LONDON - Just back from a sunny beach vacation, pregnant Duchess Kate embarked today on her first public engagement with a visible baby bump in a somber mission to meet young mothers being treated for addiction at a rehab center in London.
She had been prepared to be moved to tears at Hope House, a 23-bed treatment clinic for women that is part of the Action of Addiction charity of which she is patron. But she was smiling widely when she arrived this morning, despite controversies over photos of her in a bikini and a harsh attack on her by a leading British novelist.
At more than four months along in her own pregnancy, the former Kate Middleton, now Catherine Duchess of Cambridge, has slowed down her public engagements since late last year when she was hospitalized for acute morning sickness.
Her visit to Hope House was one of just three appearances since Christmas and the first one in which onlookers could possibly discern a sign of her pregnancy. She's due to give birth in about mid-July.
It wasn't much of a bump but it was there. She was wearing a wrap dress by Max Mara Studio (about $600), according to HRHDuchessKate blog, densely patterned in black and white, with a string-tie belt around her mid-section that helped define the slight swell.
It was also the duchess's first public engagement since Hilary Mantel, the twice-winning Booker Prize-holder for her historical novels set at Henry VIII's court, delivered a lecture at the British Museum in which she attacked Kate as a "bland," "plastic princess" who is "painfully thin," with "dead eyes" and appears to be a "shop-window mannequin with no personality of her own" but is "born to breed."
It's the first direct personal criticism of Kate by someone who matters in the UK's intellectual firmament and already the backlash against the otherwise acclaimed Mantel is beginning.
Prime Minister David Cameron, on a trip to India, defended the duchess, condemning Mantel's attack as "completely misguided and completely wrong." according to Sky News.
No comment from the palace yet, but press officials announced Monday that on March 5, Kate will travel to the once-bustling fishing port of Grimsby on the north east coast, a town in decline but still the busiest fish-processing center in the UK. She is due to tour the National Fishing Heritage Center, meet fire-and-rescue personnel in town and open a school.
"Not your typical fishwife," commented the tabloid The Mirror about the duchess, 31.
She has just returned from a Caribbean vacation with Prince William and her parents and sister on the private island of Mustique, long favored by royals and rock stars for its protection from the prying eyes of the media.
But someone on the island didn't get the memo: The duchess was photographed strolling with William on the beach, dressed in an itsy-bitsy bikini displaying a barely swelling abdomen.
The pictures were sold, likely for big bucks, to a photo agency and made their way to Italian and Australian magazines, to the dismay of palace press officials. The snaps have not been published in the UK.
But the British are as eager as everyone else to see how the duchess is progressing, so there was high anticipation in advance of her visit to Hope House today. It was her second visit since her marriage in April 2011, when she began setting out her charity agenda and addiction issues topped the list.
London media are reporting there more charities will soon be added to her list but palace press officials declined to comment yet.