Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, by Sally Bedell Smith

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Sally Bedell Smith, and Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

My ongoing trek though the world of biographies would not have been complete without a piece by the famed Sally Bedell Smith. With honour and elegance, Smith is able to offer up an insightful look into the lives of those many hold in high esteem. Her latest subject is Prince Charles, heir to the Throne of the United Kingdom (and its realms). While many readers will be familiar with Charles as scandalous and perhaps frigid towards his former wife, Smith takes the reader through the man’s life to date and presents strong arguments for seeing him in three contrasting lights: the man, the misfit, and the monarch-to-be. Through these three lenses, Smith argues effectively that Charles, Prince of Wales, has much more to offer than his one-off comments or trite sentiments that the tabloids have used to boost their image while remaining useful only for campers and fish mongers. A powerful piece that humanises a man whose entire life has literally been a waiting game.

That Charles is a man with interests as common as any other might be hard to fathom, though Smith does a wonderful job of accentuating this. Raised with the eyes of the world on him from the start, Charles had little hope of being ‘normal’ in the true sense of the word. Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were thrust into the limelight when Charles was only a young boy, turning the former into a queen and ruler of the Realm, thereby leaving the young prince in the hands of nannies and tutors. Smith explains repeatedly that neither of his parents provided Charles with affection of a sense of closeness, with Phillip going so far as to seek a rough and tumble upbringing to harden his son’s outer shell. While Charles did not excel at individual sport, his passion for polo and other group ventures helped shape him into the man he would become. Enjoying time alone as well as surrounded by others, Charles soon turned to the tranquility of painting with watercolours, which regulated what was surely a chaotic life around him. After mandatory military service, Charles remained a bachelor, though did dabble around with the likes of Camilla Shand (eventually Parker Bowles), and it was said that the Palace would never have approved their marriage. Smith cites Camilla’s less than sexual innocence as the main reason, as her reputation was known, even among those of the upper crust. Still, Charles did date, sparingly, as he pursued some of his other interests, which included the environment, architecture, and spiritual oneness. Making speeches on these topics and exploring their depths with some of those who were held in high regard, Charles carved a niche for himself and soon became passionate, which added an unwanted wrinkle that I will explore below. It was only after a personal tragedy befell the prince that he realised the need to marry, especially as heir to the Throne. His choice of Lady Diana Spencer was fraught with issues from the start, as Smith explores through some of the more tumultuous chapters of the biography. Not only was there a major gap in age, but their interests did not mesh and the looming cloud of Camilla could not be ignored. Add to this, Smith makes much of the mental anguish Diana faced behind closed doors and Charles found himself struggling from the onset of the marriage. While the Waleses had two boys, their union was eroding and soon ended in parsimoniously, as neither wanted to make things work, choosing instead to fall into the arms of other lovers. It was only after Diana’s death in the summer of 1997 that Charles showed a more human side and was able to connect more readily with the public. He kept up with his aforementioned niches and succumbed to true happiness when allowed to wed the woman he loved, speaking around the world and drawing strong ties to the common person’s interests. This connection with the public did help with shedding his role as villain, though for many the decision had already been made. While he was certainly a man who differed from his parents and grandparents, Charles did prove to have issues that could not be overlooked by either the tabloids or the general public.

To call Prince Charles a misfit might not be too far from the truth, though Smith tackles it in the highest regard possible. Charles was never one to create scandals as a youth, staying away from drink and drugs in an era where love was free and booze plentiful (unlike his own son, Harry, decades later). However, Smith does not fail to list a number of the indiscretions that Charles seems to have had during his marriage to Diana, usually related to Camilla Parker Bowles. Smith does an amazing job at laying the groundwork for Charles’s sainthood in his marriage, as though these acts of stepping out might have been justified knee-jerk reactions. She is quick to portray Diana as the unstable one, issuing countless examples of bulimic attacks, limb cutting, and berating the Princes of Wales, all in private. There was also a great deal of Charles trying to balance this apparent Diana outbursts and putting on a brave face in public. Of course, the general public seemed more than happy to side with the People’s Princess, ignoring her numerous mentions in the tabloids while Charles did not seem to be able to have any assignations that were not splashed on the front pages of any daily rag and the illegal content of phone conversations turning him into the butt-end of jokes. Smith goes so far as to list the number of tabloid antics throughout her narrative, including the “Tampax” comment that fuelled many a joke in the early 90s. Charles could not shake this persona, as long as Diana was alive. It was as though he was forced to live in the shadow of his wife, as he had his parents, and would eventually do the same for his sons. Perhaps blown out of proportion by the salacious need for the British tabloids to sell papers, Charles may have been a misfit of sorts, but it was likely because all eyes were on him whenever he hiccoughed too loudly. Still, that moniker would tarnish his abilities to be regal when it counted most of all.

