"It's open season on royalty, isn't it?" says a particularly loathsome journalist in "Miss Nobody," and that fairly well sums up the current media situation of His Royal Highness Charles, prince of Wales, bridegroom-to-be and heir apparent to the throne of England. It has been a more-or-less open season since he was born, but the barrage has intensified since the announcement of his marriage plans. A pity in many ways, because he is a member of an endangered species -- European monarchy -- and such creatures are never more vulnerable than during the mating season.
In these two novels, the sharpshooting is relatively harmless, and either book will give a few enjoyable hours to readers who are not looking for great literature. Unlike much of the current writing about Charles, which aspires or pretends to be factual, both "Miss Nobody" and "Caroline R" are frankly and explicitly fantasies. This fact may put them closely in touch with what royalty is all about in the late 20th century.
Monarchs today (the few who have not become hapless exiles, pretenders to obsolete thrones) tend to be something like national monuments -- curiosities for tourists to gawk at while they spend their pounds or kroner. Occasionally, they become ceremonial objects -- a sort of living set of crown jewels to be brought out and used on occasions of high pageantry. Even though they may have a marginal role in politics, their true assignment is to enrich the fantasy lives of multitudes whose most vivid and memorable moments are usually spent in front of television screens. And thus it is especially appropriate that these two novels about Prince Charles depart sharply from everyday reality as we know it.
Caroline Ross is being promoted by her publishers as "the next Danielle Steele," and "Miss Nobody" offers no solid grounds for disputing that claim. It is basically a rewrite with elaborations, of "Cinderella" -- perhaps the most tried-and-true formula for a romantic novel. Ross has even managed to solve the most notable problem of the Cinderella story -- the fact that the leading man is rather colorless and uninteresting -- by transforming Prince Charming into Prince Charles.
Tim Heald is already responsible (as co-author) for one of the notable products of the Prince Charles industry, a biography called "H.R.H.: The Man Who Will Be King" that reads like a better-than-average television documentary. His nonfiction expertise is only marginally useful, however, in "Caroline R," which takes place in the indefinite future when the president of the United States is a woman, the parents of the current (still unmarried) king have been forced to abdicate, and communism seems about to sweep England bloodlessly into its orbit. The monarch who marries Caroline (giving her the right to put the royal "R" in her signature) may or may not be our own Charles. Realistically, considering the chronology, if he were a real person, he could be nobody else. He is, however, a character in an unreal novel -- with a passing similarity to the current prince of Wales but no firm identification. Names are not much help. His closest advisers in the palace habitually refer to him by the code name "Golden Eagle," while his wife is called "Apple Pie." Her pet name for him is "Bunny," a reference to his ears.
When Golden Eagle married Apple Pie, he shattered precedent; he married an intelligent, liberated American woman -- something no British monarch had ever previously dared to do. There were some misgivings backstage at the palace, but the marriage went through, only to prove that the misgivings were accurate. Caroline does not want to be a ceremonial object or a mere breeder (though she does produce two children charmingly named Elizabeth and Arthur), and when she tries to live like a free human being complications arise. Enemies on the left begin to plot ways to trip her up and throw the monarchy into discredit. Enemies on the right wonder whether a convenient assassination might make her the martyr the monarchy needs to bolster its mystique and turn the public against Marxism. These motifs are woven into a neatly complicated plot that comes to its climax when Her Majesty slips off incognito to a rock concert and a bit of adultery under the influence of drugs and in the focus of a hidden camera lens. Its complete lack of relation to any known real human beings does not much decrease its readability.
In "Miss Nobody," we are asked to believe that Prince Charles (very identifiable as such) falls in love at first sight with a mousy graduate of an orphanage, whose face has been scarred since childhood, that they are separated by destiny until his helicopter happens to crash near her home in the far-off Scottish Isles, and that after many vicissitudes they are married. Or, rather, we were asked to believe that in the first draft of the novel, which was written before the prince's real marriage intentions were announced. In a rewritten conclusion rushed to the printers, the book is brought back into harmony with the historic fact that Charles is, in fact, marrying no such person.
This description makes the book sound worse than it is. In fact, it is quite charming in its guidebook-like descriptions of royal haunts, its fantasy-tinged Scottish landscapes, and particularly in its account of the prince's ambivalent courtship of a rival to our heroine -- an eminently suitable young lady who properly calls him "Sir" even in her most impassioned moments. Those who read "Caroline R" may conclude that the published version of "Miss Nobody," in which the heroine does not become the queen of England, is really a happy ending.