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'Prince Charles' paints an affectingly human portrait

Veteran royals biographer Sally Bedell Smith worked on this book for years, interviewing dozens of court figures and talking many times with members of the royal family.

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Prince Charles:
The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life
By Sally Bedell Smith
Random House
624 pp.

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The United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II turns 91 in April and has been monarch since 1952, surpassing the record for length of reign previously held by her great-great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria. Elizabeth's eldest son, Prince Charles, turns 69 in November and has been heir since 1952, again a record for the longest time a British heir has waited for the throne. The Queen has vowed to serve her subjects for the whole of her life – no thought of abdicating, as her uncle did – and since her mother lived to be 101, that service might still have some years to go. Charles's father Prince Philip is currently 95 and still maintains a court schedule.

Given such Olympian numbers, it's little surprise that veteran royals biographer Sally Bedell Smith might title her vigorous, voluminous new book Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life. Prince Charles has lived for over 60 years in the weird shadow-world of royal succession, having been trained and conditioned since infancy for a job he can only have once his mother dies, and unlike the rest of us, when his mother dies he doesn't just receive a bequest and some keepsakes; he becomes supreme head of the government, armed services, and church of roughly 3 billion people. If his life isn't “improbable,” it would be hard to know whose would be.

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Smith worked on this book for years, interviewing dozens of court figures and talking many times with members of the royal family. She was granted even more such access than was Jonathan Dimbleby for his nonetheless great 1994 biography of Prince Charles, "The Prince of Wales," and something of his own stiffly-worded warning hangs over every page of Smith's book. “To write a book based on hearsay, gossip and yellowing cuttings,” Dimbleby wrote 25 years ago, “would have been to contribute to a familiar genre but, for that reason, self-defeating in purpose and, in any case, undesirable in prospect.”

Naturally Smith has much more of a story to tell, an extra quarter-century Prince Charles spent almost entirely in the public view. The Prince's mismatched Court-promoted marriage to Diana Spencer, for example, ended in divorce in 1996, and Diana died in a car crash in Paris in 1997, leaving Charles to raise their two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, by himself. In 2005 he married his lifelong friend Camilla Parker Bowles, and in the decade that followed, they each took on increasing amounts of the public-duty “portfolio” of the aging Queen, touring the world and raising enormous amounts of money for the Prince's dozens of charitable foundations, foremost of which has for 40 years been The Prince's Trust. Through it all, Prince Charles has mixed a very busy schedule of public appearances with the active pursuit of his key interests, ranging from his notably conservative views about architecture to his notably modern, even prescient views about environmentalism.

Smith writes about all this with a skill and sympathy she perfected in her 2012 biography of Charles's mother. She's frank about the Prince's personal flaws – his occasional instances of pettiness or petulance, for instance, or his nagging obsession with perceived slights. At one point when an adoring crowd of teenagers awaits the appearance of his teen-heartthrob sons in 1997, Smith paints him as irked: “It had been nearly twenty years since he could readily capture attention on his own. As the promising and vigorous young heir to the throne, he had been unexpectedly eclipsed by Diana, and now he once again found himself on the periphery – a persistent theme in his life.” Even as a man in his late 60s, he can still be aggravated when it seems as if his parents don't fully appreciate his hard work. It's an affectingly human portrait.

“Taking over from the longest-serving and most beloved monarch in British history was a singular challenge,” Smith writes, and it's a whopper of an understatement. Polls have consistently shown that although UK residents approve of Charles succeeding Elizabeth, they're hardly enthusiastic about the prospect, given the Prince's controversial stances and prickly relationship with the press. The Queen's popularity remains unshakable, in part because her personal reserve has made her all things to all people. For good or ill, Charles has never exhibited personal reserve; his accession would be a shock to a system that doesn't handle shocks particularly well.

Charles has spoken often of the need to “radically modernize” the monarchy on issues ranging from finance to social activism, and his well-informed but often peremptory letters to public officials over the decades have made him some enemies, in government and out of it. But Smith's book gives readers a prince who's earned both his friends and enemies the old-fashioned way, a hard-working and opinionated man of principle. When it comes to gaining a new king, regardless of his age at accession, a kingdom could do much, much worse.