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Sunday 12 June 2011

Royals have learnt from their mistakes

Sarah Ferguson and Diana Spencer were both fragile -- but Kate is resilient, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'What's not working in your life?" enquired a life coach of Sarah, Duchess of York. "My head," she responded, with admirable accuracy.

The head of poor 'Fergie' -- as the tabloids christened the one-time Miss Ferguson -- has never worked too well, though in compensation the heart works overtime. What the woman seems to want is to be loved by family, friends and the public, but her very public gaffes and scandals have made her mostly an object of ridicule.

She's in the news at the moment because Oprah Winfrey has become her mentor. So affected was Oprah by Sarah's despair at having appeared on television drunkenly offering access to ex-husband Prince Andrew for vast sums of money and subsequently at her exclusion from the royal wedding, that she decided to help her rebuild her life. So Oprah has financed Finding Sarah, a reality-TV series in which experts ("We're here to help") advise Sarah on how to make a real beginning to her new journey. This requires that along with the watching millions she learns "why I kept self-sabotaging all these years". She's "moving on with strength and positivity". Sarah speaks fluent American gobbledygook.

One can imagine the gritted teeth at Buckingham Palace, where the Duke of Edinburgh has celebrated his 90th birthday by holding a charity reception and chairing a conference of military colonels. While he's been reducing his more demanding commitments on the grounds that "it's better to get out before you reach the sell-by date", he works on. And as his erstwhile daughter-in-law shares newly remembered childhood hurts, Prince Philip remains tight-lipped about what it was like to grow up rootless and virtually parentless and to have to abandon the promising naval career he adored in order to be a consort. His generation believes in duty and doesn't whinge, which is why he and the Queen found the behaviour of soul-barers Sarah and Princess Diana bewildering.

Where Sarah is just a bit of an eejit floundering in money worries, Diana was vengeful: she waged war on her husband by seeking to wreck the monarchy. She is in the news too this week because some dull letters of hers are expected to fetch £20,000 (e22,500): the hysteria over Diana has died down, but the fascination remains.

Both women were damaged by broken homes and the loss of their mothers (Sarah's ran away to marry an Argentinian polo-player: Di's lost custody of her children after an affair destroyed her marriage). Had the royals been more streetwise, they would have spotted the danger signals, but initially they were delighted with both girls. Sarah was warm and jolly and she and Andrew seemed well-matched. Diana had been hand-picked by the Queen Mother as a suitable future queen: she was well-born, a virgin and seemed sweet and malleable. What was missed was her deep-rooted insecurity, emotional fragility and manipulativeness. It didn't help that she and her husband had almost nothing in common.

What no one had reckoned with was the tabloid press, which battered away at the self-esteem of two vulnerable, ill-educated and rather dim young women. When Sarah, who was lonely as a naval wife, put on weight, she was in headlines as the 'Duchess of Pork'. No wonder that she now says that "every single minute of my day I think that I'm fat, ugly and disgusting. Every minute of the day, that I'm unworthy, that nobody likes me". Her mistakes with love and money were gleefully analysed and she was given little credit for her good relationship with ex-husband and children. Diana, of course, paid with her life for her satanic pact with the media.

The royals may not think like Oprah proteges, but they know about reinvention. And the tightly-knit family firm was well aware that another big mistake on the marriage front could be fatal to the future of the monarchy. Their good luck was that Prince William had learnt many hard lessons from the tribulations of parents and relatives, that he met at university a girl who was his friend before she was his lover and that they are both in control of their emotions and smart, educated and streetwise enough to avoid predictable pitfalls.

Fiercely protective of each other, they present a united front to the press and the world, they draw on the wisdom and resources of the family firm to defend their privacy and, so far, they call the shots. William fell in love with Kate Middleton's warm, secure, informal family as well as with her, and well he might, for they have brought her up confident, resilient and capable. Unlike the unfortunate Duchess of York, the Duchess of Cambridge has a head as well as a heart.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards