Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life

Sally Bedell Smith

Penguin/Michael Joseph, £25

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Review by Brian Morton

“Poor Charles”: it’s often heard, but the exact tone of voice is key. Doubters give it a sarcastic edge, as if to say: yeah, poor man, born to privilege, allowed to indulge his passions without let, no real job to do except stand making speeches with his hand rammed in his suit pocket ... it really must be tough. Those less cumbered by prejudice often say it in sympathetic recognition that the heir to the throne enjoyed a rough passage into adulthood: raised in the late afternoon of the Victorian nursery, to a mother who put duty before everything and a father unable to balance fair criticism with deserved praise; growing up hypersensitive and aesthetic amid a family that preferred more robust pursuits; and then, to crown it all, so to speak, pushed into one of the most frankly disastrous marriages of recent times; and still, at nearly 70, uncrowned.

Another big cleaving issue on the subject of Charles is whether, as some friends say, he “cannot wait” for his mother to abdicate or die, or whether, as others insist, he dreads the moment, which will inevitably mean an end to the lifestyle and interests he has gradually shaped, and into which he has grown with improbable – it’s a word that crops up often here – grace and confidence. With Camilla, the woman he should have married in the first place, by his side. Almost needless to say, the other main shibboleth in British royal biography is whether you are a Charles fan or a Diana fan; it’s taken for granted that you are an Elizabeth II fan.

Or “Elizabeth 2” as Sally Bedell Smith might call her. Actually not, because Bedell Smith is a very seasoned watcher of the House of Windsor and has previously written full-length studies of the Queen and Diana. Her knowledge is encyclopedic and her sources impeccable, as the after-matter to this hefty life bears out. And yet, this life of the Prince of Wales has a strong American accent. Weirdly, Duchy of Cornwall revenues and Civil List items are given in American dollars, British customs and practices are spelt out at what would seem unnecessary length, and there are a few lapses of contextual detail: for instance, the nickname “Sailor King” is properly applied to William IV and not to George V. But this is relatively minor stuff in the face of what is a full and fair account of a notably complex man, who is one minute laughably despondent and self-denying, the next so pumped with sciolism and a sense of entitlement that he can lecture roomfuls of experts on the failings of their field of expertise, whether it is medicine, agriculture or architecture, generating some infamous soundbites along the way. Recent years have seen Charles return to a more traditional stance on his Anglican heritage, but for a time he seemed a spiritual tourist, picking up fag-ends of Eastern Orthodoxy, Zen Buddhism, Islam and a species of animism inspired by his wanderings with the preposterous Laurens van der Post.

Bedell Smith’s prose is mostly measured, though now and again it dips into Majesty magazine idiom, as when she fawns over the “dazzling” Prince William. Unlike previous biographers – Jonathan Dimbleby, Penny Junor and Anthony Holden – she is scrupulously even-handed in her account of the Wales’s marriage, a car-crash long before the horrible real-life car crash that has probably shaped Charles’s later life more fully than any other single event. Diana’s death is dealt with simply and without melodrama, but the subtexts are very clear: the Princess of Wales was at best a damaged child and at worst a manipulative flake whose good deeds were often little more than carefully stage-managed assaults on the Windsors’ supposed cultural obsolescence. It’s also clear that Charles took some time to grow up, even though he always affected the manners and dress of the generation before him. Even the most fleeting glimpse of his home life suggests a latter-day Edwardian. Emotionally, he has always been drawn to older women and to surrogate grandfather figures. The virtue of a life lived that way round is that, sooner or later, you grow or age into your own style.

Bedell Smith is unmistakably of the Prince’s party, but her account is unflinchingly fair-minded, balanced and unsensational; we could have done without another transcript of the infamous “Squidgygate” tape, though Charles’s bizarre, juvenile image of himself in that late-night call as a tampon whirled down a dark vortex into oblivion offers an uncomfortable glimpse of his sometimes Eeyorish bleakness. Mostly, though, the aim is to clear up ambiguity and to go past the tabloid edits: as with the famous picture of Diana running to hug her boys on Britannia. She was running to get ahead of Charles, who hugged them, too, as he’d never been hugged at the same age, but inevitably he didn’t get his picture in the papers. Neither did he say, on their engagement, “whatever ‘love’ means”; he said “whatever ‘in love’ means”, which isn’t the same thing at all. Charles has grown up in public, awkwardly, sometimes cross-grainedly, inconsistent if not hypocritical about his own carbon footprint (all those jets!), prolix and sometimes off-mark in his attempts at humour, a catalyst and gleaner rather than an intellectual, sometimes the architect (no pun intended) of his own PR downfalls. The unspoken conclusion of this decent, full-hearted book is that the long wait for the crown, far from damaging his credibility or sapping his energies, has been a tribal test, which he has now resoundingly passed.