Prince Charles by Sally Bedell Smith: Review

It’s probably no surprise that I was anxious to read “Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life,” by Sally Bedell Smith. You might wonder why we need yet another biography of the prince. I wondered this myself. I have read several, and I don’t know that I honestly learned anything new from this one, but I found it enjoyable nonetheless. For me, reading books about the British royals is like reading People or US Weekly — pure reading “junk food.” Just fun. So, here are a few things I noted in this 600-page tome on the heir to the British throne.

Even Though He was Royal, Charles had a Rough Childhood

Reading this book, it’s clear just how often Charles has been a victim in life — not of crime, poverty, or any of that, but of having the wrong personality for a situation. Charles has always been sensitive to slights, and suffered when his dad bullied/berated/belittled him. The two were never close and clashed at every turn. By contrast, Prince Philip and his daughter Anne got along famously: “Anne, a confident extrovert, could push back, while the young prince wilted.” About his mother, the Queen, Charles wrote, “She was not indifferent so much as detached.”

Prince Charles Likes Having Attention

This has caused him trouble at various times in his life, as he has been overshadowed by his mother, his first wife Diana, and now by his sons. On occasions where the focus is on him, “he clearly savored the spotlight.” One of the reasons his marriage to Camilla seems to work so well is that she attracts little attention herself, and is content to let him be the “star.”

Charles has lots of Opinions … and Sharing Them

Whereas the Queen has spent a lifetime concealing her thoughts and opinions, “from an early age Charles felt compelled to express his fervidly held opinions in speeches and articles …often out of deep conviction, at other times to attract attention and to compete with Diana’s magnetic presence … He was desperate to be known for his work rather than for his privileged position.”

As his marriage to Diana disintegrated, Charles became a self-styled “voice of the people” by having controversial opinions — notably on architecture.

The Prince Has Led a Privileged Life

Reading this book, at times it’s easy to feel like Charles is just another person. But then I’ll come across things that remind me that he’s certainly not. For instance, while away at university, he was assigned a middle-aged woman who would make his bed each day, clean his room, and serve him tea.

Another time, he moaned to a friend over the “incredibly uncomfortable” first-class seats on a flight.

But he’s definitely a man of contradictions. At Highgrove, a guest once noticed a plastic hose coming from a window and asked its purpose. Charles replied, “Oh, I empty my bathtub with a hand pump to water the plants.”

The book mentioned numerous letters and conversations between the prince and Nancy Reagan. I hadn’t realized they were close, and I found that sweet.

Prince Charles, Camilla

Charles and Camilla visit the US in 2005 (photo public domain, FEMA library)


Charles and Camilla

As I’ve thought so often before, I so wish Charles and Camilla had married from the beginning. They are clearly a better match than he and Diana. Camilla is low-key, self-deprecating, and humorous. “For a young prince with downbeat tendencies (the book often compares him to Eeyore), that sort of personality was catnip.” Although Diana and Camila are basically total opposites, one trait they share is strength. One of Camilla’s friends called Camilla “very strong. You couldn’t argue with her. She would make up her mind firmly.” However, with Charles, Camilla usually defers. Diana resisted this.

Camilla is the listening ear that Charles needed.

Charles: A Difficult Type

I felt that this book was written fairly, pointing out positives as well as shortcomings of the Prince. However, the fact that he would be a very difficult person to live with was impossible to escape. He tends to dwell on the negative, likes attention, is moody, and is detail-oriented to distraction. One advisor said, “He gets very worked up about things. He can be very difficult to handle.” I was reminded again that he and Diana were a terrible match — and kudos to Camilla for putting up with him.

Diana dancing with John Travolta at the White House (public domain)

Diana dancing with John Travolta at the White House (public domain)

Charles and Diana

An earlier biographer of the prince suggested that, had he not been heir to the throne, Charles would probably have remained a bachelor, happily pursuing his quirky interests. Unfortunately, the sense of urgency to produce an heir led him to Diana. Writing to a friend, Charles said, “All this talk about being self-centered is getting worse every year. I’m told that marriage is the only cure for me — and maybe it is! The media will simply not take me seriously  until I do get married and apparently become responsible.” Reading this, I feel so sad, knowing what’s to come. Charles’ strong sense of duty led him to propose to Diana although the two hardly knew each other, and were temperamentally a bad match. “How awful incompatibility is,” Charles wrote a friend. “How dreadfully destructive it can be for the players in this extraordinary drama.” I would have to agree.

Smith says that Diana’s grandmother, a friend of the Queen Mother, was against a Charles-Diana match, but kept quiet. Charles later described to a friend his “confused and anxious state of mind” about “taking a plunge into some rather unknown circumstances.” He also said he was “terrified sometimes of making a promise and then perhaps living to regret it.”

