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 2017, ISBN 978 0 7181 8780 4
  • The Duchess: The Untold Story by Penny Junor
    William Collins, 320 pp, £20.00, June 2017, 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.

Prince Charles in 1994
Prince Charles in 1994

No one with even the most cursory interest in the subject will learn much from Sally Bedell Smith’s Prince Charles, which relies heavily on Jonathan Dimbleby’s biography of 1994, but her plod through the material builds into a detailed, sometimes affecting picture of Charles and of the curious concoction of fantasy, celebrity and tradition that is the modern monarchy. The book is aimed squarely at the American market, all mentions of money are in dollars, and Smith explains, with varying degrees of accuracy, the significance of background details such as the Reformation, the abdication crisis and Guy Fawkes night. Her tone is that of an anthropologist who has spotted an unknown tribe from a great distance. When stumped she reaches for a comparison with Downton Abbey. Like Penny Junor, she has written other royal biographies (of the queen and Princess Diana). Junor, however, is a career journalist, daughter of John Junor, the former editor in chief of the Sunday Express, and she is much closer to her material. She has written two lives of Charles and one each of Diana, Prince William and Prince Harry, as well as a group portrait of ‘the troubled life of the House of Windsor’. A year younger than Charles, she has herself become part of the story. Her joint biography of Charles and Diana, published to mark their tenth wedding anniversary in 1991, presented a positive picture of a marriage that might not be a love match but was nevertheless a team effort. They were both furious. Diana’s response was to talk to Andrew Morton, whose book, Diana, Her True Story, came out the following year and marked the beginning of the public War of the Waleses. Junor has known her present subject since 1987, when her first biography of Charles resulted in a writ from Andrew Parker Bowles. She assures us that they laugh about it now.

It would be easier to feel sorry for Charles if he didn’t feel so intensely and publicly sorry for himself. One of the British words Smith has to explain to her American readers is ‘whingeing’. Yet he has been in some ways unlucky. Born in 1948, sometimes said to be the most fortunate year of the 20th century, he is one of the baby-boomers who grew up with the National Health Service, free milk and orange juice, student grants and proper occupational pensions, none of which was of any use to him. Instead he bumped uneasily through a rapidly changing postwar Britain, often the guinea pig for a modernising monarchy. The first heir to the throne to go to prep school, he arrived at Hill House in London in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Sent later to board at Gordonstoun he was beaten up, despite being the only pupil with a personal bodyguard, and so it went on. The focal point of the royal family’s experiments in adaptation, he began life in an age when it was thought bad form to criticise the royal family ‘because they can’t answer back’. Then in 1969 the queen agreed to the television documentary Royal Family, to mark Charles’s investiture as prince of Wales. In the year of Woodstock two-thirds of the British population was mesmerised by the sight of Princess Anne decorating a Christmas tree and Prince Philip frying sausages. There were murmurings that the floodgates were being opened and Royal Family has never been reshown. Nobody, however, could have foreseen the November evening 26 years later when, before the Panorama opening titles rolled, Diana looked up through heavily blackened eyelashes and said of herself: ‘But she won’t go quietly, that’s the problem, I’ll fight to the end.’ The nation dropped its collective jaw and there was no going back.

Throughout his uneasy adolescence Charles was subjected, on the one hand, to stinging criticism, from his father and at times from the press, and on the other to the lies and flattery of courtiers and social climbers. Alternately puffed up and slapped down, his temperament developed into a mixture of self-doubt and ambivalence interlaced with short-lived bursts of enthusiasm and fits of petulance. Not naturally empathetic or a particularly good judge of character, he was not saved by friendships or by having any single outstanding ability. At Cambridge, where he read archaeology and anthropology before switching to history, and got a 2:2, his adviser, Rab Butler, told an early biographer that the prince was ‘talented – which is a different word from clever, and a different word from bright’. So, not bright and not clever, the consensus about him whether as a student or as a polo player was that he was a hard trier. His twenties were probably the most successful decade in terms of public perception. Young, good-looking and rich in his own right with the income from the Duchy of Cornwall, he could, from a certain point of view, be seen as a prince for the swinging 1960s. After that the biographies chronicle a succession of increasingly difficult milestones. As he faced his 30th birthday he addressed the Cambridge Union in hair-raisingly ingenuous terms: ‘My great problem in life is that I do not really know what my role in life is.’ None of the journalists he complained about could have said anything more undermining.

