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Failed romance a lesson in class

Dating the daughter of a former flight attendant? Britain's Prince William finds social barriers remain hard to breach.

April 18, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

London — NOW that it's all over but the kerchief-wringing, now that Prince William's latter-day fairy tale romance with commoner Kate Middleton is royally kaput, it's time for the sages to weigh in. And weigh in they have, squarely in the place the English have always drawn their lines. Middleton was, sorry to say, way too middle class.

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. A decade of Tony Blair's New Labor policies were meant to have opened the floodgates of upward mobility; newsreaders on the BBC who sounded like they came from Glasgow or Cardiff were agreeably multicultural. Yet there it is, the class thing, back with a vengeance.

It wasn't Middleton, per se. It was her mother, a former airline flight attendant who was caught on video chewing gum next to her elegantly hatted and serenely smiling daughter at William's graduation from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

There was more. Carole Middleton, who runs a party supply business with her husband and made enough to buy a $2-million house in Berkshire and send her daughter to prestigious Marlborough College, said "toilet" instead of "lavatory." She said "pardon" when she couldn't hear what someone had just said. ("What?" is more posh.)

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
British class barriers: An article in Section A on Wednesday about the breakup of the romance between Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton cited a meeting between Middleton's mother and Queen Elizabeth II that had been widely reported in the British media. However, the royal family in its first official statement on the issue denied Wednesday that the meeting took place.

When she met Queen Elizabeth II, William's grandmother, she said, "Pleased to meet you." Well, columnists wanted to know, who wasn't happy to meet the queen? "Hello, ma'am," was what was called for.

Within days, the tabloids, which by and large sympathized with the deposed princess-to-be, had rendered their anguished verdicts: "Kate was too middle class," the Mail on Sunday pronounced sadly. "Not posh enough for royals," fumed the Mirror. By Tuesday, the papers were publishing "cut-and-keep" guides on "how to be posh," and the Telegraph had a take-at-home quiz on "what class are you?"

Clue: Does your house have a number, rather than a name? Do you propose toasts like "Cheers" over drinks? Do your children have a PlayStation 3, rather than a dressing-up box? Get a better life.

The Middleton affair has reminded Britain, though the rest of the world may not have needed reminding, that it has not achieved its aspirations of a classless society.

MIDDLETON and the prince met as classmates at the University of St. Andrews, where they both began studies in 2001. Soon they were seen everywhere together, prompting intense speculation by February that an engagement was in the making.

Then, over the weekend, came news of the couple's breakup. Officially, William was said to be focusing on his military career. Unofficially, there was talk of other women, of needing to sow some royal oats before settling down to marriage. But behind it all, there has been a persistent bass note: The Middletons weren't royal in-law material.

One-third of inner-city Londoners may live in low-income households, while the average house in tony Kensington or Chelsea sells for $1.6 million. But such everyday disparities seem to inspire far less collective angst than the anonymous quotes from courtiers who revealed that mates of William would make snickering references to her mother's flight attendant background whenever Middleton entered the room. "Doors to manual," they would say, the line used in Britain to signal the opening of the cabin doors at the end of a flight.

"The English have developed snobbery to an art form," style commentator Stephen Bayley said in an interview. "Personally, I think the video of Mrs. Middleton at [William's] ceremony at Sandhurst showing her chewing gum was probably instrumental. I cannot imagine myself trying to explain to [the queen] what chewing gum is, or why one should do it, but I am confident that she would not be impressed or persuaded by any arguments in its favor."

Yet once you get outside the rarefied grounds of Windsor Castle, England's class divide these days is a shifting fault line. The ranks of the posh and the chavs -- the British equivalent of white trash, cool but just a little cheap -- are as likely to be defined by money and style as breeding.

"Previously, people talked about, 'He's got a good background, therefore he knows people through the old boy network, and he got on because of that' -- that's not the case anymore. People now get on because they've got dynamism or talent. There's not the same sort of aristocracy. There's lots of marriages between people of mixed ranks," said Mary Killen, considered the "Miss Manners" of Britain with her lively etiquette column in the Spectator magazine.

These days, she said, "money is the kind of thing that brings people together. Spending power. People now socialize with people with the same amount of money as they have to spend."

Still, the vocabulary clues that linguist Alan C. Ross distinguished in 1954 (don't say "mirror" when you could say "looking glass," and don't call someone "mental" when they are, more genteelly, "mad") still apply. They've just been updated.

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