For all the photos taken and column inches accrued, Kate Middleton remains an enigma. Having spent the decade since she met her Prince doing, well, not a huge amount, she found herself, at the beginning of this year, turning 28 and still living with her parents. Nicknamed "Waity Katy", her chief occupation seemed to be readying herself for the inevitable – a royal engagement.
Undoubtedly moneyed, Miss Middleton is not that posh. Born in Berkshire in January 1982, educated at the plummy Marlborough College, she comes from a line of normal, non-aristo folk. She has one sister, Pippa, now an employee at Table Talk catering, and one brother, James, who runs a cake company. Both are younger than her. Her grandfather was a coal miner, and her parents both worked for British Airways before setting up Party Pieces, a mail-order firm catering for children's celebrations.
It's because of her relative ordinariness that Kate's mother, Carole, has garnered almost as much attention as her daughter. Much has been made of her middle-classness. We know that she was seen chewing gum while watching William's passing out parade at Sandhurst. And that when her back was turned, the Prince's hooraying friends would mutter "doors to manual" as a jibe at her "trade" past. And we think we know – despite the lack of evidence – that she was the one who encouraged her daughter to attend St Andrews University, in the hope of a royal encounter.
"Probably, like all parents, she wanted the best for her children," says Catherine Ostler, editor of the society bible Tatler. "So she gave them a good education and taught them good manners. But anything more than that would be a bit of a long shot, wouldn't it?"
Still, by accident or design, the couple met. By their second year they were living together with friends. Miss Middleton, it has been said, cooked dinner for William almost every night. On leaving university with a respectable 2:1, she moved to London, where her parents bought her a King's Road flat (thought to be worth well over £1m). Not long afterwards, she landed a covetable job as accessories buyer at Jigsaw, and began life as the woman we have come to recognise: well-groomed, much photographed, and a little bit dull.
Externally, the transition was a smooth one. Internally, it must have been less so. Shunted into the limelight after the blanket press ban that had existed at St Andrews was lifted, Miss Middleton began a rigorous process of up-keep. She went for weekly blow-drys at Richard Ward's Chelsea salon. She applied make-up before heading out. And she replaced the scruffy bootleg jeans of her student days with a collection of Jigsaw, LK Bennett and Issa. The result proved winning. "She always looks groomed, has that wonderful hair and a great figure," says Ostler.
And for a while, we loved it. Photographed taking the bins out one day and out on the town the next, Miss Middleton offered a refreshing combination of down-to-earth ordinariness and glamour. She hung out at Boujis, South Kensington's sloaney nightclub, but never looked unruly. When she left the venue in a monochrome Topshop dress, the item sold out. Her endorsement had a similar effect on Issa's "lucky" dress, spawning imitations across the high street.
The problem was that she was a little too photographed. The complaints to the press mounted, as did the reports of an imminent, and expensive, security detail. At the same time she gave up her job at Jigsaw. Rumoured, variously, to be training as a photographer or setting up a shop, she decided, eventually, to move in with her parents and help out with their business. The decision made her look at best old-fashioned – waiting, like a good girl, for her Prince – at worst workshy.
Lately, Miss Middleton has been less on the social pages, perhaps in preparation for yesterday's announcement. She gave her first interview in March, to promote her parents' business and, typically, gave little away. It's a tool which will, says Claudia Joseph, author of Kate Middleton - Princess in Waiting, come in handy over the next few years. "Discretion is absolutely crucial. I think that's the key for William. She is, I think, primed for the role."
Q&A: The royal wedding at a glance
When will it happen?
Spring or summer next year. Bookmakers agree that August is the likely month, with Paddy Power quoting 3-1 for 13 August (which would clash with Cowes Week and the third Test against India).
Where will it happen?
In London. Westminster Abbey is favourite; other options include Windsor and St Paul's.
Will we get a bank holiday?
The marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 was accompanied by a national holiday. Princess Anne was similarly honoured but Princes Andrew and Edward were not. Downing Street is already making space for an extra holiday in 2012 to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
How big will it be?
A state of national hysteria is guaranteed. Charles and Diana's wedding was watched by 28.4 million in the UK and 750 million worldwide, and was credited (not altogether convincingly) with boosting a flagging economy.
Will they live happily ever after?
The success rate for royal first marriages over the past 30 years is 50 per cent. But they will live in idyllic surroundings in North Wales, where Prince William rents a cottage. And, in contrast to many previous royal couples, they are reasonably grounded – each has a proper job: he is a flight lieutenant with the RAF's Search and Rescue Force, while she works for her parents' party accessories business.
What will they be called?
Four dukedoms are in suspension: Windsor, Connaught, Sussex and Cambridge. It is likely that they will become Duke and Duchess of one of these, with Cambridge a slight favourite.
What will the bride wear?
Diana's choice of David and Elizabeth Emanuel was the making of that label. British designers will be dreaming of being chosen this time. Susannah Frankel, Fashion Editor of The Independent, names Issa and Alice Temperley as two likely candidates. "But in my dreams," she adds, "it would be Vivenne Westwood."
Will it really happen?
Betfair offers 14-1 for Prince William getting cold feet.