Back in 2007, Tina Brown, former editor-in-chief of Tatler, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker, wrote what I consider to be the definitive biography on Diana, Princess of Wales. The Palace Papers, released on Tuesday, is essentially its sequel. It picks up where Diana’s life ended, in the late 90s, but it spends the first few chapters strategically weaving around to cover the Diana-adjacent figures and relationships that are informing the current House of Windsor.
So far, I’m only about 150 pages in, but I would say the focus of the attention thus far is on capturing the broad trajectories, relationships, and emotional realities of two rather important royal women today: Queen Elizabeth and her daughter-in-law, The Duchess of Cornwall. There’s also a solid dash of Princess Margaret, the Queen’s late sister, and The Earl and Countess of Wessex (Edward and Sophie). I don’t have a precise agenda for how I’m going to cover this book, but for the purposes of this post, I want to capture the quotes and tidbits that I’ve found the most informative.
Before I do, I want to note that I saw an annoying review of this book before I started reading that refers to these first chapters as dull and meandering – that the book doesn’t really pick up until Meghan comes on the scene. This book wasn’t meant for that reader and I vehemently disagree. Understanding Camilla’s path from The Prince of Wales’s girlfriend, pre- and post-marriage, to his wife is key to understanding how William and Harry approach both their father and their own marriages. Similarly, understanding the Queen’s relationship to her children, husband, mother, and sister sheds light on how she is handling Harry. Now, for many of us, the broad strokes – and even details – of all of this aren’t new, but Brown is insightful and has a talent for connecting dots with her subjects. Personally, I’m ingesting royal news and history every day and I’ve felt like this book has already been clarifying, or at least, a good reminder of certain points.
So, with that, some highlights:
“If Margaret acted out all her life, she never disrespected her elder sister’s sovereignty. Her rebellions did not subvert the unassailable authority of the Crown.” (Compare that to Harry.)
On Charles’s engagement to Diana in 1981: “We’re extremely relieved – but [Camilla] has no intention of giving him up.”
“Margaret was the only person on the planet who always knew Elizabeth as a peer, exchanging gossip, complaining about their mother, understanding the world through the same peculiar royal prism.” (Hints of William and Harry here)
“[Margaret] felt her sister and mother weren’t offended enough by [her ex-husband] Tony’s infidelities simply because, unlike hers with Roddy, he’d managed to keep them quiet … [Tony] succeeded in framing Margaret to the public as the guilty party even though he’d been sexually faithless since day one.”
“[Margaret] told Charles she was going to continue her association with Diana after they separated, a resolve that went out the window after Diana’s Martin Bashir interview, which Margaret considered rank disloyalty to the Queen.”
Princess Margaret & the Queen Mother
“On the agonizing night that Margaret repudiated the love of her life, the Queen Mother went off to an evening engagement, says Hugo Vickers, ‘unaware or unconcerned that her daughter would be having dinner alone on a tray.’”
“At the height of the Peter Townsend drama, tension between became so bad that Margaret threw a book at her mother’s head.”
“Stuck with each other, their most challenging years together followed the Queen’s coronation.”
Anne, who briefly dated Andrew Parker Bowles, Camilla’s first husband, while they were broken up was “in pieces” when Andrew and Camilla married in 1973. Apparently, her engagement not longer after to her first husband, Mark Phillips, was in reaction to it. A slightly different narrative to that which audiences saw play out on The Crown. (Obviously we know that The Crown is fiction, but it’s the context some are most familiar with.)
The Duchess of Cornwall
“There was no stately home like Althorp in the Shand picture. But Diana’s family was so fractured and antagonistic, she never forged particularly deep roots in aristocratic country life. Fourteen years older than Diana, Camilla was far more adjusted to royal circles. Generationally as well as socially, she was linked to multiple friends and houses that formed the texture of Prince Charles’s world … Indeed, Camilla was so perfectly trained for life with the heir to the throne, in contrast to the abjectly unprepared Diana, that it feels baffling today that was ever considered unsuitable.”
Charles & Camilla
“In a way, [Camilla] subsumed the role played in Charles’s life by the Queen Mother, the woman who always made him the center of her world, the buttery scone to his mother’s steamed broccoli.”
“Michael Shea told me that Princess Anne said that sometime after the birth of Harry [in 1984], the three royal siblings [Anne, Andrew, and Edward] were thinking of writing to Charles, protesting his behavior.”
“Concern for how badly Charles’s reputation was shredded by Diana’s manipulation of the press made Camilla feel she was his only champion. Andrew didn’t need her, but Charles did.”
Camilla & Andrew Parker Bowles
“It’s also doubtful whether Camilla would have accepted a proposal from Charles [in the 1970s] anyway. For seven years, she remained in headlong pursuit of the sexier, more dangerous Parker Bowles. Maddeningly, Andrew’s style was to pick her up and drop her at will.”
Not new, but worth repeating: Camilla’s engagement to Andrew Parker Bowles was brought about by their parents, who simply announced it to a newspaper, forcing his hand.
“Across the distance of time, Andrew Parker Bowles has the whiff of the Jane Austen character George Wickham, the good-looking militia officer in Pride & Prejudice who later turns out to be an unreliable libertine – except Camilla Shand, unlike Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, always knew Andrew’s weakness for other women.”
