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.
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.
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.
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