Book Review - King Charles III
✦ For release just in time for the coronation on Saturday May 6 and as a gift for Mother’s Day on Sunday May 14: Susie Boswell previews a fascinating new profile of Charles, a compelling insight to the man and his motivations.
Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know - and then some, thanks Harry - about the British royal family…
Easter Saturday just passed, the 9th of April, marked two years since the death at 99 of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II. In another milestone, Saturday May 6 sees the coronation at Westminster Abbey of their son, King Charles III, in his 75th year.
As a prelude, four days earlier, a new book is published: King Charles III, subtitled Our King: The Man and the Monarch Revealed… but it’s not only Charles who's revealed in this frankly amazing volume.
Prince Philip… with a paramour? A romantic attachment? Girl friend, or girlfriend? To his - very - dying day! And with the Queen's knowledge and aid.
The book’s author, Robert Jobson, “the godfather of royal reporting”, has covered the royals on Fleet Street for more than 30 years, is the author of numerous books about the family, including Charles’ first wife, Diana, and is exceptionally well acquainted with the new king. (He’s also the royal correspondent for Sunrise, seen regularly on Australia’s Channel 7). He has been in Charles’ close presence thousands of times and travelled widely and chatted with him exclusively one-on-one.
His “sources”, his “a friend of the Prince” and similar referees are as transparent as those of any journalist aiming to be at the horse’s mouth but also to preserve the anonymity, but also patronage, of the “source”. To achieve various scoops over the years - such as his world first, Charles and Camilla's engagement - the author has no doubt needed to temper his thirst for breaking news with a degree of compromise with the “source”, or the source's mouthpiece. To be willing to bend a little, or else be frozen out.
So it wouldn’t be unusual to expect Jobson to produce a hagiography. Indeed, Prince Harry dubs the author (in his own essentially ghost-written book, Spare) “Pa’s hack”. Yet Jobson records a hefty number of Charles’ known sins, as well as offering his own not always flattering character assessments of the both public, and private, man.
In his book published in Australia in coronation week, he tells the story of Prince Philip's dying days. The Queen, so concerned at her husband's lack of interest in life, contacted his “long term companion, Penny, Countess Mountbatten” (close in age to Princess Anne) “and asked her to join him at [Windsor] Castle”.
Penny, Jobson writes, enjoyed a “highly personal” relationship with the duke spanning many years and was such a part of royal life staff nicknamed her “And Also”, because Philip, on dictating guest lists for royal events, habitually added “and also Penny”. The Queen, Jobson claims, was irritated by talk of her husband’s “flirtations” but… hoped Penny’s presence would help him regain his zest for life.
Certainly, the Countess is an attractive woman and, it seems, high-spirited and fearless. Although her husband inherited the ownership of their majestic mansion and estate, the couple separated following the Earl’s flight with another woman to the Bahamas. On his return, his wife confined him to live in a converted barn on the grounds. The Countess - who has long moved in the intimate inner royal circle - remains popular at the new King’s court, Jobson adds.
Season 5 of the TV series The Crown, released shortly before last Christmas and the first season to be aired following the death of both Philip and the Queen, dipped its toe tentatively in this particular water with a somewhat clouded reference to the extent of Philip and Penny’s rumoured liaison (the role of Penny played by Natascha McElhone, mistress of Hotel Portofino). TV’s “Queen” snarls when Philip admits he’s had to seek “companionship” elsewhere.
But then there’s William, Goody Two-Shoes Wills. Jobson paints a picture of the heir to the throne who’s failed to inherit the intellectual rigour of his father’s side of the family but has instead (along with Harry) inherited his mother’s bad temper. The son had once spoken so “forcefully”- read “rudely”- to his father that it left Charles shaken, Jobson writes. A profile emerges of an often-petulant William, on pretty petty issues.
Charles aims to spend as much time as possible with William and Catherine’s children, for example with George in the garden of his home, Highgrove. He refurbished a tree house once enjoyed by William and Harry for George to enjoy. William, as thin-skinned as Harry perhaps, felt his father was using George’s popularity in what could be seen as a PR exercise - which baffled Charles, as the thought had not even occurred to him.
When Charles added an expensive cubby house-style furnished shepherd’s hut in a wildflower meadow for George, then two, William was annoyed the fact became public. He even complained if photos of Charles appeared with a child in the background, without being “cleared” by William first. “He can be a control freak”, according to a royal household source. Another is quoted: “He can be difficult. He’s a driven person and that can make him impatient. He does not possess the intellectual capability or patience of his father. It can make him short-tempered when dealing with his father”. “He lacks his father’s charm, too,” said another.
Charles, staff explained, has a temper if he’s frustrated but it flares and is forgotten in an instant. With William it’s rarely forgotten. And: his default position is always: “It’s difficult ...” The pair has had fearsome arguments over the preservation of artefacts in royal collections when it was judged, in an elaborate euphemism, that William “should have chosen his words more carefully” in his frank exchange of views. Many who know William’s “stubborn streak” believe he will do what he wants when he becomes king, despite his father’s position.
And, moreover, there is the Queen's own secret, to be hidden from the public at all costs: in her final year and months, her inability to get around except by wheelchair. How, despite chronic mobility issues and the agony of advancing myeloma, she would struggle to appear standing upright – but only after arriving in the chair just inside the Buckingham Palace balcony doors, or the doors to the room of her audience with the new British PM – then being helped with her stick to make a brief appearance before being returned, out of sight, to the chair.
Much of the book’s appeal emerges in reading between the lines. Jobson is proficient at the British art of oblique understatement. One message above all that pervades the book - even as its subject is Charles - is the Queen’s immense sadness in her final days, despite her lifetime of diligent service, caused by the actions of her grandson Harry. And then there is Charles' own despair and heartache over his second son. And a revelation of Harry’s racist behaviour, albeit as a youngster.
The book’s other not-so-apparent aspect is its deceptively simple narrative: Jobson uses the dates of events as the basis of relating each stage in his history of Charles' life and of those around him, to tell his story, and in doing so conveys the continuum of Charles' journey from birth to the throne in a flowing form, as if reading from the pages of a diary… by contrast with the episodic outbursts of “news”, good and ill, that are the usual way the public learns of royal developments via the media.
There is much to be impressed by in what we learn of Charles in this new release. Among his altruistic recent acts, we’re reminded, was his donation of 1 billion pounds to the UK Treasury, derived from wind farm projects on his Crown lands. The simple cover photo of Charles (only credited in small type at the bottom of the back cover) is remarkable for its portrayal of a venerable chap, his face a mixture of emotions – perhaps puzzled (at Harry?), perhaps sad (at the loss of his parents?), perhaps apprehensive, wondering as his coronation day arrives what he can achieve with such an inevitably and comparatively short time left to him on the throne.
King Charles III by Robert Jobson. Allen & Unwin. May 2 2023. RRP $34.99
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