Even after their engagement, Diana wasn’t a priority for Charles. He kept up his previously-scheduled trips and meetings: “he showed no inclination to shed even the smallest commitment, whether for his work or his sporting pursuits, in favor of spending time with his new fiancee.” Sad.

During the “Diana years,” a relative mentions Charles’ sadness, saying that he looks unhappy in almost every photo from that era. “He was in a terrible trap.”

While Charles is portrayed fairly in this book, the author was no fan of Diana. She’s described as “jejune” and more — I’m not sure she earned a single positive word.

Defender of the Faith?

As King, Charles will be “defender of the (Anglican) faith,” although he’s famously said he’d prefer to be just “defender of faith.” The book made clear that he is pretty out-there from my perspective with his faith. He has a lot of interest in other religions, particularly eastern ones like Islam. He has chosen mentors who talked extensively with him about reincarnation, etc. “Charles saw no incompatibility between the transmigration of souls and his Christian beliefs.”

In speeches, Charles tends to emphasize the worst aspects of Christianity culture while giving short shrift to its freedom and tolerance (in this, I see echoes of Obama). These remarks “were enthusiastically received in the Arab world.” Criticized for this, Charles countered “I think I’m quite courageous” saying that his openness led to his comments being seen and heard in the Islamic world. Charles has spoken of the West’s “crisis of the soul” compared to Islam’s “completely integrated view of the Universe.”

He was apparently instrumental in creating “Earth in Balance,” a film drawn heavily on by Al Gore for his book of the same name. I’ve always heard that book described as nutty and fringe. I didn’t know about Charles’ connection to it.

The man of contradictions emerges again — while Charles is mainly pretty liberal (on the environment, politics, religion ), he is oddly conservative when it comes to architectural styles.

Charles as King

Things will definitely be different when Charles is King. While the Queen is known for her even-handedness and willingness to listen to all sides in a debate, Charles takes offense easily and has “a lifelong aversion to contradiction.” A friend describes him as a “haunted man” caught in “a straitjacket of a life.”

Charles is a “victim of” “high tastes.” For instance, he reportedly dislikes the geraniums in front of Buckingham Palace, preferring something classier. “One reason the Queen is so popular is that she is much more ordinary in her tastes. People can relate to her, but he harks back to an earlier, grander era.”

Looking ahead, William also will most likely be an “easier” monarch. He has more in common with the Queen than with his father, holds “safer” views, and is “no flashy, not an entrepreneur, not a ruffler,” says a royal advisor.

If you’ve stuck with me for this long, congratulations — and thanks 🙂 If you enjoyed this review, I think you’d enjoy this book.


The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I’m a Stranger Here Myself

My Teenage Zombie

Year of No Clutter



7 thoughts on “Prince Charles by Sally Bedell Smith: Review

  1. I just can’t congure up any sympathy for Prince Charles, based on how he treated Diana. So, while I read your entire review, I’ll not be reading the book.

  2. First–excellent, well done review. I’m anxious to read this book.

    Since we can’t sit down and enjoy discussing all of this, I’ll write it out.

    Like his Grandfather, George VI he has a violent temper. This often comes from being abandoned (as I well know!!!!) and needing attention. His grandfather nearly starved to death as a child in a small (Mc Mansion-sized) house overflowing with people because no one would say the truth to his parents) and went on to suffer more trauma–hence his “gnashes.” So, too, did George V and Edward VII. Charles, as a baby, was raised in an atmosphere totally out of sync with the world. He was left at the country house with the nursery staff while Elizabeth and Philip were pushed into the Royal Round all week–the saw him at tea on the few weekends they spent at that house. There is film of his “delighted” parents with him–you can see what a disappointment he was to Philip who holds him in a strange manner. Abandoned. Neglected Those are the terms we’d use today. Then abandoned again and again for tours and finally pushed into boarding school at 8. Scary.

    He was over indulged by his Royal Granny who treated him as the longed-for son she and her late husband never had. He was indulged the way she and her many brothers had been and was treated as the privileged heir to it al in the manner of the great aristocratic families.. He was used by Dickie Mountbatten (who had adored Anne as a child) to stay close to the throne. Sadly, the Windsor eldest sons have been weak since time began.

