Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, by Sally Bedell Smith (Random House, 596 pp., $32)
Great Britain and the United States got divorced in 1776. They’ve been in love with each other ever since. Despite some intervening ding-dongs, Blighty remains beguiled by American popular culture. The Yanks, meanwhile, can never get enough of the Regals. Some of this derives from the performances of British actors in Shakespeare’s history plays, and in countless pre- and post-colonial films. Some comes from the guilty knowledge that the U.S. didn’t enter World War II until the end of 1941. By then, the Royal Army, Navy, and Air Force had been fighting Nazi Germany for more than a year. What’s more, they were led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had an American mother.
But the mainsprings of affection rises from something more powerful—the fact that Britain’s aristocracy has no equivalent in the U.S. Whatever occurs politically, economically, or socially, the entrants in Burke’s Peerage stay in place like stamps in an album, their positions determined by pedigree, not accomplishment or fortune. Hence the popularity of the TV series Victoria; of Lord Grantham’s entourage in Downton Abbey; of the trials of the stuttering George VI in The King’s Speech; of his unprepared young daughter Elizabeth II in yet another TV series, The Crown; of the motivations behind her stage-managed grief for Princess Diana in The Queen.
So it’s hardly a surprise to see Prince Charles, a sound, sympathetic examination of its subject, climb the New York Times bestseller list. Charles’s wrangles with Diana (along with lesser sexual scandals en famille) caused his mother to dub 1992 her annus horribilis. The public agreed. Twenty-five years later, Bedell notes, the prince is regarded with affection and even awe.
Is this another instance of the Western world’s short memory? Or has Charles changed in ways that have profoundly remade his image? The biographer suggests that it’s the latter. Discreet but meticulous, she traces the prince’s character flaws to his goldfish-bowl childhood. Like all previous heirs apparent, he was minutely examined from Day One—November 14, 1948. Early on, the boy was judged to be shy, diffident, and not at all kingly.
This would never do. Charles’s emotionally remote parents, the queen and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, made an epochal decision. Their middle child (sandwiched between Anne and Andrew) needed the rough-and-tumble company of children his own age. Early in 1957, a chauffeur drove the nine-year-old to the exclusive Hill House School in Knightsbridge, London. When little Charles introduced schoolmates to his parents, they bowed ostentatiously. When the royals returned to the palace, however, Charles was subject to the standard English public-school intimidations. Because he was unskilled in sports and a plodder in schoolwork, he was acutely miserable there and in other academies.
Even so, he had a lively imagination, sparked by romantic tales of castles, dragons, and knights. And he showed a talent for art as well as an interest in the natural world. These he developed during a stint in an Australian school, and then at Cambridge. By the time Charles entered his mid-20s, the overweight, withdrawn boy had become the attractive and well-educated Prince of Wales. He was also the world’s most eligible bachelor and stayed that way until age 33.
It was his misfortune (and Lady Diana Spencer’s) that the couple decided to marry in 1981 after a brief courtship. Diana had been dazzled by the prospect of wearing the Crown Jewels. At the same time, Charles had been made acutely aware that the notorious sower of oats, wild and domestic, needed to settle down with a high-born, suitable mate. High-born, yes; suitable, hardly. Barely out of her teens, Lady Diana was innocent in every sense, naïve about the incessant demands and duties of her new station, and intimidated by the omnipresent paparazzi. She soon realized that Charles didn’t love her, that in fact he had resumed an affair with a former inamorata, Camilla Parker Bowles. Afflicted by periods of instability, depression, and bulimia, Diana became the classic unhappy princess trapped in the castle. Though Charles and Diana produced two children, the marriage foundered for most of its 16 years.
It was over when the British gutter press obtained evidence of their misery. Diana was photographed with a lover; in what became known as Charles’s “Tampax” letter to Camilla, he imagined himself as her sanitary napkin. Charles and Diana coldly went their own ways in 1996. The following year, she was fatally injured in a car crash outside Paris. Diana and her companion, who was also killed, were trying to avoid a pack of reporters on wheels. In death she was globally mourned as “The People’s Princess,” and Charles was given the role of supervillain—unfeeling, self-indulgent, and egocentric.
It was a lot to live down. But slowly, quietly, the contrite prince rebuilt a public life. He edged closer to his sons, married Bowles in 2005, and, as Bedell puts it, crept out of the shadows. His Prince of Wales Foundation underwrote projects on art, architecture, and the environment. He and Camilla began a decades-long campaign to win back the regard of a disillusioned Britain.
Charles, born in 1948, has now been in the royal waiting room for almost seven decades. His mother, 91, may keep the throne for years—her own mother lived to 101. In any case, when Charles assumes the crown he will be a grandfather, unthreatening and mellow, willing to play the game his parents played. He’ll give hortatory speeches, dedicate buildings, and make goodwill trips to Commonwealth nations.
Bedell has written tough-minded biographies of industrialists, the Clintons, and Queen Elizabeth II. Yet for all her cool overview, she is clearly susceptible to the prince’s charm offensive: “The vision we all have of him is of this extremely buttoned-up stereotype—double-breasted suit encasing him—a stiff, an old fogey, the guy who ruined Diana’s life.” Not the case. “I was so struck by how different he was: funny, informal, warm, with this incredibly sexy voice.”
If an unsentimental chronicler feels that way, what chance does the rest of the world have?
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