“A woman [Andrew] never won over was Rosalind Shand [Camilla’s mother]. She found him annoyingly preoccupied with his social connections and believed he was never going to stop his philandering.”
“’When I was with Andrew,’ Lady Caroline Percy said, ‘[Camilla] would come up to me at parties and ask me what I was doing with her boyfriend. She was always doing this to girls at parties. But I got fed up with it and said to her, ‘You can have him back when I’ve finished with him.’”
“Camilla never knew where her husband was or with whom during the week. When he wasn’t posted abroad, he was flagrantly playing the field in London in a flat he shared with his brother-in-law.”
“Deftly, Camilla wove the Prince of Wales into her married life with Andrew. There is a sense that she was playing her own careful double game, keeping alive the sexual charge with Charles as a power play against her husband.” (I’ve discussed this point in the past. While Andrew’s behavior may not exonerate Camilla in your mind, it’s important context to understand the extent to which Camilla was the Diana of her own marriage, except Andrew’s infidelities were random and numerous. Charles’s relationship with Camilla was obviously emotionally charged.)
Camilla & her children
“Laura, especially, felt protective of her father. She refused to give her mother the message when the Prince called to speak to her. Laura reportedly used to pick up an extension when they talked and would shout down the receiver, ‘Why don’t you stop calling Mummy and leave our family alone.’”
The Queen & Charles
“Her problems with Charles went deeper than Camilla. The Dimbleby book that aired her son’s feeling that she was an emotionally remote mother cut deep, probably because she knew there was some truth to it.”
“When [the Queen] had the chance to be with her baby son, she had chosen not to be … She missed his second and third Christmases and his third birthday.”
“The sorry truth was that Charles, in his material character, just wasn’t the kind of person the Queen admired. ‘Charles is absolutely desperate for his mother’s approval and knows he’ll never really get it,’ a Highgrove regular said. ‘He’s the wrong sort of person for her – too needy, too vulnerable, too emotional, too complicated, too self-centered, the sort of person she can’t bear. Arts, charitable causes that aren’t wrapped up in a rigid sense of duty – it’s all anathema to her.’”
Charles & the Media
“A major part of [Mark] Bolland’s job was supposed to be wooing and spinning the Daily Mail, which had become Britain’s most powerful tabloid under the leadership of the buccaneering editor David English. English told Bolland, ‘One of your jobs is to teach the Prince of Wales that we were never against him, we were just for Diana … It was a commercial decision. Diana sells newspapers. Charles doesn’t. If he does something that sells newspapers, then we will back him.”
He regarded the lowering of the Union Jack at Buckingham Palace for Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 to be a “great humiliation.”
The Queen and Prince Philip
“Despite the imbalance in their private life, they adhered to traditional gender roles. As one of her friends summarized it to me, her ‘template for womanliness was her mother, and her template for being sovereign was her father: He ran the shooting. She brought the lunch.’”
“The Queen wanted to please Philip, too. She encouraged any activity that made her husband feel truly autonomous.”
“A former member of the Queen’s staff told me that, in his nineties, Philip asked, ‘Do you want some marriage advice? Spend enough time apart, and make sure you don’t have all the same interests.’”
There is additional detail about rumors of Philip’s infidelities that toes the same line most biographies do – it almost certainly happened, but everyone is going to equivocate out of respect for the time being.
The Queen & the Spencer Family
“Even the Queen found it hard to rise above [Earl Spencer’s eulogy at Diana’s funeral]. Nearly seven years later at the opening of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, she tossed a gibe at Earl Spencer: ‘I hope you feel satisfied.’” (This anecdote has been around a while.)
“The Spencers were kingmakers and schemers. The men were bad-tempered and choleric, and the women were said to be, in the parlance of upper-class misogyny, ‘out of control.’”
The Earl of Wessex (Prince Edward)
“A friend of Edward’s, the suave New York-based public relations advisor Peter Brown, told me, ‘I once said to him when were at home the two of us, “Well, Edward, who’s the favorite with your mother?” And there was this pause. “Well, I am the baby,” he said.’”
“The Queen was icily displeased by Edward’s decision [to quite the Marines], which she saw as a dereliction of duty, but Prince Philip was unexpectedly supportive … He wanted him to do something perhaps even worse, as far as the arts-loving Edward concerned: become an accountant.”
The Countess of Wessex (Sophie)
“You wouldn’t pick her out of a crowd.” – the Queen on meeting Sophie as Edward’s girlfriend
“The Fake Sheikh required fast action. As usual, Her Majesty turned to Philip to help solve an issue that would continue to haunt the Windsors for the next two decades: How are the spare royal children supposed to combine privilege with a profession and not compromise the integrity (and dignity) of the Crown? In a conference with Edward and Sophie at Windsor, Philip was clear. It was *not* possible. You are in or you are out.” (That’s called foreshadowing 😉)
So, why these quotes and this format? Before we enter the “juicy” stuff (i.e. the Cambridge and Sussex drama) I think it’s important to level set on the cast of characters as William and Harry entered adulthood. Monarchy, like so much in Britain, is based on slow evolution in reaction to precedent and these are the people who are making decisions for the younger generation – their experiences with media, hierarchy, marriage, and supporting the monarch are all vital to understanding how everyone is bouncing off one another today.
Again, TBD on format as I dig further in to this book, but this offers some groundwork and a few solid Tina Brown-isms.