Nonfiction: A Kinder, Gentler Portrait of Prince Charles

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Prince Charles at Highgrove, his house and gardens in Gloucestershire, in 2002. Credit John Stoddart/Getty Images

The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life
By Sally Bedell Smith
Illustrated. 596 pp. Random House. $32.

I first met Prince Charles in 1966. It was at Gordonstoun School when I was 14 and the prince was 18. He was the head boy, the so-called “Guardian” as that position was known, and I was a faceless junior. I was standing alone in the entrance hall of my boardinghouse when Charles came through the front door on his way to visit a friend. The air was loud with raucous bellowing and jeering as an illicit boxing match was underway in the nearby shower rooms. “What on earth is going on?” he asked me. I told him about the boxing match. He shrugged. “How strange,” he said and walked on by.

I’ve met Prince Charles subsequently several times, both formally and informally, but there was something about the faintly surreal nature of that first encounter — the civil inquiry in an atmosphere of near-anarchy and violence — that has stayed with me. Though Charles has said he didn’t enjoy his time at Gordonstoun, the experience of those years has had a lasting effect. Paradoxically, his time at the school was probably one of the few periods when his life approached a kind of normality, however unlikely. Gordonstoun was then a very democratic place.

The details of Charles’s public life over the years are well known — and it should be said that Sally Bedell Smith’s new biography covers them in diligent and exemplary fashion — but it’s the private man we’re interested in, the individual behind the numerous grand titles. And it’s clear that, at the center of any account of his almost 70 years, is the crucial matter of Charles’s marriage to, his divorce from and the death of, Diana, Princess of Wales.

“Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life” is that rare portrait — pro-Charles and anti-Diana. “I found,” Smith writes in her preface, “that much about Prince Charles was poorly understood, not least the extent of his originality.” She reveals that “Poor Charles” was “a constant refrain” as she conducted her interviews, “spoken in despair by those who loved him, with sarcasm by those who resented him.” And she sympathetically reminds us that “his every step along the way” has been “inspected and analyzed: his promise, his awkwardness, his happiness, his suffering, his betrayals and embarrassments and mistakes, his loneliness, his success — and especially his relentless search for meaning, approval and love.”

To paraphrase Tolstoy: Happy marriages are all alike; every unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way. The marriage between Charles and Diana was unhappy virtually from the outset, so Smith claims and, I think, establishes with great judiciousness. The initial problem was that in his 20s Charles had fallen in love with Camilla Shand, a young woman who was deemed unsuitable because she had a “history” — in other words, previous lovers. Camilla Shand duly became Camilla Parker Bowles and had two children, but Charles never forgot her. As he entered his 30s, however, the need to find a future queen, and thereby provide an heir, became paramount. Encouraged by his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, a domineering and wrongheaded presence in his life, Charles was directed toward the virgin of choice, Lady Diana Spencer, age 19. Charles was 12 years older than his fiancée, but she ticked all the boxes.

Diana was also unstable, even dysfunctional, and after the fairy-tale marriage in 1981, she quickly began to go off the rails. Bulimic, self-harming, suicidal, paranoid and contrary to a maddening degree, she engaged in behavior that led to the failure of her marriage, despite the requisite arrival of William, the heir, and Harry, the spare. I used to think that Charles’s union with Diana was the result of cynical calculation, but Smith’s biography, and other sources, have convinced me otherwise. It was a grave miscalculation, from one point of view, or, to put it less kindly, the result of purblind arrogance, yet Charles seems to have given the marriage his best shot. He tried, but it didn’t work. The marriage was soon effectively over — separate bedrooms, non-speaks, public slights and acts of bitter retribution. In 1986, Charles resumed his love affair with Camilla Parker Bowles; Diana dallied elsewhere. Pandora’s box was well and truly opened. Separation was followed by divorce. And, eventually, by the tragedy of Diana’s needless, horrible death.


Smith is very shrewd and accurate on the aftermath of the gruesome accident in Paris that ended Diana’s life, and she makes a point of establishing both Charles’s genuine grief and his serious attempt to mitigate, as much as possible, the effect of their mother’s demise on her children. But in the mode of Ruritanian fantasy that this story seems to encourage, the disappearance of the beautiful princess proved a kind of liberation for her former husband. It certainly marked the end of that episode of the royal soap opera. Charles’s life since Diana’s death has conformed cleverly and carefully to type. He eventually married Camilla — presented here as a strong and attractive personality — and his sons seemed to have dealt admirably with both their loss and their father’s remarriage. Only recently have William and Harry begun to discuss the sadness of their early years, as part of a campaign for more compassion in dealing with depression and mental illness.

It’s a real compliment to Smith, an American and the author of biographies of both Charles’s mother and his ex-wife, to say that she understands the British upper classes and aristocracy (including the royals) very well indeed. This country is obsessed, dominated and shackled by class to a still unhealthy degree, and that obsession is focused on the royal family, with the consequent trickle-down effect through the social strata. Smith’s narrative conveys the system’s unthinking superiority, the lazy morality, the philistinism, the sense of demanded privilege and analyzes it cannily. What’s remarkable about her portrait of Prince Charles is that he emerges as a man not deeply tainted by the complacent values of the world in which he was raised. Her Charles is a complex, somewhat troubled, sincere and questioning individual. More interestingly for a royal, he is also, as Smith puts it, an “intellectual striver.” He has a passionate, serious interest in painting, gardening and architecture. He’s an ardent environmentalist. He‘s an accomplished watercolorist. He loves the opera. He’s something of a discreet dandy. He enjoys a powerful cocktail.

Smith makes many telling, shrewd points in pursuit of realigning the popular image of Prince Charles, but the observation that stuck with me, one that brings us full circle, is a perfect illustration of her acumen. It’s true that Charles disliked his school days at Gordonstoun. However, Smith notes that over the years he has stayed in touch with two of his teachers there, Eric Anderson and Robert Waddell. As it happens, they were my teachers too. This bond provides a fascinating glimpse into what Charles holds dear. It reveals much about his personality to see that his relationships with these two men have endured. They are both very worldly, very amusing company and both are highly cultured men. Charles may, as Smith points out, be “the oldest heir to the throne in 300 years,” but her book suggests that we can look forward to the reign of Charles III with quiet confidence.

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