Lifestyle

Charles and Camilla: Their love story was all too human

If there are any lingering doubts as to King Charles III’s suitability for the throne, they might be traceable to a 1981 television interview celebrating his engagement to Diana Spencer.

A journalist asked if the couple were in love. “Of course,” replied a visibly affronted Diana, 19, while — oh God — her brand-new fiance smirked toothily at the camera. “Whatever ‘in love’ means,” he said. This was the answer of a cad, or maybe of a freshman drowning in the bong water of his Philosophy 101 class, except that Charles was, at the time, 32 years old.

More importantly, this was the not-very-bright rumination of someone you could hardly trust to be a pillar of international diplomacy, not to mention interpersonal tact. What kind of newly engaged man doesn’t realize that there is only one acceptable answer to, Do you love your fiancee? A feckless prince gives this answer. A savvy sovereign does not, and this is the moment some royal watchers began wondering whether the crown should just skip a generation.

The issue, of course, was that Charles knew what it meant to be in love, he just happened to feel it for a different person: a no-frills horse lover named Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he first met at a polo match in the 1970s and who allegedly reeled him in with this banger of a line: “My great-grandmother was the mistress of your great-great-grandfather. I feel we have something in common.”

But she, too, married someone else, and in doing so launched a love triangle from hell.

Perspective: Queen Elizabeth II did her job on the throne

Shortly before Diana’s wedding to Charles, the princess-to-be found engraved jewelry he’d purchased for Camilla. Years later, the prince was caught in a recorded phone call fantasizing about being reincarnated as one of Camilla’s tampons. “There were three of us in the marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” Diana once said in an interview. Even after their divorce in 1996, and Diana’s heartbreaking death in 1997, and Charles’s lengthy wait to formalize his relationship with Camilla — the couple didn’t marry until 2005 — Charles’s new wife would always be seen as his old mistress.

When Queen Elizabeth II died last week and Charles ascended to the throne, the development showed how little some of us had moved beyond the love triangle. “To all the side chicks: Just Believe,” one popular meme read in all-caps lettering below a slightly sinister-looking picture of Camilla wearing a tiara.

The idea was that she had bided her time, laid in wait, stuck it out, and now she had the title (“queen consort”) and the guy, even if the guy was some drip whose idea of sexy talk involved feminine hygiene products. Britain is only entangled in this particular royal bloodline because eight decades ago King Edward VIII abdicated the throne. He wanted to marry a divorced American, and when forced to choose between the crown and love he chose love. And now here we have King Charles III, a divorced man who married a divorced woman after their decades-long affair, and somehow he and his queen got to choose it all.

Perspective: Rest in peace, Prince Philip, original Wife Guy

One imagines that public opinion of Camilla might have been different if Diana had lived, if she too had been given the chance to remarry, if she had settled into a middle-aged life of fundraising galas or guest-judging appearances on “Britain’s Got Talent.” Instead she is forever 36, winsome and deeply, deeply wronged.

I’d just entered high school when Diana died. I woke after a friend’s birthday sleepover to the news. The rest of the morning devolved into six or seven dramatic teenage girls glued to the television, wondering whether Prince William would be okay and whether he needed six or seven dramatic teenage girls to comfort him. The whole thing was Charles’s fault. We knew it even then. Charles and Camilla, breaking the heart of the people’s princess, leaving her to fend for herself against the salivating paparazzi.

After Elizabeth died, I went back and watched some old footage of Diana and Charles, including that original 1981 television interview, which was taped even before I was born. It was stunning to realize that Charles — the cunning older man in my recollection of events — was, in that interview, younger than I am now.

“Whatever ‘in love’ means,” he’d said. In retrospect, maybe this youngish man was still figuring it out. He was old enough to know better, sure, but plenty of 32-year-olds don’t know better. And now, well, he’s unmistakably aged. Saggy-eyed, hair thinning and fully white. The crown didn’t skip a generation, but at 73, Charles is already older than most monarchs ever were.

The power of the British monarchy is not in the way it governs — for all intents and purposes it doesn’t — but in its stories. What mythology can it give us? What archetypes? What happily-ever-afters? With his romantic life, Charles always seemed like he’d botched his only real duty: to give us a damn fairy tale.

But as I’ve watched him this week, him and Camilla, addressing Parliament and greeting well-wishers and arriving at palaces, his whole narrative has started to take a different kind of shape. Picture it as a Nancy Meyers movie. Picture something with fabulous scenery and post-menopausal ennui. A famous, wealthy boy meets dowdy, no-frills girl. When he leaves to join the Navy, she marries someone else, and so eventually he does too, someone younger and prettier, and by all traditional measures a better match.

Years pass: children, divorces, death. Finally, with the blessings of his equally wealthy and famous sons, the famous, wealthy man reconnects with the dowdy girl and asks her to marry him. He’d never stopped loving her, you see. No matter how much grief or embarrassment it caused him, or how much he was supposed to instead want the pretty, young princess that the world wanted him to want. He’d pined after the dowdy girl for decades.

Who knows whether Charles will be a “good king,” whatever that means. As a young husband, he was certainly no prince. But if Nancy Meyers made this movie, you’d watch it. In the world of modern fairy tales, you’d know which love story you were supposed to root for.

correction

An earlier version of this story said that King Edward VII abdicated the throne. It was actually King Edward VIII. The story has been corrected.

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