Kate Middleton had a front-row seat to the pressures and pitfalls of life in the royal family long before she joined it.
The future Queen spent nearly a decade as the girlfriend of Prince William, a period that allowed her and her family to become immersed in the unique scrutiny and protocol that come with being Queen Elizabeth’s granddaughter-in-law.
“She knew enough, she’d seen enough and she’d experienced enough, so she was very well aware of what the responsibilities and demands were going to be,” Sally Bedell Smith, a biographer of the Queen, tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story.
Several sources use the word “regal” when talking about Princess Kate, while Bedell Smith tells PEOPLE, “She has the knowledge and the poise.”
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And she has been garnering positive reviews for her increasing confidence and for the way she has forged ahead with a program of public work centered around the early development needs of children and families — including her Back to Nature garden project.
For more on how Kate is managing her dual roles of motherhood and future Queen, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands on Friday.
Her commitment to learning about early childhood shined through in the many meetings — some three hours long — that she attended during the past year with a panel of experts. “The duchess wouldn’t just join us, she would stay for the whole meeting,” says Kate Stanley, director of strategy at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a prominent child protection charity in the U.K. “She has a deep curiosity to really understand the issues.”