The turning point in Kate Middleton's life was the weekend she joined a royal deerstalking party in Scotland in October 2007.
Kitted out in camouflage jacket, jeans, boots and pearl earrings, she gamely took instructions in handling a bolt-action hunting rifle with silencer and telescopic sights, lay in the heather and blazed at a stag-shaped metal target a mile away.
She had never, before that weekend, been seen with a gun in her hands. She'd never shown any interest in blood sports, although she'd been photographed standing beside Prince William during pheasant shoots at Sandringham. But the autumn of 2007 was different. It was make-or-break time for the Berkshire bourgeoise. She and Prince William had broken up in April that year, while on holiday in Zermatt. They had fallen out, allegedly, because of his conviction, at 24, that he was too young to marry, and his habit of confiding in ex-girlfriends about the state of his feelings.
Things had improved a little since April. They had both attended the Concert for Diana at Wembley Stadium in the summer, but had sat two significant rows apart and were now "just good friends". The autumn trip to Balmoral was an olive branch from Prince William, which Kate seized with alacrity.
Heedless of the cries of anti-blood sports campaigners and the tabloid press, oblivious to suggestions that she was shamelessly sucking up to the royals, she threw herself into the stalking. And it worked. The scales fell from William's eyes. By December, she'd moved in with him at Clarence House, his father's London home.
Three years later, there was another stalking trip to Scotland. This time Michael and Carole Middleton, Kate's parents, attended a "country pursuits" house party hosted by William at his father's private residence, Birkhall. The soon-to-be in-laws were, like their daughter, given lessons in shooting, prior to a day's stalking in the hills. They were, it was popularly understood, being instructed, groomed and blooded in the dark arts of royal fun.
Has it all been about stalking? Has much of Kate Middleton's life been driven by her parents' (and her own) desire to snare a prince? Has her role as royal fiancée been targeted from her teens like a ground-to-air missile? Is there a vivid, interesting, independent woman somewhere in there behind the inoffensive good looks, the sensible clothes, the impeccable manners?
You can savour this week's image of Kate sailing along the King's Road in her skimpy summer frock, buying £50 honeymoon tops in Whistles and looking like a girl without a care in the world – and then register the tough, leather-jacketed security man beside her, a symbol of the royal protection she's "enjoyed" since 2006 and the royal incarceration that will slam behind her next week, as surely as the gates of Alcatraz behind Al Capone.
Is she prepared to put up with the famously dysfunctional royal firm because her true love happens to be part of it? Or is the role of Princess (or Duchess – her future title is unclear) one she has doggedly pursued for much of her 29 years?
Born in Reading, Berkshire, five months before Prince William, she spent her baby years in Amman, Jordan, where her parents worked for British Airways. Her father's ancestors were Yorkshire tradesmen and a hymn-writing clergyman, her mother's Durham coalminers. Returning to England at four, she attended St Andrew's School in Pangbourne, then the cloistered Downe House, whose cheerful address is Cold Ash, Berkshire. At Marlborough she was a house, then school, prefect.
At St Andrews University, she studied history of art and gained a 2:1. She worked for a time as a junior accessories buyer in Jigsaw, the unimpeachably fashionable, but not aggressively trendy, high-street women's clothing shop, until she left and worked for her parents' party supplies company. No ripple of discontent, no scintilla of attitude, no smidgeon of showing-off or inappropriate behaviour has ever blotted her escutcheon.
Those who encountered the young Middleton (Catherine at home, Kate at school) vie with each other to hymn her blandness, her vanilla niceness. Schoolpals, according to Hello!, called her "a kind-hearted and sensible soul who rarely caused upset among her peers". Imagine. University classmates said, "You barely noticed her. She very sweetly just slipped in and out of class." "Every time I look at young Miss Middleton," observed the writer Vicky Woods, "I feel I've had a tiny spritz of Keep Calm and Carry On behind each ear."
Her art history tutor barely remembered her at all. "She did nothing to draw attention to herself," was his judgement. "Very discreet." Her final-year dissertation on Lewis Carroll's photographs sounds promisingly controversial (are all those raggedy-urchin girls the fantasy portraits of a closet paedophile?) but she "dealt with the issues sensitively and intelligently". Of course. One longs for some blip of anarchy – An evening of drunken excess? A passionate mistake with a bad-ass drummer? – to disturb the millpond of Middletonian milquetoast mildness. One longs in vain.
The stalking, though, is interesting. Kate was on William's case from her teens. She first clapped eyes on him when his school, Eton, played hers, Marlborough, at hockey, and she watched his lanky, handsome frame gallop up and down the pitch. When William came back, aged 18, from his 10-week gap-yah expedition to Chile at the end of 2000, Kate went off on exactly the same expedition a month later (where she was, recalls her instructor, "an impressively strong and hard-working teenager" who naturally "loved" the children she briefly taught).
A suspicion has often been voiced that her mother, Carole, chose St Andrews University for her elder daughter because Prince William was going there. But was there something similarly directional about her parents sending her to Marlborough, which routinely turns out MPs' wives – Samantha Cameron, Frances Osborne, Sally Bercow – if not royal princesses? And when she and William met, how did she engineer herself a place in the cottage they shared (as housemates, no more) in St Andrews town? We don't, of course, have the faintest idea.
It's more likely that Kate Middleton, far from being a manipulating throne-grabber, is an uncomplicated wysiwyg: what you see is what you get. She's beautiful (though a bride's diet has temporarily given her Ulrika Jonsson's bony sternum), elegant, smiley and demure and she looks good in old-fashioned, brightly coloured high-street frocks, elaborate hats and knee-high boots.
Her apparent disdain for designer couture may be an affectation but may equally be a dislike of fussiness. ("I would have loved to dress Kate Middleton but I'll have to wait until she kind of catches up a bit with style," said Dame Vivienne Westwood crushingly.) She laughs easily but not noisily. She lacks Princess Diana's repertoire of flirtatious glances, and the Duchess of York's hoydenish vulgarity. She has learned to sing the Welsh national anthem in faultless Welsh.
She will, in due course, be the only Queen of England ever to hold a degree, and will be able to discuss art with confidence in any royal palace. She will be charming and chatty with foreign heads of state and, given her family's line of work, will be an absolute whizz at throwing parties. She and William will have amazingly beautiful children.
Faced with the prospect of becoming the Duchess of Clarence, Cambridge, Sussex or Windsor, she has expressed a preference to be plain "Princess Catherine". That seems about right. We should wish this very English rose, descended from coalminers and clergymen, every happiness and a sotto voce "Good luck". And we should retain that image of her this week in Chelsea – a smiling 29-year-old girl with a £32m sapphire-and-diamond ring, and the dead weight of history, clamped on her finger.
A life in brief
Born: Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, 9 January 1982, Reading, Berkshire.
Family: Born to Michael, a businessman and Carole, a former air stewardess. She has two younger siblings, Philippa and James.
Education: Educated at St Andrew's, a private school in Pangbourne, then Marlborough College in Wiltshire. After spending her gap year in Florence studying at the British Institute, she read history of art at the University of St Andrews in 2001, where she met Prince William, and graduated with a 2:1.
Career: In 2006 she was hired as an accessory buyer for fashion chain Jigsaw. She left a year later to work for her parents' company, which sells children's party paraphernalia.
She says: "I was quite nervous about meeting William's father, but he was very, very welcoming, very friendly. It couldn't have gone easier for me."
They say: "I love where she comes from and who she is. You see them together and they're easy with each other. They look at each other with genuine interest and love. It takes a very special person to step into that world." Dame Helen Mirren
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