CAN CHARLES STILL BE KING?
The image war betweem the heir and his estranged wife, Diana, flares anew with his soul-baring biography
Queen Elizabeth II visited Russia last week where the bullet-riddled and burned bones of her Romanov cousins rest, a reminder of one savage but effective way to end a royal dynasty. Back home in Britain, her children seemed to favor a more modern approach to bringing down a crown: using the media as a public confessional, and shredding the House of Windsor’s credibility in the process. The latest blow came with the first of three serialized instalments in London’s Sunday Times of an authorized biography of Charles, Prince of Wales, which portrayed the would-be monarch as a selfpitying man-child, pushed into a loveless marriage by an unlovable father. The book was an orchestrated attempt by Charles to improve his image and to curry public sympathy, especially by detailing his own suffering and torment during his marriage to Diana, the Princess of Wales, and his (maybe) future queen. Instead, his attacks on the parenting abilities of the Queen and Prince Philip, along with his wailing throughout—“How could I have got it all so wrong?” he asks—had the effect of making the entire Royal Family a mockery, better candidates to guest on Oprah than occupy the throne.
The most amazing element about the fire storm that enveloped Charles last week was that he himself provided the match. Last year, aware that his image was suffering beside that of his estranged wife, Charles decided to bare his thoughts, journals, letters and his soul to Jonathan Dimbleby, one of Britain’s most respected journalists. The idea was to counter perceptions of the Prince as a cold, aloof husband and father with sometimes bizarre values. The resulting book, simply called The Prince of Wales and due for release on Nov. 3, was described by Charles’s office as “a balanced appraisal of the Prince of Wales’s development as an individual.”
But the excerpt in The Sunday Times opened a window on a mostly trou bled life. It told tales of a young Charles browbeaten to tears by his father, Philip, who wanted his son to be more aggressive and less sensitive. It described a young prince made miserable at boarding school because classmates threw pillows at him when he snored. And it recounted Charles’s incoherent approach to finding a suitable bride, and how he did not love Diana Spencer when he married her before an enthralled worldwide television audience at St.
Paul’s Cathedral in 1981.
In all, there were enough revelations for a week’s worth of salacious headlines—enough, certainly, to tide the press and public over until this week’s instalment about the prince’s extramarital love affair with his married friend, Camilla Parker Bowles.
Further damage followed when Voici, a French gossip magazine, ran a story saying that a divorce had already been agreed upon, and that Diana was to receive a $32million settlement as well as two homes and unimpeded access to their sons, Princes William and Harry. The story was based on what appeared to be stolen manuscripts for a book on Diana by her confidant Andrew Morton, also due out in November, and included a reference in which Diana said marriage to Charles made her feel like “the biggest prostitute in the world.” Lawyers for Charles and Diana issued a statement denying that any deal on a divorce had been reached. But the promise of yet another behind-the-curtains book points to a long, vulgar fall of royal gossip. That season got under way early this month with the release of Princess in Love, which tells of a fiveyear extramarital love affair between Diana and her onetime riding instructor, former army officer James Hewitt.
Of course, the British public, media and politicians have felt obliged to respond, often in ludicrous ways. Dame Barbara Cartland, a lonely hearts novelist and Diana’s step-grandmother, urged a truce to save the monarchy. ‘They could both sleep with whoever they liked, so long as it never became public,” she declared. The Daily Mirror demanded that Prime Minister John Major tell Prince Philip to stay out of his son’s private life. And there were calls for Charles and Diana to divorce—some of them voiced by MPs in the House of Commons, an amazing dash of hypocrisy from an institution that regularly offers adultery scandals of its own.
Anti-monarchists were, predictably, chortling at the House of Windsor’s discomfort. “The monarchy is not able to deal with a new era, where there is an investigative press and where people are no longer deferential towards authority,” said Stephen Haseler, chairman of Republic, a group campaigning for a constitutional end to British royalty. And The Economist, the voice of Britain’s free-market business class, argued that the monarchy’s time was past. It called for a referendum the next time the crown must be passed on, and said that the only argument for saving the monarchy was that abolition was not worth the trouble.
