You’ve likely heard — if nowhere else, then certainly in Royals Round Up — that there is a new and comprehensive and ostensibly dishy book about Prince Charles afloat in the world, called Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, by Sally Bedell Smith. And because I am nothing if not similarly devoted to The Royal Arts, I have just finished reading it. Yes, all 642 pages of it.
The book is a bit meandering, but it would have to be; there is a lot of treading water in the narrative because this man himself has been treading water his entire life. It must be a difficult thing to write a comprehensive biography of someone whose most famous accomplishment is that he has waited for something longer than anyone else has ever waited for it. Which is not to say that the book is without insight. On the contrary: It’s quite a diverting read (if a bit overly concerned with Charles’s portfolio for my personal interests). And if the acknowledgements are anything to go by, the author has spoken to a metric ton of people, many of whom worked or still work for the Palace, giving this the sense of being an… authorized unauthorized biography, always an interesting twist. (It’s worth noting that Bedell Smith has also written a book about Diana, as well as one about the Queen, neither of which I have yet read.) Please pour yourself a fresh tipple of Pimm’s and allow me to run down some of the highlights.
1) Two and a half hours after he was born, Baby Chaz got hauled out to the throne room at Buckingham Palace so various random courtiers could look at him and… reassure themselves he wasn’t a changeling? I don’t know. It’s for the best that they don’t do that anymore. (I guess the new version is popping out of the hospital to chat and look perfect, and then driving off.)
2) The Queen Mother comes across as an extremely delightful human: warm, grandmotherly, full of affection, a lover of arts and music, and a sassy old broad (at one point, she refers to herself as “your desiccated old grandmother”). The Queen is portrayed as a patient and even-keeled person who wasn’t around much due to the professional requirements of being, you know, the Queen. Prince Philip seems to have had pure intentions that unfortunately translated as being unkind or overly tough for no good reason. He appears to have lacked the ability to read the room in his personal life as well as his public one, as far as Charles goes; what Philip intended as “character building” felt like bullying. It also seems that all of these people would have gotten along better if they actually just spoke face to face more often. Chaz and the rest of the kids had to make appointments to see their parents, even if they were all at Buckingham Palace. Everyone is writing letters when they should be picking up the phone. And most of them are using various relatives to run interference with each other. Like, instead of playing an elaborate game of telephone using godparents and family friends as go-betweens, just…try talking to each other? Is that terribly American of me?
3) The boarding school that Charles attended (and William and Harry, pointedly, did NOT) sounds absolutely horrible. In addition to hazing and corporeal punishment, the kids had to sleep with the windows open year round. Now, I love a fresh breeze, but in the winter students would have literal “piles of snow on their blankets.” PASS.
4) This book is devoted to telling you what the inside of everyone’s houses looks like, which is something I personally appreciate greatly, and I am sad I didn’t read it before we wrote The Royal We. Yes, I do want to hear what the wallpaper in Camilla’s bedroom looks like, and whether or not she and Charles are rather messy people who love clutter. (Spoiler: THEY ARE.) There is also a lot of intel about which person gets how many rooms in which palace, and which floor said apartments are on, which is also something I’m interested in. LOGISTICS!
5) Speaking of Camilla, it will not surprise you to hear that she seems, as promised, to be a hoot. The press likes her — I’ve long heard that she is generally the easiest and most pleasant person for the royals reporters to cover, which is (not for nothing) fairly savvy for someone who knows that she was stepping into beloved shoes — and she once yelled at someone from The Times because he’d spoiled Downton for her. She comes across, in short, like a broad, and as someone without ulterior motives. She apparently also likes to lie around her messy house and smoke and leave boxes of clothes everywhere. Is Camilla my Patronus?!?
6) When Charles was at Cambridge, he held a cocktail party for some royals reporters. One of the attendees — Evening Standard’s Mary Kenny — afterward dubbed him “a sweet virgin boy.” This seems like the most scalding burn possible for a young man. Can he drive, Mary? I ask you.
