POSTED: 4:38 a.m. HST, Dec 17, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 4:41 a.m. HST, Dec 17, 2010
LONDON — If you think it's hard for most brides to feel comfortable in a new family, put yourself in Kate Middleton's shoes: "granny" is Queen Elizabeth II, dad is the famously cranky Prince Charles — and, hardest of all, she'll always be compared to the late Princess Di.
No one can measure up to the departed, and Middleton will be jousting with the memory of one of the best-known women of the 20th Century.
"That's a tough legacy to live up to, and I feel bad for the poor girl," said Elsie Andrews, a retired nurse, as she weighed up Middleton's future with her fiance Prince William.
She said Kate shouldn't be judged on a "Diana scale" but should be allowed to "make her own waves" and find her own way through the royal maze.
Still, Diana's imposing presence was unmistakable on the eventful day last month when Middleton and William, both 28, announced their engagement, largely because the prince chose to give his fiancee his mother's spectacular diamond-and-sapphire engagement ring.
William spoke movingly that day about using the ring as a way to give his late mother a role in the wedding, and Middleton talked publicly about Diana for the first time, calling her an inspiration.
Most engagement rings, of course, come with less baggage. Will the spectacular ring on Middleton's finger weigh her down, serving as a priceless reminder of the impossibly high expectations she faces as she eases into Diana's glass slippers by marrying an heir to the throne?
Will Middleton carve out her own path in the royal drama or — like Diana — be crushed by the loneliness and pressure of being a real-life princess?
As Middleton seeks her place, she will find herself bumping into Diana's legend whichever way she turns.
Looking for glamor? Diana danced with John Travolta at the White House, palled around with Elton John, and spent some holidays off the French Riviera on luxury yachts while the paparazzi used ever longer lenses to try to catch her sunbathing.
Looking for style? Diana's outfits by the likes of Versace, Galliano, Dior, Valentino and other iconic designers made her a fashion trailblazer whose impact was global. Part of her star power lay in the way her sad, haunted eyes were set off by some of the world's most spectacular jewels.
Looking for a charitable role? Diana broke the royal mold by embracing AIDS victims and helped shape government policy by walking through fields laced with land mines as part of her effort to get them banned. She was much more than a lady who lunched.
Middleton has stayed resolutely out of the limelight in recent weeks. When she does make her first public appearance since becoming engaged, the British public, and raftloads of commentators, will be gauging whether she has Diana's natural flair.
But Diana's image 13 years after her death is still a moving target. Some view her as a compassionate "queen of hearts" while others see her as little more than a tall fashion plate. Diana's train wreck of a marriage left her desperately unhappy and this is how some people remember her — as a troubled, neurotic woman in need of help.
Intimidating? Just a little. Everything Diana did was front page.
"I think it's undoubtedly a burden for Kate," said Susan Lee, a columnist at the Liverpool Echo newspaper who has written extensively about the royals.
"Diana was the most photographed woman of the age. She transformed the House of Windsor, she changed the way we look at royalty, and she was very accessible, she spoke to ordinary people, and people felt they could speak to her. She made royalty human for the first time."
Middleton may reject Diana's way and choose a much more private course once she becomes a princess. If she is looking for marital harmony, she will have to look beyond Diana for inspiration.
Diana and Charles suffered the most public of marital breakdowns — each confessing their infidelities and unhappiness to the press — and the savvy, well-educated Middleton must know that the Windsors' vast wealth and public position tends to make marriage tougher, not easier.
"I am so glad that I am not in the situation that Kate is in," said Ashley Ellensberg, a 22-year-old London college student. "Kate has great potential as a princess, and she might grow to shine brighter than Diana did. I think Kate is exactly what we need right now. I think she will do just fine and will develop as a princess in her own way."
All of the pressures that a young bride faces will be magnified for Middleton, whose very choice of a wedding dress is fraught with political, social and financial implications. And Diana's ghostly presence will intensify the pressure.
"It is hard for any woman marrying into a family to live up to the legacy of the mother-in-law, or to even just be approved of by her," said Ann Buchanan, director of the University of Oxford Center for Research into Parenting and Children.
"But Kate is her own person and does not need to follow directly in Diana's footsteps. She has developed her own identity, which is quite different from that of Diana, and I think this will help her in the long run."
Buchanan said there are key differences between the two women that should work in Middleton's favor as she copes with the fishbowl that is royal life in the Internet age. She said Diana had a difficult childhood complicated by the divorce of her parents, while Middleton comes from a stable family environment.
In addition, she said, Diana was only 19 when she got engaged, much younger than Middleton is today, and Diana became a mother almost immediately, even as she coped with her new husband's ongoing affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. By contrast, Middleton has a more solid base as she joins "the firm," as the monarchy is sometimes called here.
"Kate is older, she has some idea of who she is," Buchanan said. "She has a university education which helps her problem solve; she has spent many years considering the possibility of marrying into royalty. The marriage is not an impulsive act. I suspect the royal family have learnt a lot from the past. And hopefully there is no 'Camilla' in William's life."