But republicanism has yet to seduce the British public. Haseler’s group has all of 1,000 members, and polls show support for the monarchy holds at more than 70 per cent. Even when Britons are asked who they would like to see as president if the country ever became a republic, the leading choice is Anne, the Princess Royal, Charles’s sister, who is currently the most popular royal—and remarried after being divorced. Nor is the fascination with royal scandal in Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloids like the News of the World driven by Murdoch’s own avowed republicanism. He worships market share, above all. And nothing sells papers like the royals. “I totally believe in the monarchy as an institution,” said News of the World editor Piers Morgan in a recent interview, adding that “sometimes my mother rings up and tells me to leave Diana alone.” But the collective weight of the reports did set off the most pointed round of questioning yet about whether Charles will ever be king. The answer, by constitutional convention, is yes. Charles will reign, provided that he outlives his mother and that he still wants the job. Nobody gets to vote on it. He can ascend to the throne even if divorced from Diana, although as titular head of the Church of England, he would face a thornier problem if he wanted to remarry. But the real question is whether, having taken the House of Windsor to such depths of farce, Charles would now be best advised to step aside to preserve popular support for the crown. In a modern democracy the monarchy does not rule by divine right, but by the tacit consent of its subjects. “The problem is not whether a divorced man could become king, but whether this divorced man could,” prominent Tory MP Edwina Currie wrote in a letter to the editor of The Times. “That a man so selfish, so self-pitying, so immature, as endlessly to blame others for his own shortcomings, should be set upon the throne: that is becoming unacceptable.”
The tragedy is that, for Charles, a man who visibly aches to do the right thing, this was a crisis of his own making.
Watching the Prince of Wales up close is a study in earnestness. At a garden party held in central London this summer to welcome South Africa back into the Commonwealth, he stood in the baking heat, ramrod straight in his white safari suit, while anthems were played and speeches droned on. Standing comfortably beside him, purse dangling from her crossed arms, the Queen looked as if she might be waiting for a bus. But Charles never wilted. And long after the Queen finished her quick, courteous pass through the assembled guests, Charles was still working the crowd. Head tilted forward, he listened attentively as guests pressed their business cards into his hand, bent his ear, or tried to get him to turn slightly so that friends nearby could snap a surreptitious photo.
Charles has always wanted to play more than a ceremonial role. Over the years of waiting for the crown, that has taken various forms: criticizing modem architecture, or setting up an inner-city charity for hard-hit youth. He also voiced his beliefs on everything from the appeal of eastern mysticism to the scourge of political correctness.
The problem, however, is that the monarchy’s legitimacy derives from its role as a neutral symbol of the nation.
The crown has survived bad kings and even mad kings, provided that, like Queen Elizabeth II, they stuck to their knitting. Once the monarch begins to hold strong views on any subject, the crown becomes a source of division rather than unity.
(The Queen herself generated critical headlines last week for mildly suggesting during her Russian trip that Manchester was “not such a nice place.”) Charles’s miscalculation has been to act like a politician, not a royal. He insisted upon running for the job that was his by heredity.
As Prince Philip said last week in an interview that was widely interpreted as a rebuke of his son: “I’ve never discussed private matters and I don’t think the Queen has either. I don’t think it’s fair to give my views. I’m just here. That’s all there is to it.”
But Charles and his personal advisers believed that the monarchy was no longer able to avoid scrutiny in the age of boom microphones and high-powered lenses. Keeping the royals remote was like trying to hide from a spy satellite. And modernization meant opening up, confessing, explaining. It meant selling the Prince.
The gamble may still pay off, but the first reviews were rough. “Prince Charles is misguided if he thinks he is going to get sympathy for a hard life,” says Michael Billig, author of the 1992 book Talking of the Royal Family, a study of British attitudes towards the monarchy. “There is support for the Royal Family, but it is conditional. People are aware that the royals live a privileged life, and for that they have to earn their way. Support will be removed if they are always seen to be whingeing about their lot.”
