31, will be the only "outsider" married to one of the Queen's sons. Given that the other children's first marriages have all broken down so publicly and in such tawdry circumstances, Rhys-Jones knows that for the sake of the Windsors' public perception, she and Prince Edward cannot afford to make the same mistakes.
Considering that a large percentage of Britons find marriage an insurmountable challenge in itself, without the additional pressures that being a princess must bring, Rhys-Jones must feel as if she is embarking on a monarchical version of Pilgrim's Progress.
The Queen, we know, is aware of all this. That is precisely why she has encouraged Rhys-Jones to stay at Buckingham Palace and Windsor when she wants to and why she has slowly absorbed Rhys-Jones into family events in front of the cameras, such as the visit to the Queen Mother near Balmoral in the summer of 1995.
She has also relied on Prince Edward to guide Rhys-Jones in matters of royal etiquette; he has taught her where to stand (behind the royal) when the paparazzi are about, how and when to address his mother (ma'am and only when spoken to) and what to wear on different occasions (even on holiday the royal men always wear black tie for dinner - which often means long dresses for the women).
After the Princess of Wales's public confession on Panorama that on her honeymoon she had desperately needed someone to show her what to do, to say, to wear, for her first public appearance in Australia, the question presents itself: should the Queen break with tradition and appoint somebody to nurture Rhys-Jones, to break her in to the ways of the royals? Or, like many a trembling bride before her, should she simply watch and listen, picking it up (or not) as she goes along?
Both the Duchess of York and Dame Barbara Cartland, the Princess of Wales's step-grandmother, agree that it would be most helpful to have a teacher. "In my day," says Dame Barbara, "if you were gentry, you were taught how to behave. That just doesn't happen any more. At some public schools, for instance, boys are not even told to open doors for women and staff. It's shocking."
Although both Sarah Ferguson and Lady Diana Spencer came from more upper- class backgrounds than Rhys-Jones, both also came from broken homes. Rhys-Jones comes from a secure family environment; her father was in the import/export business and she went to Kent College, a minor public school. According to the Duchess of York's private secretary, she blames the absence of a guardian-figure for many of her own subsequent mistakes.
"It is not the etiquette that is hard, but the protocol," says Judith Kark, principal of the Lucie Clayton finishing school. "Imagine how hard it must be having to make an appointment just to see your husband during the day; of having secretaries conspire against you [if what the Princess of Wales said on Panorama is true]; of being parcelled around from agent to agent; it could break anybody."
Nigel Evans, editor of Majesty magazine, thinks these hardships have perhaps been overplayed. "There is no doubt that the representation of the Royal Family as the exemplary middle-class family, initiated by Queen Mary and continued by the Queen Mother, is false. They are not a normal family; they are an institution. An indication of that is the fact that the people who marry into it acquire official duties. However, the number of times that the so-called court congregates in a year and family protocol comes into play is very limited."
Christmas at Sandringham is one of those formal occasions, as is the Balmoral summer holiday. "At Sandringham," says Evans, "the men all have breakfast together and the women are expected to lie in bed. Then the men go off shooting all day until 4pm and the women can either follow them or do their own thing. But they nearly always spend all of their free time outside."
Seeing very little of her husband, particularly when on holiday, is therefore perhaps the toughest lesson the newly-wed princess will have to learn. Other more minor rules include knowing who is who in the various individual retinues (the Prince of Wales has an entourage of about 40); never barging in on the private apartments and constantly changing her clothes. A post- shoot tea requires a change of clothes from outside gear. But it is necessary to change again before the cocktail hour.
As for learning how to behave for formal duties, Evans suggests that she gets herself a decent lady-in-waiting. "That is what they are there for," he says. "In that respect I am amazed that no one helped the Princess of Wales."
Rhys-Jones does have a head start, however, over both her future sisters- in-law. At 31, she is considerably older and wiser than they were when they wafted down the royal aisle. She has already had a high-profile PR job for which she was headhunted and which involved meeting and dealing with a wide range of people. And she seems remarkably relaxed about her appearance.
She has already shown that she carries herself well; her short hair is easy for her to groom herself (it even looked all right when she emerged from the cold waters of the Solent, having fallen off her windsurfer), and it seems unlikely she will have to smarten up her clothes much. (Though she is neat, it is obvious that she does not share the Princess of Wales's love of high fashion and the complicated sartorial decisions that involves).
Then there is the added bonus that the man she is marrying is only seventh in line to thethrone. "She will not have the pressures on her that the Princess of Wales had," says Judith Kark. "She will have a life that is far more akin to that of the Linleys or Lady Helen Taylor.
"And this time there is no danger that a fairy-tale image will be created. Sophie Rhys-Jones comes across as exactly what she is: quiet, demure and solid. Perfect, in fact, for what is going to be demanded of her."
From getting out of a car to wearing an evening gown: dos and don'ts for a would-be royal
Generally speaking it is important for a royal wife to conduct herself with decorum and dignity and to dress with elegance while remaining conservative. The Duchess of York has come in for much criticism on both counts, and the press once famously captured her behaving in a most unladylike fashion with an umbrella at Ascot. "It is necessary to blend in with the background and match the standards of other members of the Royal Family," says Judith Kark, principal of London's Lucie Clayton School. Above all, future princesses and duchesses should learn:
To tow the family line. The House of Windsor, despite the recent scandals, is associated with traditional values, and airing one's personal views might be damaging. The Duchess of York caused consternation in the US in December 1994 by speaking out in support of cohabitation before marriage.
How to carry oneself properly in a long evening gown.
How to get out of a car and protect one's modesty in the glare of paparazzi flashbulbs. Exposure of hemline, knickers or too much leg is to be avoided. During one of her early public appearances with the Prince of Wales, Princess Diana drew attention to a plunging neckline by getting out of a car without due care and attention.
That in the presence of royal personages, and on taking leave of them, men should bow and women should curtsey (though women may also bow if they prefer). "It is not what is done that counts, but the acknowledgement of royal presence," explains Judith Kark.
That on first being introduced to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, one is expected to address the Queen as Your Majesty and the Duke as Your Royal Highness. Thereafter one addresses them as "ma'am" (pronounced "mam", with a flat vowel sound, not "marm") and "sir".
How to deal with the Union Jack-waving crowds lining the streets on public engagements - how and where to walk, and what kind of contact to make.
All that said, the new royal bride will not be surrounded by an entourage of ladies-in-waiting, advisers and image-makers with the task of making a princess out of a PR girl. According to Nigel Evans, editor of Majesty magazine: "We are witnessing a great royal experiment" with Sophie Rhys- Jones. "She will not be thrown into the deep end, as Lady Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson were," he says. The responsibility for coaching her in her new role will fall mainly to Edward, says Evans, and she will probably share her husband's private secretary, Sean O'Dwyer. There may be a lady- in-waiting, but other than that, her induction into royal business will be a gradual process that has already begun.
Should her adeptness at handling the media and notable public figures suddenly fail her, a finishing school such as Lucie Clayton might come to the rescue. Courses in "grooming" (business and social etiquette) start at pounds 295 for two weeks.
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