Off Campus

Letter From (the Other) Cambridge: Wills and Kate

In a time when the raising of tuition fees is forcing many students to consider outrageous lives in American universities, Prince William and his future wife have saved British higher education by proving to the world’s middle-class social climbers that they can actually achieve something at university—a royal marriage.

Ah, the engagement of Wills and Kate.

It’s no surprise that the youth of our era have nicknamed Prince Charles’s eldest son—Prince William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor—“Wills,” after the spectacularly British Jack Wills, a clothing brand one uses to not-so-subtly add the “crumpets” to one’s tea and crumpets, or the “boarding” to one’s school.

The fact of the matter is that kids these days, or, to be more specific, Cambridge undergraduates, don’t see the forthcoming marriage as the drama-fuelled fairytale of William’s parents, Charles and Diana, whose wedding drew in one of the biggest television audiences of all time. Perhaps this is because there is no Queen forcing a union of feigned love; perhaps it’s because of the relaxed jokes and laughter of this new, fresh couple (“I'm extremely funny and she loves that,” William quipped in a Telegraph interview last November).

This is a story of real love, unopposed and uncontroversial. It’s a fantasy rather than a drama, and the lack of controversy involved is driving the world’s press into a crazy stupor. Minutiae about April 29th, the day of the impending nuptials, are making front-page headlines; the smiling face of Kate Middleton and that blue Issa dress are becoming as ubiquitous as the tabloids worshipping them.


Such obsession is rampant in Cambridge, a world where social climbing seems to play a stronger role than in other educational institutions. Not social climbing in the sense of the typical quest for the “coolest” or the most fashionable. Over here in Merry Olde England, you see, what makes someone worthy of having desperate grovellers clinging to their every inch of skin is little more than their background. The important questions: Who went to school where, who knows which member of the Royal family by name, and who spent this past New Years’ Eve in Kensington Palace (because Buckingham is generally too unrealistic and not quite alternative enough)?

Such an attitude is strongly encouraged by the backdrop of 800-year-old buildings and cyclists on their way to dinners, dressed in heavy black gowns that wrestle with the wind. In a world where people point to arched Gothic windows and claim that their great-grandfathers went here, it’s almost impossible to avoid competitive discussions about one’s family history.

In England, where most exchanges are shaped by forced pleasantries surrounding the pressing issue of the weather, the Prince’s engagement provides a topic for real conversation and, in a sense, a template for aspiration. One would be denying brute fact if  she were to assert that discussion about these two St Andrew’s graduates didn’t form the forefront of debates during Cambridge dinners, which are held in halls once eaten in by the groom’s royal ancestors. One would also be lying out of her teeth if advantageous girls didn’t look to the Pitt or Bullingdon Clubs (Oxbridge societies of public school-educated young gentlemen) in desperate search of a potential aristocratic husband. After all, William and Kate met in such hallowed University halls, in the same sort of place where we all scramble to find dates to the annual white tie balls. Why, then, can’t some other young, underwear-modelling student find her prince there, too?

What’s ironic, however, is that this isn’t really as much a story of social climbing as is often supposed. That the media presents it as such suggests not only a misconception of reality but an obsession with class transgression. Kate attended Malborough College, a prestigious boarding school set in the charmed Old England of Wiltshire. It’s the same establishment that Eugenie, the Prince’s first cousin, attended—a world where girls never drop the plums from their mouths, and boys regard polo as an average afterschool activity. Yes, definitely shocking social movement here.

One can, of course, give slight credit to the judgemental hype—Middleton’s family is one of new money, not old. She didn’t necessarily have the titled ancestors smoking aristocratic pipes out of their Oxbridge windows or a hundred-year-old family estate. Her family fortune and standing are recent developments, and her parents played with their new-found wealth by sending their daughter into a world of grandeur and inbreeding. She may not be a pedigree, but she’s certainly always been a valued and deserving contender in the same dog show, to continue the analogy. But what would the story be if the future princess were to come from a “more appropriate” class?

People look to the story of Kate and William as one of hope and endless potential. Becoming a princess is the quintessential dream of every Barbie-doll childhood, an aspiration cruelly reserved to those of the most exclusive upper-class circles. But this love, however, suggests a revision to that age-old maxim of royals marrying royals.

A (wealthy, well-educated, socio-economically advanced) girl can always find her prince (at a prestigious, exclusive university).

Alexandra Abrams is an undergraduate at Cambridge University in England and a columnist for The Tab, the Cambridge University daily.