PRINCE CHARLES: THE PASSIONS AND PARADOXES OF AN IMPROBABLE LIFE
By Sally Bedell Smith
Random House, $32, 573 pages
Here’s a novel way to chase those torpid springtime blues: go see the production of the play “King Charles III” currently on at Washington’s fine Shakespeare Theater Company. Then order a copy of this biography, which is due out in a month’s time.
The subject of both these portrayals is Charles Philip Arthur George of Britain’s House of Windsor, better known as Prince Charles. For most of his 69 years Charles has been the often overlooked, sometimes mocked, heir presumptive and successor to the much beloved, redoubtable Queen Elizabeth II. Her Majesty has been so formidable and permanent a fixture in British life that the question often asked was not when Charles would be king, but whether he ever would succeed her.
In April, the queen will mark her 91st birthday and a Sapphire Jubilee to celebrate the 70th year of her reign. But since 2013, she has with slow and measured steps slackened the pace of her exhausting schedule of public appearances and shifted an increasing measure of responsibility on to her son and heir. There is no prospect that she will willingly give up her role but the likelihood of Charles as king is now becoming a reality.
Why should we care? Because the question that inevitably follows is to ask what kind of king Charles will be? For Britons certainly, but also for American audiences, it is more than an idle topic. The nature of government here, in Britain, in the rest of Europe and throughout the world is changing radically. The character of future presidents, prime ministers and even monarchs has become a crucial factor in whether stability can be maintained during this change.
Queen Elizabeth has been extraordinarily adroit in wielding influence without seeming to cut into the powers of her elected governments. But those recent governments have become increasingly confrontational — the United Kingdom is hardly united — and its divorce from the European Union, like our own divisive society, will require some unifying force. In the past our presidents have done double duty as both chief executive and national symbol. Who will fill that role here, and how will Charles fill that role over there?
That’s why I recommend going to see the play. Without spoiling the plot, the story is set as a Shakespearean drama — blank verse and all — but with a modern and sharply relevant confrontation. The queen is dead and Charles at last barely is on the throne before he confronts a crisis of politics and his own conscience that tests whether the monarchy has anything more than symbolic relevance to modern life.
The crisis is one of present trans-Atlantic importance. Britain, once the home of a free, feisty and often reckless press recently has begun restricting what journalist can write about public affairs to a greater degree than the Obama administration’s crackdown on unwanted disclosures or President Trump’s offensive against any form of criticism. In the play, Charles faces what to do about a Parliamentary measure that would impose official censorship on news reporters. Should Charles refuse to give the Royal Assent, which has been the pro forma ratification of Parliamentary legislation since 1708? Dare he spark a constitutional crisis that could cost him his throne?
The play and this thoroughly researched and insightful book thus ask the question: What kind of king will Prince Charles likely be? Sally Bedell Smith has written a number of biographies of American celebrities such as the Clintons as well as of other British royals, including the queen and Princess Diana, Charles’s ill-starred first wife. She can be forgiven a tendency to flaunt her own personal access to the great and good. But in this profile, it is clear she got inside the circular barriers that protect the man and his position.
The Charles that emerges is, as the subtitle suggests, both a paradox and a creature of his passions. It is also apparent that he is not just a self-made personality, he has had to overcome an early family life that would have left lesser men stunted, weak and self-indulgent; something akin to his great uncle Edward VIII, aka the Duke of Windsor.
As he boy he was largely overlooked by his mother. Lonely, isolated by position, pudgy and dreamy, his elders worried that he might be a “slow developer.” Worse luck, he was taken in hand by his rigorous father Prince Phillip and great uncle Lord Mountbatten who subjected him to a youth of “toughening up” at schools and camps where self-discipline was confused with cold water baths and bullying. Dutifully, he went along scraping through, qualifying for various military career hurdles and, even worse luck, being nudged into marrying Diana, who denied him the affection and support he needed, while she courted the mythic celebrity of the fashion magazine glitterati.
“The Prince” is a life of self-rescue and self-definition. He now is married to his first love and has for the last 20 years carved out a respectable role as an advocate for reforms in many of the issues that vex us now and in the future. Will he challenge the power of Parliament when he reaches the throne? Do modern societies need stabilizing role models to guide us without diluting the essential freedom of self-government?
Stay tuned, the curtain is going up, at Windsor Castle and here in Washington, D.C.
• James Srodes’ latest book is “Spies In Palestine: Love Betrayal and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn” (Counterpoint).
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