Has the ghost of Princess Diana been banished at last? You could almost believe it last week in the touchingly dowdy engagement pictures of Charles and Camilla. Around Di the Dazzler, the hangdog prince never looked as he does now -- quietly confident, casually self-assured, displaying a serene, kingly brio before the cameras.
We may never know whether it was Charles or Diana who broke the marriage vows first. The version of the run-up to the royal divorce offered by her confidant Andrew Morton is too deeply entrenched in the national psyche. (In Morton's version Camilla was Diana's offstage rival from Day One, scheming to gaslight her even as Diana advanced down the aisle in her creamy train in St. Paul's Cathedral, and slipping Charles monogrammed cuff links that stuck daggers in the young bride's heart on the honeymoon.)
The newly engaged Prince Charles seems more relaxed with Camilla Parker Bowles than he ever was in his marriage to Princess Diana.
(Pool Photo Tim Ockenden)
But to this day, all Charles's friends swear that for the first five years of the royal marriage Charles did not see his mistress on the side. They offer as proof the fact that Camilla often asked them wistfully how Charles looked, had he asked after her, did he seem well. According to them, the Princess of Wales got so unhinged by all the media attention that she flipped her lid well before any betrayal by Charles. He returned to Camilla's warm bed, goes this version, only after his wife cheated on him with her hunky security guard Barry Mannakee.
Pretend for a moment this is true. Perhaps the love affair of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles survived not in spite of his marriage to Princess Diana but because of it. It's a point of allure, for instance, that Camilla is usually on time for dinner. That can be a very winning quality if your wife is habitually busy throwing up in the bathroom while the ambassador from Uzbekistan is cooling his heels in the antechamber.
Camilla was a refugee from a bad marriage, too. Her ex-husband, Household Cavalry officer Andrew Parker Bowles, lived up in more ways than one to his quaint ceremonial title Silver Stick in Waiting. Loneliness inside a relationship that existed only as a social convention was something she shared with Charles -- and with Diana, for that matter.
One of the many awful things about being the heir to the throne is the isolating effect the royal karma has on other people. I was first struck by this at a dinner at the American Embassy in London in the '80s. Whenever the Prince of Wales approached a chatting group, everyone would stop talking. And if he said anything mildly lighthearted, even hard-nosed news anchors and political thought leaders would fall about laughing hysterically. No wonder he was reduced to doing those unfortunate comedy impersonations at parties. All his life he'd been led to believe he had the talents of a stand-up comedian.
During the misery of the prince's marriage, Camilla's sympathetic understanding was all that stood between him and his two competing Rashomons -- on the one hand the object of the sycophancy of courtiers and groupies, and on the other, painted for the world as a chilly adulterer by the Princess of Wales.
Camilla's charm is one of those direct, country-house personalities that specialize in breezy instant candor. Being candid is not the same as being confessional (that dreaded word, with all its shuddery connotations of Diana's BBC heart-to-heart with Martin Bashir). With Camilla the prince is unable to indulge an exasperating tendency toward self-pity about his lot as a multimillionaire monarch-in-waiting with a brace of stately homes on tap. As one of her friends put it, if Camilla had a family motto it would be "Thou Shalt Not Whine."
Some of her briskness is just the posh self-assurance typical of the Gloucestershire County set she moves in. Camilla's neighbor and Master of the Hunt, the old (and now deceased) Duke of Beaufort, once commented about the distinguished diarist James Lees-Milne, "This fellow, Lees-Milne. Doesn't shoot. Doesn't hunt. What's his point?"
Camilla's point is that she knows the royal family were never supposed to be rock stars. Diana's global fame hit Buckingham Palace like a meteor. Her heat singed off the Queen's tiara. It made all the royals question their status in the world for the first and only time.
Until Diana, the hierarchy of attention and public adoration was preordained. Queen Elizabeth got more crowds than anyone except her sainted mother. Then came Prince Charles, with his debonair wave. Then the queen's late sister Princess Margaret, still supposed to be glamorous from her mildly renegade youth. And so on down through the assorted carriages of Yorks and Kents. But once Diana hit the world stage nobody wanted to see them anymore. The Prince of Wales discovered for the first time in his life what it felt like to have someone looking over his shoulder at a shimmering vision on the other side of the room. The other royals were hard-pressed to get their pictures in the paper at all, let alone the front page, when they opened a power plant. And it made them all distinctly cranky.
Prince Charles has spent the eight years since his divorce in recovery from Princess Diana's celebrity. With his engagement to the woman who calls herself his "devoted old bag," the House of Windsor has been taken -- at least for now -- off the cover of People magazine and returned to the front of Country Life where it belongs. As they headed off to church in Gloucestershire on Sunday, Camilla's static-flying, hedgerow hair and bulky tweed coat were as much of a declaration of intent as her platinum diamond ring.
© 2005, Tina Brown