By forty he had entered the phase that his godmother Patricia Mountbatten described as ‘desperately sad’. At his birthday party Diana barely spoke to him. By his fiftieth she was dead and Charles felt he was being tortured by the public over his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. The birthday party she gave for him was boycotted by his family. Meanwhile his mother sailed on from jubilee to jubilee, silver, gold and diamond, overtaking Victoria as the longest reigning British monarch and dragging Charles along in her wake as he broke Edward VII’s record as the longest-serving prince of Wales. If he becomes king, he will break William IV’s record as the oldest person to succeed to the throne. There were successes during these years. His book based on the 1989 television film A Vision of Britain sold well, his views on architecture attracted attention, but he was resentful of the wife who overshadowed him and still does.

Smith’s and Junor’s views of her are keys to the picture of Charles they wish to present. Was he ‘victim or villain?’ as Junor subtitled her second biography, the one she wrote after Diana’s death. Smith is unsure. She tries to be even-handed but the result is monotony – no argument or point of view emerges from the accumulation of material. Junor is sharper, starting with her title. The Duchess: The Untold Story deliberately echoes Diana: Her True Story. The book is not officially authorised, but so many of Camilla’s friends and staff have talked to Junor that it seems likely they were given a discreet go-ahead. Far from being untold, the story is very familiar – just brought up to date and rearranged to cast Camilla as the prince’s loyal and loving helpmeet and Diana ‘the ex from hell’. In spite of all her irresponsible ‘antics’, Diana is presented not as a bad person, but one who was sadly unwell. In addition to bulimia, which Diana herself talked about, Junor suggests a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, common in people ‘who crave attention’. Such people, she explains, ‘often find their way into politics or onto the stage without anyone ever knowing there is an abnormality’, though it isn’t clear how an abnormality that isn’t noticed either by the sufferer or anyone else can be said to exist.

Diana made errors of judgment, but none as gross as Charles’s decision to mark the 25th anniversary of his investiture as prince of Wales by co-operating with Jonathan Dimbleby on a book and film about his life. Anxious as ever to be understood and to upstage his wife, Charles decided that the sausage-frying of Royal Family should be replaced with something more sophisticated. Where the first film had tried to make the family seem ordinary, Charles wanted to be seen and admired as an individual. He gave Dimbleby access to his diaries, his archives, his friends and his correspondence. The consequences were not, as Junor says, ‘unimaginable’ – they were predictably catastrophic. Charles spent most of the two and a half hour documentary earnestly discussing his charities, his hobbies and his intellectual interests, but most of the 14 million viewers were interested only in the three minutes where he confessed to his relationship with Camilla. Dimbleby’s authorised biography dwelt on this in more detail, as well as on Charles’s complaints about his mother’s coldness and his father’s domineering temperament. All hell broke loose. The Parker Bowleses divorced, Charles’s siblings stopped speaking to him, and Diana threw aside whatever qualms she might have had about putting her own side of the case. It was an act as childlike in its naivety as trying to stick the stalks back on the strawberries, and the damage was similarly irreparable.

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Diana has not gone quietly. Twenty years after her death her sons have made a documentary to counter the Junor view of their mother as a neurotic nuisance and indirectly to criticise their father, who is hardly mentioned. The film portrays Diana as a loving mother and an effective campaigner, especially in her work to remove the stigma from Aids and to support the banning of landmines. William and Harry are happy to share their family photographs and their memories, up to a point. As William says: ‘You’ve got to maintain a barrier and a boundary’ between public and private life. It’s a lesson he has learned from parents who failed to manage it. What the public wants of public figures is not a real individual but a narrative, the living out of a recognisably human drama anywhere between soap opera and Shakespearean tragedy. The royal family have become dramatic characters. Netflix’s The Crown, Mike Bartlett’s Charles III and Harry Enfield’s The Windsors represent one end of a spectrum, and while books like Smith’s and Junor’s sit closer to the middle, they remain, with all their hearsay, spin and unattributed quotes, a long way off objective truth. Unluckily for Charles, whichever part he is cast in, victim or villain, can never trump that of the beautiful, sad princess. Diana’s death was the crisis point in the modern royal narrative, the moment when, for the first time in more than a century, the monarchy tottered. Channel Five’s documentary Diana, aired earlier this year, was subtitled ‘seven days that shook the world’. It’s not much of an overstatement. Interviewed for the film Ian Hislop recalled wondering if this was what it felt like to be on the brink of civil war.