As heir to the Throne, Charles would have to offer a side of himself that denotes his ability to be monarchical. While Charles grew up in a household where his mother served as reigning monarch, he did not always possess the key traits of heir. Smith extols Queen Elizabeth’s ability to be neutral and seek information from all players before offering the hint of an opinion on any matter, while Charles would race around the world (or even in Britain) and stand atop his own soapbox to present his ideas whenever a microphone appeared in front of his face. Honourary and customary events saw Charles act as keynote speaker, only to steal the limelight and push for his own beliefs, at times angering those to whom he preached. Smith offers a number of examples throughout the years, most notably the British Medical Association, a slew of British and world-renowned architects, and even members of the Government. Charles never worried about who he might upset, knowing that they would demur (in public at least) to his station, though this was surely neither regal nor the personality fit for a monarch. While Charles was seen to be going to all corners of the Commonwealth, it is not only attending events but currying favour of one’s subjects that brings about that image of a monarch-in-waiting. As mentioned above, Charles was forced to stand in the shadows of Diana’s love affair with the people, but there comes a time when the love must flow towards the heir apparent. It seems to be strong with Prince William, as Smith relates the Hollywood-esque personality he has around the world, but it is also the ability to relate to people, which William has in spades, that attracts the attention, at least of the positive variety. Can Charles be a monarch in which “the Firm” will be proud? The jury remains in deliberations, though Smith makes a strong case that he might not have the traits Queen Elizabeth and her predecessors felt were quintessential. 

Taking a moment to sift through Smith’s piece in general, it is surely armed with the tools of a biography worth citing in conversations and future pieces on the royals. I read with much interest her piece on Queen Elizabeth II and loved it. Crisp, to the point, and yet not fuzzy or tepid in the least, Sally Bedell Smith knows how to create a life and weaves it together with scores of sources and much research. This piece is poignant, as it addresses many of the issues related to the Prince of Wales, from his birth through to the present struggles he faces as heir to the throne. Smith does not try to smear or pile on the gossip, but she does not ostrich herself (or the reader) by refusing to acknowledge the scandals that have shown themselves over the decades. Smith keeps much of the narrative flowing chronologically, rathe than simply by topic, the reader can follow the arguments with ease. With both detailed and short chapters, Smith allows the reader to ensconced themselves in a number of topics, though also chooses to skim across the surface on others that might not be as encompassing. Pulling on a number of sources and events, Smith portrays Charles in many lights, some of which were discussed above, but does not seek to attack or belittle with any intention. The curious and dedicated reader will surely find much of great interest in this biography, that serves the role of educating and entertaining at the same time.

Charles is in line to be king, but should he hold the position? Smith does not outwardly address this throughout the book, but she lays some strong arguments in the narrative. Charles is outspoken and stands by his beliefs, but is also one to have not fretted with the silver spoon lodged firmly in his mouth. It is a debate over whether time fostered this reliance on others or if it was a personal choice, thereby alienating himself from his expected subjects. Then again, Queen Elizabeth II is the textbook royal and detached from much in the public light, though her approval ratings remain high and strong. Could it be a trail of scandals that have plagued Charles over the decades that has kept him from being the man many yearn for when looking to the future of the British monarchy? One can hope that his being who he feels is right will not jade either him or those who await the next monarch. Whether Charles will ever ascend to the throne (should he be given the chance, based on the Queen’s longevity) remains up in the air, for he has literally waited his entire life for this honour. Neither William nor George are surely chomping at the bit to push him out of the way, but one can hope that the Commonwealth and even the world is ready for whatever happens. There is much to be decided, and yet much that remains as clear as a foggy Scottish morning.  

Kudos, Madam Smith for this sensational piece that enlightens the reader while pulling no punches in its delivery. You have been able to attract much interest with your past pieces and this is sure not to disappoint. 

Advertisements