Diana, too, complains about her unhappiness, although she hides behind the bylines of journalists sympathetic to her cause (see “prostitute” above). But strangely, Diana escapes the derision that dogs Charles. Certainly his philosophical pursuits are no more esoteric than her indulgences in astrology, hypnotherapy and aro-
matherapy. Her daily regime of workout/lunch/shopping should hardly attract sympathy. (Diana has recently taken to wearing the same gym clothes every day, so that photographers staking out her West London fitness centre cannot get a novel shot.) And her visible gushing at being in the presence of rock stars has done as much as Charles to dilute the mystique and majesty of the crown.
In fact, some of the criticism being directed at Charles is churlish, even vicious. “How can a man with such big ears hear so very little?” asked Julie Burchill, a leading voice among younger British writers. For Burchill, tongue only slightly in cheek, Charles is unacceptable to his subjects because his character is shaped by his family’s German lineage. “We can’t spell angst, let alone suffer it,” she wrote. “We believe that emotions are something to be shown in the privacy of one’s own home.” There is undisguised glee in some quarters at the plunge in royal fortunes. “We got fed up with all the hype about the love match of the century,” said Republic’s Haseler. “We thought it was hypocritical and phoney. They are an utterly dysfunctional family. Not one, two or three of them. All of them. But they created this mythical, idealized family, and now it is
all coming home to roost.” The photogenic Diana played no small role in leading the stodgy Windsors into the realm of celebrity, leaving them open to the vices of celebrity journalism, which enjoys tearing down what it built up. “She’s the only world-scale glamor the British have to offer,” says Lola Bubbosh, the American-born deputy editor of London’s cerebral Literary Review, who has lived in Britain for seven years. “It is such a ‘B’ list of celebrities here. Just look at who goes to the movie premières: Kylie Minogue [a child actor turned pop star] and Joan Collins. It’s a measly offering.”
Shucking off the constitutional arguments adorning it, the saga of Charles and Diana is about the perils of celebrity culture. “It is our national soap opera, with the same characters but always a new episode,” says Sonia Livingstone, a social psychology lecturer at the London School of Economics. “It may double as a vicarious space where we can discuss our anxiety about the role of fathers, single mothers, or the difficulty of keeping marriages together. But at heart it is about fantasy and romance. We’ve become spectators at a ‘significant’ event: Fairy Tale Couple Meets Disaster.” That is the virus that Charles and Diana unleashed on a creaky, unprepared institution.
One of the most interesting—and least discussed—passages in the first excerpt of the Dimbleby book, was a description of the studentmentor relationship between Charles and Lord Louis Mountbatten, his great-uncle. Mountbatten was the one who schooled Charles on issues of state, and who encouraged him to “sow his wild oats” as a young adult, even offering the shelter of privacy at his estate, Broadlands, for the prince to do so. But Mountbatten apparently saw signs of selfindulgence in the young man and tried to shock Charles out of that behavior by drawing parallels with his great-uncle David, Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. In 1969, Mountbatten
wrote Charles: “Realize how fickle public support can be. Your Uncle David had such popularity that he thought he could flout the government and the church and make a twice-divorced woman Queen. His popularity disappeared overnight.” A decade later, shortly before he was blown up on his boat by an IRA bomb, Mountbatten again criticized Charles for being selfish, and warned against “beginning on the downward slope which wrecked your Uncle David’s life and led to his disgraceful abdication and his futile life ever after.” As the spectre of Edward VIII begins to hover over the next succession, those passages, reproduced in the biography, stand as
haunting warnings. British public opinion may be sentimentally behind the crown, but just as the emperor must have clothes, a monarch cannot rule if stripped of popular support. As politician Harold Nicolson noted in December, 1936, when Edward’s desire to marry Simpson provoked a storm in Parliament: “Now that people have got over the first sentimental shock, they want the King to abdicate. Opinion in the House is now almost wholly anti-King.” Edward was pressured into abdicating within days. Even Prince Philip remarked last week that republicanism was a “perfectly reasonable alternative” to a constitutional monarchy, with the proviso that it must be what the British people wanted.
By choosing to go public, Charles understood this need to gain respect and bolster his standing. The risk is that people may not like what they see, and are not in the mood to change their minds. The inherent contradiction stands: Charles is a man who wants to do something with his life, destined for a job that demands only a numbing devotion to ceremony and silence. It is not for everybody. □