For once Charles was ahead of his mother, insisting on taking the royal flight to Paris to bring the body back. For the queen, Diana, no longer HRH, was not part of the monarchy. By tradition the union flag never flies over Buckingham Palace, only the royal standard, and that can never fly at half-mast because there is always a sovereign. The closed palace with its bare flagpole seemed to speak of an uncaring family. But the queen has always been a fast learner and as the mood grew uglier she did what was necessary. In her live broadcast she spoke ‘as your queen and as a grandmother’, adding that there were ‘many lessons to be drawn’ from Diana’s life and death. By the time of the state funeral, on which Charles insisted, some of them had been learned. Smith describes the service blandly as ‘majestic’ and with her usual tin ear for nuance casts Charles Spencer’s eulogy, in which he blamed the press and the royal family for his sister’s death, as ‘the only discordant note’. In fact, as Junor observes, it was the ‘dénouement’ of the whole drama. However implausible Spencer’s pledge to protect Diana’s ‘beloved boys’, however overwrought the language, he spoke a rhetorical truth. The applause that rose spontaneously from the crowds outside and was first heard inside the abbey like the pattering of rain was taken up by the congregation like a cathartic sigh.

The danger passed. Nobody tried to shoot Charles and nobody, despite the rumours, threw bread rolls at Camilla in Waitrose; she had long since ceased to do her own shopping. But the gradual process of bringing their relationship into the open, and getting the public and the queen to accept it, stalled. Until then the campaign, masterminded by Mark Bolland, had been going rather well, not least because there was more to Camilla than the straightforward upper-class Englishwoman, horsey, humorous and pragmatic, that she chose to present. Of the trio in the famously crowded marriage she was by far the most skilful at media management and the only one who understood the importance of shutting up. She never retaliated against the often vitriolic press and has still never given an interview. Instead, once the affair with Charles resumed, she opened her own discreet channels of communication. Stuart Higgins, a royal reporter for the Sun who had covered the West Country for the paper since 1979, became a regular contact. Camilla did not call him, but if he called her she would confirm or deny what he had heard elsewhere about Charles and Diana and add a few details. She diverted Higgins’s attention so successfully from herself that he made no insinuations about her relationship with Charles. Her tips helped him to win the Scoop of the Year award in 1994, despite having missed the story under his nose.

Junor’s biography is part of the latest chapter in the rehabilitation of Camilla. She quotes Charles’s press secretary Colleen Harris on the difficulty of manoeuvring the media through the three-point turn required to convert the wicked marriage wrecker Mrs Parker Bowles into the warm but businesslike Duchess of Cornwall. ‘They’d all made a lot of money out of the story that Camilla was this evil, horrible person who ruined Diana’s life … and they wanted that story to continue. The more we made Camilla acceptable, the less the story had traction.’ A new story was needed and the point of the present campaign is ‘to make her more human without making her more popular than him’. It seems to be working, not least because Camilla is also working, rather harder than those who knew her in her previous life – she was often described as ‘indolent’ – would have thought possible. She has made a point of taking up difficult causes: domestic violence, osteoporosis, literacy and hospices, as well as the more obvious Battersea Dogs Home. Junor describes her tactful opening of a Rape Crisis centre in Croydon, when she avoided giving away its location by parking round the corner and entering via the fire escape. The contrast with Diana’s paparazzi-friendly good works is implicit, as is their different attitudes to appearance. While it is rather unkind of Smith to refer to Camilla’s ‘indifference to fashion and style’, she is not vain. According to Kathy Lette she found it very funny that when she married Charles she was inundated with promotional material from American cosmetic surgeons.

Charles’s second marriage clearly makes him happy. His architectural experiments at Poundbury and later Dumfries House are maturing. The Guardian’s ten-year campaign to publish his correspondence with politicians, in an attempt to show that he had breached constitutional principles, did him no harm. Despite the paper referring ominously and relentlessly to the ‘black spider memos’, they revealed concerns about the environment, organic farming, inhumane housing and tower blocks disfiguring the London skyline, which made Charles seem not so far from the typical Guardian reader. For the present his story is in the happy ever after genre, though Junor is too seasoned a royal reporter not to leave open the hint of a sequel, with dark remarks about ‘friends’ who worry for Camilla and fear that she is ‘living on her nerves’. If that is the case, experience has shown them to be strong nerves. The monarchy is more secure than might have seemed possible when Diana died. William and Kate are the parents in a model young family, Harry is the focus for gossip and the queen now exudes a grandmotherly sense of security. But Diana is still the ghost in the machine. In August Channel 4 showed a film including previously unseen videotapes made by her speech coach, Peter Settelen, since sold to NBC, in which she talks about her unhappiness and the queen’s opinion that Charles is ‘hopeless’. William has said he tells his children about the grandmother they never knew and often talks about her when he puts George and Charlotte to bed. In the royal storybook it will be the favourite bedtime tale for a long time to come, the one about the beautiful princess who was banished from the palace and how she died and everyone was sad.