A GREATER LOVE

Prince Charles's Twenty-Year Affair With Camilla Parker Bowles

By Christopher Wilson

Morrow. 223 pp. $22

How could he? Casual followers of the spectacle presented by Britain's royals at play gaze in bafflement at Camilla Parker Bowles, the object of Prince Charles's hot desires.

It's plainly not glamour he's after. Slender, smiling, groomed-to-the-teeth Princess Di offers plenty of that while Camilla runs the gamut from frump to fogy. But the heart has its reasons. And after an evening digesting Christopher Wilson's dissertation on "A Greater Love" -- namely that of Charles for Camilla -- you get the heart's point.

The rivals for the royal ticker differed even at their very earliest meetings with Himself. According to Wilson, here's Lady Diana Spencer's opening gambit to the eligible prince, when she found herself perched beside him on a hay bale at a barbecue: "You looked so sad when you walked up the aisle at the funeral {that of the murdered Earl Mountbatten, Charles's beloved uncle}. It was the most tragic thing I've ever seen. My heart bled for you when I watched. I thought, it's wrong, you're lonely, you should be with someone to look after you." (Gag me with a scepter -- but it made Charles sit up and take notice.)

Now here's Camilla: "My great-grandmother and your great-great-grandfather were lovers. So how about it?" (In fact, Alice Keppel, the lady in question and Camilla's heroine, had been Edward VII's favorite mistress. She was also quite happily married to the son of the seventh Earl of Albemarle, who acquiesced in the affair.)

As Wilson depicts them, the two women are temperamental opposites. Diana, who looks a bit sulky in repose, occasionally throws tantrums, screaming, slamming doors and reopening them to slam them again. Camilla is a jolly girl, whose voice is raised in aggression only during the hunt; when galloping toward a fence she has been heard to holler, "Bloody hell, get out of the {expletive} way!"

Of course Charles has more in common with Camilla than with Di. Both love riding, architecture, watercolor painting and the art of Italy. Both went to particularly brutish British schools -- Charles to Cheam and then Gordonstoun, where among the common tortures the boys inflicted was wrenching flesh from each other's arms with a pair of pliers. Camilla had been packed off at age 5 to Dumbrells, whose freezing Dickensian horrors once struck dumb a visiting school inspector.

Despite her school's wretchedness -- or perhaps because of surviving it -- she has always been rather a darling: cheerful, hardy, intuitive, sexually adventurous, discreet and an intelligent listener who doesn't feel she has to counter Charles's confided woes with a litany of her own.

The public became aware of her role in his life in 1992, when Diana foolishly authorized the publication of Andrew Morton's "Diana: Her True Story." Its revelations -- that Camilla often spent days and nights at Highgrove, Charles and Di's house, when Charles was there alone; that she organized his personal life, arranged his guest lists and menus and then played hostess for his lunches and dinners there -- made Camilla suddenly the most hated woman in Britain. She was perceived as a man-killer, a bitch, the desecrator of the fairy tale marriage that had captured the hearts of the world.

To top it off, January 1993 saw publication of what became called the "Tampax Tapes" -- transcriptions of parts of an 11-minute phone conversation between Charles and Camilla on the night of Dec. 17, 1989. In their lovers' chat, Charles, like the 18th-century swain who aspires to be a rose in his mistress's bosom, longs to be reborn as a tampon in her whatsit; after that little riff, the two cast around for an assignation spot, before a long good-night that makes Romeo's sound like a kiss-off. Of course the chat was goofy enough to be faxed around the world, read aloud in trembling falsettos at parties and giggled over by schoolgirls and cynics everywhere. (Wilson reprints the whole thing in the most entertaining segment of this rather irritatingly written book.) But it was also utterly adoring and unfeigned. When he became engaged to Diana in February 1981, Charles had been asked by the press whether he and Di were in love. He had brushed off the query, with a snickered "Whatever 'in love' means." The Tampax Tapes proved he knew perfectly well what "in love" meant: He was, with Camilla. Britain was outraged. Here was irrefutable evidence that the public had been bamboozled.

And had Di been bamboozled too? After all, in the 1992 book she authorized, she is the bewildered ingenue, driven to bulimia and suicide attempts by a cold spouse. Charles, for his part, insists that Diana understood his thing with Camilla way before he married her. It seems reasonable. There had been talk of Charles and Camilla's affair since the early '70s, but Camilla had been deemed by the courtiers unfit to marry the prince, largely because of her well-known seven-year premarital affair with Andrew Parker Bowles, now her husband.

If Diana indeed remained, as she once described herself, "thick as a plank," the truth must have come home with a bump shortly after son William was born in June 1982. That was when she overheard Charles on the phone saying, over the sound of running water in his bathroom, "Whatever happens, I will always love you." He wasn't talking to the soap.

Charles and Di's conjugal relations apparently ceased in the summer of 1986, after their return from a holiday with King Juan Carlos of Spain. As time went on, Charles no longer bothered to hide the affair. He even went off with Camilla in May 1989 to a holiday in Turkey, to celebrate 10 years of continuous bliss.

High drama and world-class gossip aside, the only reason it's respectable to care about all this is so one can ponder whether divorcing, and then marrying a divorced wife, would be a bar to Charles's future roles as king and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. (Ironically, he's to be the defender of the very faith that King Henry VIII founded in order to dump his first wife without any meddling from Rome.)

But respectability isn't the point here. Wilson has written a rather sloppy, cheesy, hackish, hasty sort of book that manages to be pompous and vulgar at the same time. But it will certainly have a place on my ever-burgeoning royals shelf -- at least until Camilla Parker Bowles is moved to spill her own beans. Great-granny Alice Keppel never did. But these days, who knows?

The reviewer writes for the Ladies' Home Journal, Washingtonian and other publications here and abroad.