7) There’s a lot of blah blah blah about Charles’s income and how it all shakes out with taxes and the Civil List and what the portfolio of the Duchy of Cornwall consists of, if you’re into that sort of thing. There’s much chatter about his various charities and trusts and weekly income, and how he made a bunch of money selling Cornwall’s tea leaves or whatever to Waitrose. It’s not uninteresting, and I certainly feel more prepared to write Royals Round-Up now, but if you’re NOT interested in, say, the income from his planned community, you might be skimming those bits.
8) There’s also a lot of yada yada about the various people who worked for Charles and all the logistics of his press office, and his assistants and his advisors, and how much back-stabbing and disorganization there is between the aforementioned, which is interesting — and explains a lot about a lot of things — but it is somewhat hard to keep all the various British-y Named Middle-Aged Male Secretaries straight. All you really need to know is that most of them hated each other and most of them also hated working for Charles, even if they didn’t actually hate him directly.
9) Charles despises modern architecture and might secretly be writing some kind of Go Fug Your Skyscraper in his off-hours. This loathing has sometimes caused totally innocent architecture firms to lose business when he gets a wild hair and starts complaining about whatever they might be planning to do. He is not a fan of The Shard, nor of The Gherkin. He called one building “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” A lot of architects, I believe, would like him to fall into the Thames.
10) ROMANTIC GOSSIP: Princess Anne once dated Andrew Parker-Bowles, who of course was Camilla’s first husband. These upper-crust British circles really are wildly incestuous. But the way APB ended up marrying Camz is also NUTS. In short: She and Charles are super into each other, but Chaz is really young and hares off to do his naval service. While he’s gone, Camilla’s into Andrew Parker-Bowles, with whom she has been involved for years (on and off), but he is enjoying being a ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town, and is in no hurry to settle down. So, unbeknownst to either of them, Camilla’s brother and her father PUBLISH AN ENGAGEMENT NOTICE IN THE TIMES FOR THEM! They are not even engaged! “His hand publicly forced,” the book notes, APB proposes. Uh. Don’t do that, people.
11) MORE ROMANTIC GOSSIP: Richard Nixon kept trying to set Chaz up with his daughter Tricia. Charles found this incredibly annoying. On that topic, if you are interested in the various random ladies Charles dated before marrying Diana, other than Camilla, there is a fair amount of that within — including bits and bobs where Ol’ Dickie Mountbatten keeps trying to talk him into marrying his (Charles’s) sixteen-year-old cousin. Hey, it turns out that being obligated to wed a virgin pure is a tall order in the 80s! (Camilla, the book points out in a more delicate way than I will, totally had a great time sleeping around, which is one of the reasons she wasn’t seriously considered as a potential bride. Indeed, it’s been written up in the DMIK that Camilla — gasp — had “easy virtue” that tainted her prospects with Charles. It is the most uptight-feeling article about its subject’s supposed wild sensuality that I have ever read.)
12) DIANA STUFF: None of the segments about Diana will really surprise you if you’ve ever read a book about her, although obviously the bits in this book make for some of the most interesting parts if you’re a nosy gossip with an unquenchable lust for dirt about other people’s relationships, like I am. That said, there are definitely new (to me) details about their courtship and marriage, or, at least, details that we previously merely suspected are more directly confirmed. In short: Neither one of them really wanted to go through with the marriage, and it was a disaster from day one. The whole thing was a series of unfortunate misinterpretations and mismatched expectations. Charles misread a letter from his father as commanding him to marry Diana, when really Philip was basically telling him that if he’s not going to marry her, he needs to let her go; Charles was also adrift because Dickie Mountbatten, who was basically his most trusted father-figure, had just died at the hands of the IRA, and he was not in a good mental place to be making life choices. (Also basically everyone seems to think that Mountbatten would have put the kibosh on Diana.) Literally NO ONE thought this wedding was a good idea, including the bride and groom, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and yet… it still happened.
