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.

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