Prince Charles was always on author Sally Bedell Smith’s radar as she researched and wrote a succession of royal biographies, but the heir to the British throne (and those of 15 other nations, including Canada) was never her focus, until now. “I’ve just been accumulating questions about him over the years,” she explained in a wide-ranging interview recently. She first met him in June 1991, just before Charles and Diana separated. “There were all kinds of mean stories in the tabloids about him, yet he was kind of relaxed, and informal, not at all buttoned up,” she recalls. “I think there’s a lot more to this guy than meets the eye; let’s see if I can put a magnifying glass on him.”
A new biography of Prince Charles
Her latest book, Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, delves into how the angst and tragedy of his first marriage has overshadowed Charles’s role as an energetic charitable entrepreneur and his increasingly high-profile role as royal surrogate to his mother, the Queen. Sally Bedell Smith talked with Patricia Treble while in Toronto earlier this year. (Part two of the interview focused on Camilla Parker Bowles and what he’ll be like as king.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: The most famous members of the royal family are the Queen as well as Charles’s and Diana’s two sons, Prince William and Harry, as well as William’s wife, Kate Middleton. So who is Prince Charles?
A: He’s always been this blurry figure in the background, overshadowed by the radiance of his beloved mother and the mania for his late wife [Princess Diana, who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997] and the adulation of William, Kate and Harry.
He’s this man in the middle, through his suffering, I think he helped bring about a more normal life for William and Harry. Royal life is never completely normal, but they certainly have been able to achieve something close to that. So many people would say, “Poor Charles,” he’s just had this unfortunate theme.
Q: A lot of that angst can be traced back to his marriage to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.
A: He was really, really unhappy in his marriage. The torments he went through, and she went through. I’m not blaming her.
The stunning thing that I discovered when I was doing the research for this book was that they’d only been together 12 times. That is crazy. 12 dates. And yet, he was under this terrible pressure. A letter from his father, not a conversation with your father but a letter from your father, which he interpreted as bullying, according to his cousin Pamela Hicks. She read the letter, thought it was perfectly reasonable. It said Diana’s reputation was being sullied, she was a 19-year-old girl, and you either propose to her or you move on.
He was under so much pressure, he persuaded himself that he could learn to love her. I thought the fact that three of his friends came to him and said, “You shouldn’t do this. She’s very unsuited to you.” But he pushed them off.
To my delight, there was so much more to him. He’s so much more a compelling figure than I’d picked up in my reporting of Diana and the Queen. And he’d accomplished so much. Who knew he’d completely restored a whole quarter of Kabul, Afghanistan. That he has a project in Jamaica that hasn’t made a lot of progress. That he has wide-ranging interests beyond the ones that people tend to know about, like the Prince’s Trust. He’s done some amazing things.
Q: Did you like him, in the end?
I do like him. I admire him. I admire much of what he’s done. I don’t always. As I was writing I would get exasperated at him for being his own worst enemy at times: being obtuse about things; his bouts of petulance over the years. There was a wonderful moment at the end of the book, when at a reception for all these high flying well-heeled donors to the Prince of Wales Foundation, and one of them tripped on a rug, spilled her entire cup of tea all over his $5,000 suit, shirt and tie. Ten years earlier, he would have walked off in a snit, and shown some display of temper or peek. But he just let it roll right over him. Someone said, “Shouldn’t you go upstairs and change, sir?” He said, “No, don’t worry about it”…he walked around the room.
He wants everything done yesterday. He’s always got these thoughts running through his brain. His Achilles heel is his unwillingness to listen to other points of view. To entertain contrary points of view, even when there is a lot of evidence to support them. He is so firmly entrenched in his original instincts.
Q: Has his 2005 marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles helped?
A: I think Camilla is go good for him. She can bring him down, she can ground him. There is that time when he was out at Highgrove, he didn’t want to go and collect a million-pound cheque for the prince’s trust. A beautiful day, enjoying his garden. Camilla said, “Come on, who else can go for 45 minutes in a helicopter and collect a million-pound cheque. I wish I was being paid those rates.” It was hilarious.
That’s proof of his happiness and her happiness that they share those.
Q: Through the book, you reference that Charles can be his own worst enemy. In particular, how much animosity towards him can be traced to the revelations in Jonathan Dimbleby’s authorized biography and interview—including his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles as well as his fraught relationship with his parents—that were released in 1994, while Charles and Diana were separated.
A: It was massive impact. I talked to people who advised him and said, “You don’t have to say this [admitting to an affair] on camera” but he was absolutely determined. Because Diana in the [Andrew] Morton book had said that he’d been unfaithful to her from the start, that he’d never given up Camilla. From all I know about his character, and what his friend told me, he did give [the marriage] a good faith effort.
He must have occasions when he saw Camilla over those five years, he’s [her son’s] godfather, and he hunted with Camilla, but in terms of resuming their intimacy, I’m willing to believe that. He really wanted to say that on camera. This is where bloody-mindedness gets himself in trouble. He needed to say this. Of course, it backfired. It’s what everyone remembers.
Q: The first line of his obituary was written that night when he admitted to resuming his affair with Camilla?
A: Yup, it was. There was no dissuading him. That’s a classic case where he won’t listen.
Q: In your biography, you show him to be both impetuous and a ditherer
A: The story that was told to me by someone who has gone shooting with him a lot, the family joke is that he’s the overly cautious stalker. He takes somebody up the mountain. They have a big old stag, right in the sights, finger ready to pull the trigger, and he’d say, “You know, you really don’t have to pull the trigger.” Agggghhhh.
He can be a ditherer on little things but on big things, big issues, he’s made decisive judgments about, he doesn’t dither in the least. He’s very firm.
But he also can’t see some of the internal contradictions. For example, if he really believes that organic farming should be used to feed the world, it would mean he’d have to cut down all the rain forests, because organic farming requires crop rotation. Organic farming has been accepted, it’s wonderful, but it’s not the way to feed the world. He embraces the precautionary principle in some ways, but we have to make policies without ironclad scientific evidence, but on the other hand, he insists on scientific evidence backs up the fact that GMOs [genetically-modified organisms] are bad for you. To the contrary, there’s a preponderance of evidence that GMO isn’t bad for you. Because GMO crops can eliminate the use of fertilizers, eliminate the use of pesticides, you can make some very strong arguments that they are a very good way to feel a burgeoning world population.
But he won’t see that because it doesn’t confirm to his view that you’re tampering with nature, and nature has primacy.
Q: Is he like U.S. President Donald Trump in how he thinks his instincts are better than facts?
A: Noooo. Believe me there. He did have tea with Trump. Back in 1988. He went to Mar-a-Lago, he was there for a polo fundraiser, and Donald Trump being Donald Trump managed to squeeze tea with the prince at Mar-a-Lago into his schedule. A private tea, mano a mano. It wasn’t when climate change was upper most. I doubt that was on the agenda. I think it was more polo.
Q: Do you think the House of Windsor be on the throne in 100 years?
A: I do. Now more than ever people say, “We wish we had someone who is above politics, who believed in duty and service, and binding the country in tough times.”
One of my favourite discoveries about the Queen was the Marmite theory of monarchy, an invention of Robin Janvrin [former private secretary to the Queen]. Look at a Marmite jar from 50 years ago, and yellow and green and red, but look at a Marmite jar from today: “Wow, it’s different.” The reason is that over the years they tweaked the Marmite jar label very incrementally. And that’s what they’ve done with the monarchy.