Puffed up, Slapped down

Rosemary Hill

  • Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life by Sally Bedell Smith
    Michael Joseph, 624 pp, £25.00, April, ISBN 978 0 7181 8780 4
  • The Duchess: The Untold Story by Penny Junor
    William Collins, 320 pp, £20.00, June, ISBN 978 0 00 821100 4

At the age of 23 Prince Charles embarked with no great enthusiasm on a six-week training course at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. The course had been reduced from the usual three months for him, but it was long enough for Charles to realise that seafaring was yet another area in which he and his father had nothing in common. Prince Philip had a distinguished naval career. His son struggled with navigation, which he found confusing, and he didn’t much like the rough and tumble of life onboard ship. One exercise involved performing an ‘underwater escape from a submarine’: a not inapt image for a life spent trapped in a role he didn’t choose doing things he doesn’t like for people who don’t much appreciate them. That at least has often been his own view. He has made no secret of his difficulties or of the fact that his childhood was unhappy in many ways. An awkward boy who didn’t take after either his bluff father or his pragmatic, dutiful but distant mother, by the age of eight he was already worried about doing the right thing. Once, at lunch with the Mountbattens, Edwina Mountbatten explained to him that he shouldn’t take the stalks out of his strawberries because he could pick them up by the stems and dip them in the sugar. His cousin Pamela Hicks noticed a few minutes later that ‘the poor child was trying to put all the stems back on. That was so sad.’ ‘Sad’ is a word that has often been applied to the Prince of Wales, with every shade of intonation from empathy to contempt. It recurs here in books which are interesting more for what they reveal about the continuing narrative of the royal family and its symbiotic relationship with the media than for anything new in the way of facts.

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