- - Wednesday, March 11, 2015


By Catherine Mayer

Henry Holt, $28, 258 pages, illustrated

Time magazine journalist Catherine Mayer is an experienced observer and chronicler of Britain’s royal family. In the course of several cover stories on Queen Elizabeth II and her family, she has traveled with and — to the extent that any journalist can — interacted with them. But for this book, she had to walk a tightrope in order to gain sufficient access to the enigmatic and unpredictable heir to the throne, while still maintaining her objectivity and, consequently, her all-important credibility. She has managed this extremely difficult feat with consummate skill and grace, producing far and away the most rounded, revealing, informed and insightful portrait we have yet had of the Prince of Wales.

We are light-years away here from the dueling ventriloquist-like his and hers 1990s biographies of the estranged Prince and Princess of Wales. Still, perhaps necessarily for this book to have the support of its subject, poor Princess Diana does not come off well: Charles may maintain an appropriate silence about her, but those around him martyr her anew, her reputation shredded with death by myriad cuts. Conversely, his current consort, Camilla, is praised to the skies by all and sundry and appears to be the apple of her adoring husband’s eye. Ms. Mayer is adept at puncturing myths, canards and even actual faux-pas put about over the years about the prince, although sometimes her explanations and excuses can be worse than what they are replacing.

This books shows us the Prince of Wales in all sorts of situations, public and, if not truly private, well then, semi-private anyway. We see the way he drives himself and those around him to exhaustion carrying out his duties. We see him endlessly trying to put people at their ease and sometimes even succeeding. Then there are the oft-repeated jokes and attempts at self-deprecation, which too often fall flat. We get to experience (vicariously anyway) why he earned the sobriquet “prince of wails” and are treated to an all-too-familiar litany of grievances and moaning about the difficulties of his life. But this is a man who complains about lack of intimacy, yet insists that those who work closely for and with him and even his closest friends always call him sir. And one who, perhaps deliberately, fosters such a climate of sometimes poisonous competitiveness and perennial exhaustion that his London residence Clarence House has been nicknamed “‘Wolf Hall,’ in reference to the treacherous and opportunistic world depicted by Hilary Mantel in her fictionalized account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII.”

Despite Ms. Mayer’s jumping through all the required royal hoops and scrupulously abiding by the complicated rules governing what was and was not on the record, her book was not particularly well-received by those at Clarence House, who sought to distance themselves from it — or at least some of its contents. Because of this and some of the more surprising revelations seized upon by the tabloids on its British publication, you might well have concluded that it was nothing less than a hatchet job.

But on actually reading it, the overall impression is of a profound sympathy and desire to understand the Prince of Wales, the man, his conduct so far, and his future role as king. It has to be said, though, that, despite Ms. Mayer’s best efforts, he comes across as almost impossible to like, admire or even respect. He has a singular capacity to make folks (and readers) cringe, to put his foot in his mouth, to say or do just the wrong thing; and even when he is in a situation which you’d think might automatically induce sympathy, somehow to forfeit it. His ideas are obviously sincere, but they are half-baked and, in essence, little more than the woolly-headed environmentalism, cultural relativism and other fashionable nostrums you would expect to find in overprivileged limousine liberals. Even if you think he is personally entitled to such notions, his habit of burdening government ministers with these handwritten notes known as “black spiders” — something he does with a peculiarly obnoxious arrogance covered with the thinnest veneer of diffidence and false humility — at the very least verges on the inappropriate.

If he were to continue making his opinions known after becoming king, which this book leaves no doubt is his firm intention, would he be acting in a manner befitting a constitutional monarch? Whether or not this was Ms. Mayer’s intention, her superbly informed portrait of the Prince of Wales makes one tremble for the day he assumes the throne from his mother, with her impeccable record of judiciousness and silent, enigmatic dignity. Even if you admire his views, the vehemence with which he pushes them and his total disregard for convention and boundaries make him seem the quintessence of what is not wanted in a functioning, credible constitutional monarchy. Ms. Mayer is too good a writer not to know just what she is doing here, and so the deeply troubling picture appearing between the cracks of an ostensibly favorable portrait hits home with the terrifying force of veracity.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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