Worse, Charles and Diana were just terribly, terribly incompatible emotionally in every way. There is a very telling bit where (allegedly) they argue, and he gets down on his knees to pray before bed, and she starts hitting him on the head. She’s acting out; he’s shutting down. That’s never going to work for either of them. They also had no shared interests, no real shared friends, and didn’t like doing anything that the other person wanted to do. Also one of them was in love with someone else. And maybe that’s why it’s not a great idea to get married after like 12 dates when you both find yourselves sobbing at the thought of being husband and wife.
13) The book does do some damage control vis a vis Charles being a loving father who just wasn’t that into PDA (which I actually believe to be true; his relationship with the boys seems very strong). It likewise continues the narrative that Diana struggled mightily with mental illness and was desperately unhappy, and was often very difficult to deal with, which also sounds right. Neither knew how to make the other person happy, and they didn’t have the skills to figure out how to change that. (Reading about Diana’s unhappiness definitely gives a lot of insight into why Harry and Wills are currently doing so much work surrounding mental health issues — as well as to Harry’s recent admission of his own struggles, largely related to grief for his mother — and the importance of getting help if you need it.)
14) Princess Anne allows her butler to wear jeans. She would.
15) Remember when everyone’s phones got hacked and we found out that Charles and Camilla were having bizarre phone sex? It was a time before the Internet, which meant that the Sunday Mirror actually set up a hotline so that people could call in and hear the tapes for themselves. Which is insane and also sincerely brilliant on their part; I hope the person behind that brainwave got a raise. Obviously, this book goes into fairly extensive details about the Charles/Camilla/Diana triangle, and all the back-and-forth press manipulations from both camps, and it’s quite interesting, if nothing remarkably new. Everyone acted out constantly, people kept getting fired, and at one one point, Charles’s approval rating fell to 4%. FOUR.
16) Charles is going to get rid of Andrew’s and Edward’s families if it’s the last thing he does. (I mean, in terms of being working royals who get to stand around and wave with him on balconies. I don’t mean he’s going to have them tossed in The Tower.) He’s never forgiven Edward for that time Edward let his production company show up at St. Andrews to surreptitiously film Wills going about his business, and Andrew is, generally speaking, a liability. Princess Anne will be allowed to stay, because Charles likes her best. I can’t blame him. Also, without her, how will he get to the bottom of any in-house mischief? Andrew would be useless at that. Also he probably IS usually the in-house mischief.
17) Charles had a very poor opinion of Frank Sinatra’s wardrobe; he was also very very chummy with Joan Rivers, which delights me. (She also loved Camilla and once opened the remarks at a dinner they threw by welcoming “you lucky bitches who married well.“) Apparently, he and Mark Rylance also correspond about crop circles, which is a sentence that reads like a Mad Lib.
18) Do you like to know what people eat for breakfast? (I personally do.) This book will tell you: Charles’s breakfasts are SPARTAN and DULL. Does your protection officer carry your martini for you in “a special case” when you’re invited to dinner? Charles’s does. He also brings his own salt wherever he goes. I truly can not figure out how much of this is eccentricity and how much of it is paranoia that someone will poison him.
19) On a positive front, Charles really was way ahead of the game in terms of climate change and sustainability, for which he never got due credit and in fact took a lot of flak from the press (they treated it like a sign he was wishy-washy and a weirdo). The author seems to have a slightly negative view of Charles’s interest in and study of Islam, but to me, he came across as a very religiously tolerant person from a very young age. Finding peace and meaning in religions other than your own seems like the sign of an open-minded heart, and arguing for tolerance is important. The New Yorker’s review indicates that Bedell Smith cannot stand Charles, and I truly did not get that impression at all, but she did seem critical of his religious open-mindedness in a way that struck me as odd.
20) There is an avalanche in this book, and a half-hearted assassination attempt, and someone dramatically getting locked in a panic room, and someone (Camilla) having a potato thrown at her head.
21) Sometimes Camilla wears fake hair to make her giant tiaras more comfortable.
22) Sometimes Kate goes into museums after hours to look at the art by herself. This almost-throwaway detail might be the best of all. Underneath it all, no matter where life takes you, you are always still a little bit yourself.