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From Caterpillar To Monarch Butterfly

By Tina Brown
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page C01


According to the Daily Mirror, when Prince Charles learned that the pope's funeral had been scheduled for the same day as his wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles, he wailed, "Why me?"

Bad luck has always followed Charles like one of his mum's corgis. But even this deeply pessimistic man could not have foreseen the litany of cock-ups and cosmic disasters that have turned his wedding to Camilla into a doggie bag full of doggie do. It's as if the queen's displeasure, which can't be publicly expressed, acts itself out instead in the rebellion of protocol itself.

Camilla Parker Bowles at Monday's service for the pope: She's getting queenlier by the day. (Stephen Hird -- Reuters)

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The date change blows Prince Philip's handy alibi that he might not get back in time for the wedding from visiting his relatives in Schleswig-Holstein (his Nazi relatives, Philip-haters snidely call them), and it increases Queen Elizabeth II's chagrin by clashing with her favorite horse race, the Grand National (the race has now changed its start time). The Daily Star, the most scurrilous of the London tabs, published an execrable picture of a horse mocked up to look like Camilla with the gag line "WEDDING SWITCH FORCES CHAS' OLD NAG TO MISS THE BIG RACE."

In a sense the latest fiasco has been a welcome distraction for Camilla. It took the heat off the big story of the weeks before -- the confirmation, during question time in Parliament, of the British public's suspicion that Camilla Parker Bowles, marriage wrecker and Di usurper, is indeed headed for the throne. Forget the cover story that she will be known simply as the Duchess of Cornwall. The prince's future wife is entitled, if she chooses, to the rank of not only Princess of Wales but also Queen of England -- unless an act of Parliament chooses otherwise. And who believes Prince Charles will let the love of his life fly tourist when he's up in first?

The irony is that if she is ever allowed to play it, Camilla will ace the role of queen. It's only Princess of Wales she can't do, because of the persistent poltergeist of Diana. If Camilla can just make it to the coronation before Charles falls off a horse, she will come into her heyday. It's this heartfelt belief that has given Charles the courage to defy his parents for the first and only time in his life and press doggedly on with his resolve to marry her.

The prince's intentions to crown Camilla have actually been clear all along. Item: the gift of the queen mother's platinum-and-diamond ring. Item: the insistence on a grand wedding at Windsor Castle rather than sloping off to Scotland, the way his sister Princess Anne did for her second marriage, to Rear Adm. Timothy Laurence. Most telling item of all: the sly insertion of the words "it is intended that" she will be known as the Princess Consort -- which every royal watcher knows should be translated as "That's what we want you to think now, but not how it will turn out in the end."

The more we see of Mrs. Parker Bowles in pictures that are not stolen moments of disarray or heading for her front door in Gloucestershire with a plastic bag over her head, the more obviously queenly she has started to appear. At her first official engagement at the prince's side, on Monday at the Solemn Vespers for the Pope in Westminster Cathedral, her broad-brimmed black beribboned straw hat, knee-length black dress and fat, luxurious pearls gave her the regal air of big-time grande dame. With Camilla you have to reach for Edwardian adjectives. She is a Handsome Woman. A Real Charmer. A Fine Figure of a Gel. Promoted to the front page, she exudes the stately presence of the royal yacht.

Better still, Camilla will age in a way that's back to the future. In 10 years' time, at 67, she will be as old as Jane Fonda is now. But look at the picture on the cover of Fonda's new memoir, "My Life So Far." The only suggestion of her true age is a slight hint of parchment around the lips. Camilla at 67 will be going full bore for the Margaret Rutherford look.

Old Trout-ism has been sadly missing lately on the public stage. The current queen isn't theatrical enough to carry it off. Old Trout-ism was at its height with Queen Mary, the immensely grand wife of King George V. Think big picture hats, shoes wide enough to handle a muddy field, a generous monobosom alternating at night with deep cleavage and a heavy-duty diamond necklace nestling in the valley. Camilla will be great at this look.

Queen Mary was known for her discretion as much as her magnificence. When her future daughter-in-law, the queen mother-to-be, was still Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, she gave a wholly innocuous press interview upon her engagement to the then-Duke of York, later King George VI. Queen Mary reamed her out so vigorously for this transgression that she didn't give another interview for the next 79 years.

Camilla has maintained a similar silence without even being royal. Unlike Diana, who shared her pain with the world on television, she has never whispered, leaked or given an interview to the press. "Your greatest achievement is to love me," Charles told her on the notorious Camillagate tape, thereby deprecating her when he meant only to deprecate himself. But her even greater achievement is to suck it up without complaint. Camilla will eventually establish herself as the patron saint of resilience, just as Diana is the patron saint of ticked-off divorcees.

More important still is the hope that Camilla's humorous warmth will finally rid Charles of his gloom. Like the queen mother, who used to hold King George VI's wrists in her hand during his famous "gnashes" and count the seconds until he smiled, Camilla knows that Englishmen always cling to Nurse for fear of something worse. As Hugh Grant's Daniel Cleaver whoops delightedly when he hoists Bridget Jones's skirt and sees the erotic vision of her whopping panty girdle: "Mummy!" The woman reviled as the enemy of monarchy may actually turn out to be its salvation.

©2005, Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company