    His mother famously refused to step in when Philip sent him to Gordonstoun [to be fair, in 1961 this was still the upper-class norm–a boy went to his father’s school, no discussion was entertained in most families, about “fit” or “suitability” you just wen there because Papa went there]. But Philip had had an even more damaging childhood than Diana’s (and hers, had she been born in a non aristocratic family, could have landed her and her little brother in foster care). Sadly, Charles would have thrived and bloomed at Eton. Music, art, literature, beauty–all would have been there. History was all around. Instead he was sent to a crack-pot liberal school that, apparently unbeknownst to his parents, had become what we’d call a rehab or, at best, an alternative school for the upper classes. The idealism of Philip’s day was long, long gone. His housemaster was a sadistic homosexual. Likely he made it all worse for himself by not just laughing the first time the nasties did something horrid. HIs own cousins, who deeply resented having to sacrifice Eton (for Mountbatten’s grandson) and Salem (the German version of Gordonstoun for his German first cousin) to be with him.[The German one shared many of Charles’ crazy notions and would die in an Ashram].

    I have come to believe that the biggest reason he was pressured to marry was that the story’s of Andrew’s parentage are true (the photographic evidence is staggering) so that Charles HAD to produce an heir. I have also seriously wondered if encouraging Di to “date” (such as it was) Charles was a sisterly act of revenge. Sarah HAD to know totally how incompatible the couple were. Jane, had she not already married, would have been the ideal Spencer girl for Charles. Her Grandmother, who KNEW it was a disaster, was exactly like the courtiers who let George VI nearly starve to death as a baby (and Edward VIII, his brother, be possibly even sexually abused by their derranged nanny)–she would not speak the truth to the Queen Mother. Remember, this is the same Granny who spoke in favor of drunken, violent Lord Spencer as the more fit parent.

    Camilla is to blame for not marrying Charles in the first place. I’m sure she was pressured to settle down–girls of their class were “meant” to marry by about 22. She picked a guy who was already a very well-known bed-hopper (he’d been rejected for Princess Anne on that basis–oh the irony given the guy SHE married). Camilla feared Charles would do what he did–dither too long. Sad. So Sad.

    Diana–she wasn’t an innocent. No way. Her family is so intertwined with the royals that her father was Edward Albert Spencer (called by his third name–John) and all the Earls Spencer back many generations were royal godchildren. In fact Diana was the only member of her family to NOT have a royal godparent. But who accepts a marriage proposal when you’ve (by her count–but she was notable for not letting the truth alter a good story) less than 10 hours ALONE together (well, aside from a Duggar)??? Much less lie about “loving” country life and fishing and shooting and all that. Lie about loving opera. And Charles, being a dimwit with women, took her at her word, poor fool. She fooled herself thinking “I’ll be Famous!” and boy did she succeed! lol

    What I think is appalling is that BOTH she and Charles didn’t want to go thru with it, but did. That is horrific. Yes it would have stunned the world. But as we often say, “Where were the parents????” You just say “then don’t marry him, darling…her have a Sherry” and move on. Yes the Queen would have had to take out her checkbook, but she and Charles each have more money than God and more coming in daily thanks to the Duchy of Lancaster (Her Majesty’s hedgefund) and the Duchy of Cornwall (Charles’).

    Now we have to watch all of this repeat in William and Harry. I suspect William has the horrible temper. But he was old enough to see his parents for what they were–too see their true colors. What kind of a Mummy makes her kids answer “Who loves you best?” every night? Harry is a total mess–that’s clear. He is dumb, uneducated, emotional and self-centered to a very dangerous degree. He left the Army because he couldn’t deal with a boring desk job (and couldn’t be promoted without a degree which he could never earn). Like his Mum he’s had a horrific childhood, was over indulged to the point of insanity. IF the relationship with Megan is real (and many think it is not) she must either have a video of him doing drugs (hardly surprising) or worse. But Harry, like Mummy, is seeing only the parts he wants to see. The comparisons in the press of Meghan to Heather Mills McCartney are spot on. Very sad.But he alsohas the makings of an outrageously popular King. William is so posh and awkward, so stilted. He does everything through gritted teeth–he is always so bored looking–exactly like Edward VIII–exactly. When the Queen dies it will not surprise me if they simply abdicate. No one wants Charles and Camilla is said to not want him to make her queen–I believe her. For all her many, many faults, I think she is beyond all that part of it. She spends a lot of time at her old home.

    Ok–that’s all!! Lol…..

  3. Sounds like Charles did have a rough childhood. As a sensitive child myself, I feel for him there. But I don’t like drawing a lot of attention, so I definitely don’t relate to him in that. ha. Love that picture of Princess Diana and John Travolta. 🙂

  4. Well, my goodness, after reading your excellent review and the informative comment by “hopewellslibrary,” I feel as though I seen enough royal stuff for a while! It all seems surreal to me.

  5. What a thorough review- I like your other reviewed titles too- checking those out now. This book sounds interesting just because of the history behind how Charles is who he is- I am watching the Crown on Netflix about his mother and father and the history of the Royals- so interesting and I think the book would be a great tie-in with that.

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