"And they lived happily ever after."
If you're looking for a good fairy tale, the story of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles is a rotter. Their love story is full of false starts, bad choices and lousy luck. So the announcement yesterday that the two will be married in April is not the stuff of romantic dreams. It's a tale of two grown-ups who loved, lost, took their lumps, still loved, and hope to live happily ever after, despite everything.
"I'm thrilled," says Robert Higdon, executive director of the Prince of Wales Foundation. "The bottom line is that they both make each other very happy."
Camilla Parker Bowles and Lady Diana, later the Princess of Wales, at Ludlow racecourse in 1980.
The news was met with cheers from fans of the future king, who are happy that Charles, 56, and Camilla, 57, are finally getting hitched. The jeers come from loyalists of the late Princess Diana, who blame Camilla for everything bad that happened to their beloved Di. The majority of royal subjects and royal watchers support the union, but they don't want Camilla, the "other woman," to be their queen. She's been forgiven, but won't be rewarded with a crown.
Which means we've all grown up a little. Lots of people marry the wrong person, get a messy divorce and then marry the right person. Most of us don't have tabloid reporters following every move, taking opinion polls or bemoaning the future of the monarchy. The fact that Charles and his mistress can finally become husband and wife without creating a massive scandal is the triumph of real life and adult love over fantasy.
"I'm very glad -- he's been in love with her all these years," says columnist Aileen Mehle, who writes as Suzy for W magazine. "It's so obvious that he's supremely comfortable with her. Their ease with each other is almost palpable. God love her, the marriage to Diana was a mistake."
A great deal of the grudging public acceptance has to do with their 30-plus-year relationship -- sometimes lovers, sometimes friends, always devoted to each other. The couple met in 1970 or 1971 at a polo match, and for better and worse, seemed fated for each other. Camilla's great-grandmother, Alice Keppel, had been the mistress of his great-great-grandfather, King Edward VII, and she grew up hearing stories about "Granny Alice," who often told the family, "My job was to curtsy first, and then jump into bed." Legend has it that Camilla flirtatiously introduced herself to Prince Charles, reminding him of their randy ancestors and saying, "How about it?"
The two, then in their early twenties, had a serious romance for three years. It was so serious that Charles wanted to marry her, but his family was opposed for a variety of reasons: He was too young, she wasn't royal or a virgin, they were afraid her former boyfriends would talk to the press. When Charles joined the Royal Navy without proposing or even asking her to wait for him, Camilla married Andrew Parker Bowles just a few months later.
Then came all the messy and tragic parts: Affairs, children, divorces, all played out in excruciating detail. Shortly after his separation from Diana, recordings of late-night cell phone conversations between Charles and Camilla were leaked to the press, and the future king of England was heard telling his mistress he wished to be reincarnated as her tampon.
Much has been written about Camilla's lack of obvious sex appeal, her less than fashionable clothes, her robust laugh. She's not, by any stretch of the imagination, a stereotypical princess bride. For anyone over 18, this is oddly reassuring.
Charles is obviously crazy for her and she for him. Last night in their first appearance after the official announcement, the couple accepted congratulations and Camilla showed off her heirloom diamond engagement ring to guests at Windsor Castle. Yes, the prince got down on one knee to propose, and yes, she was as giddy as any new fiancee. "I'm just coming down to earth," she said.
They share common interests, experiences and three decades together. This will be a marriage of two mature people -- wrinkles and all -- who clearly care deeply for each other. "They just seem to belong together," says Mehle. "This is a love mixed with a lot of respect and devotion. The way he treats her is lovely."
But royal romance, even the genuine article, goes so far, even in this day and age.
"It's always been unpopular when a king marries his mistress," says Eleanor Herman, author of "Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge." "It's slightly more palatable when the mistress doesn't take the title of queen, which is why it's wise for Camilla to take the title of Princess Consort."