Thank God they're finally getting hitched!

And Camilla is the perfect wife for Charles, with great qualifications for the job as top female royal after the queen.

By Catherine Bennett
Published February 11, 2005 3:49PM (EST)

The poet laureate will certainly put it better (just as soon as he can think of something to rhyme with marriage), but, generally speaking ... good. People who like Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles will be pleased. And people who think they are both ghastly must admit that their union possesses a certain, rather satisfying symmetry. The undecided may conclude that anything that has infuriated the thinker and moralist Anne Atkins must have something going for it. And consider the benefits. In just a few months, the most newsworthy aspect of this couple will no longer be news. The very last "will he, won't he" piece has been written. Ditto the ones about Camilla being snubbed, or groomed by the latest P.R., or pelted with bread rolls by supporters of the late princess.

This may even be one of the last times that you are invited to recall the future Duchess of Cornwall's first words to the Prince of Wales: "My great-grandmother and your great-great-grandfather were lovers. So how about it?" A little coarse, perhaps, as propositions go, and even fractionally incestuous, but it got Camilla her man. It is pleasant to think of him at Highgrove, bashfully lowering himself, somewhat creakily, to one knee and reminding her, "Remember what you said in 1972?" Although perhaps, when you're a prince, you don't have to kneel. Camilla isn't thought to be too picky about that sort of thing.

At least, not yet. According to her biographer Rebecca Tyrrel, school friends remembered Camilla bragging about her illustrious ancestor, the official mistress of King Edward VII, who defined her role thus: "My job is to curtsy first and then jump into bed." Once she has surpassed her ancestor's achievements, and become top female royal after the queen, our future duchess seems to be capable of becoming quite grand, quite quickly.

Which, again, would be good news for everyone. Royalists who were disappointed, not long ago, by photographs of the queen dining out of Tupperware next to a two-bar fire in a dismal room, which was last decorated some years before Camilla got Charles in her sights, will be delighted at the prospect of a proper, glittering, regal-looking court, full of servants and sycophants, with miles of new carpets and brand-new swagging by Robert Kime. (Republicans should just bide their time. Isn't shameless extravagance more promising, from their point of view, than the queen's obsessive, late-night extinguishing of electric lights?)

The scale of the couple's spending, during the furtive years of entertaining, long holidays and the titivation of Charles' ever-expanding collection of houses and castles, suggests that their official reign will see yet showier use of the Duchy of Cornwall's and taxpayers' millions. Which means that official interest in the royal finances -- conveniently, if temporarily displaced from the headlines by the current announcement -- will also be intense. Last week, a parliamentary committee was merciless in its inspection of accounts, which showed, among other things, that Camilla has acquired a gardener, a driver and two secretaries who must have little to do besides organize her party dresses.

But this may present its own challenges. A housekeeper who cleared up after visits from Parker Bowles told the Daily Mirror: "She's quite snooty, you know. Quite grand, and she doesn't tip. And I'm not terribly keen on her habits. After she's been staying, I find knickers all over the place." That was in the early '90s. By now, the knickers must be numberless. Possibly priceless. After organic farming and the perils of declining fish stock, one of the prince's chief interests seems to be decorating the fortunate Parker Bowles in sequins and jewels.

Still, if you want to run a royal family, there is little point in getting in some shy, frugal egalitarians to do the job. Camilla is already starting to look the part, in a formidable, Queen Maryish sort of way, and possesses, by way of further qualifications for the job, extensive experience with dogs, horses and domestic staff. She is also said to have a great love of jokes and an engaging wit, perfect for future quipping, although there is, as yet, scant evidence of drollery. Biographer Tyrrel, in an impressively detailed résumé of Parker Bowles' life and times, was unable to supply a single example. She did, however, provide useful insights into Camilla's relationship with the arts, quoting a friend of the couple who said: "She doesn't share many of his artistic tastes. She'll say at a Highgrove dinner, 'This isn't going to be one of those bloody musical evenings, is it?'"

In many respects, the prince seems to have chosen well. Camilla has no recorded interests, other than hunting, that are about to be banned. This will enable her to throw herself into her royal duties. She smokes, which is both legal and an icebreaker. If she is culture indifferent and unpretentious almost to a fault, then this could be a valuable corrective to the prince's exalted belief in his destiny, as a spiritual and cultural all-rounder, to lead by example, particularly where questions of taste are involved. Had Camilla been around earlier, there might have been no Poundbury.

There is speculation that the pragmatic Camilla may even restrain the prince in his wilder ambitions -- to advise doctors on cancer care, for instance, at the same time as he represents all faiths, sets his face against nanotechnology and pronounces on the sacred in a secular age. With luck, she might even stop his whining. But it's unlikely. One of the most important services she provides, as illustrated in the excruciating but unforgettable Camillagate tape recorded in 1989, is to laugh at the prince's jokes, sympathize with his travails and tell him how marvelous, brilliant and unappreciated he is. "An awfully good brain lurking there, isn't there?" she says. "I do love you and I'm so proud of you." She is even heard asking him about his next speech ("A 'Business in the Community' one," he replies), and nagging him, fondly, to let her have a copy of his latest homily: "I would like it."

It would obviously be a relief for Charles and Camilla if their engagement put an end to allusions to this shabbily obtained transcript. But their engagement, and with it the curious prospect of these two late-middle-aged individuals repeating vows designed for the young, only remind anyone who has read the transcript of the lustful exchanges between a pair who, even then, had already known each other for more than 15 years. When it was first published, the most arresting thing about this transcript (after the business with the tampon) was the practiced coolness of their strategies to outwit Diana, Camilla's children, and her husband -- "It." Today, their mutual commitment comes through more clearly, along with the smut and selfishness.

For admirers of Diana, the established happiness of these plotters, who manipulated and duped and mocked a miserable girl, will be hard to stomach. Camilla even went to inspect Diana for suitability, prior to the poor girl's engagement. But revelations of the princess' enterprising personal life seem to have worn many of her supporters into jaded submission. So much so that the recent broadcast of tapes made by her voice coach, including the princess' own avowal of yet another grand passion, passed almost without comment. No one could be bothered.

The passing of time has earned Charles and Camilla points for doggedness and their own particular kind of constancy, as well as diminishing popular resistance. It has even helped Camilla, whose extreme homeliness, always one of the most appealing things about her, can only be enhanced by the years. Equally, you can't help but have a soft spot for a prince who prefers an ugly sister to Cinderella.

Not that this makes Charles any less irritating. The great disadvantage of his second marriage, when it brings years of nervous skulking to an end, is likely to be a sudden surge in princely self-esteem, followed by ever more outrageous attempts to interfere in public life. The Blairs, in particular, should watch out for the creation of a rival, self-consciously intellectual Caroline court, offering far better hospitality than their own, whose members put the future king and defender of faiths up to ever more audacious raids on political territory. Before long even Camilla, groomed to a high level of graciousness and trailed by a retinue of dressers and ladies in waiting, might be delivering lectures on spirituality in interior decoration, the evils of GM tobacco, finding the sacred through service or the challenge of combining her roles as mother, charity patron and royal consort. Whatever this engagement means to everyone else, it really doesn't look good for the first couple. As was.

Catherine Bennett

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