Ok, so I’ve been finished with The Palace Papers for a while now, but had a lot of travel in May and so here we are, post-Jubilee, and back at it. Before we get into it, I wanted to flag the below from my last post on the book:
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.Palace Papers Part One
I still disagree, but in a different way. I would argue that I found the first half of Tina Brown’s latest installment by far more interesting than the second. Yes, the second half is what covers Kate and Meghan’s introduction into the family and all that ensued, but there wasn’t really anything I found particularly insightful or new. Robert Lacey’s book on the other hand, I loved. So, if what you want is more color on what happened between William and Harry, then go pick that up.
In contrast, Brown’s book is more focused on putting Kate and Meghan into context…which, given the tagline on this site I’m all for. For my purposes, however, I’m good. And for those of you that are following this closely, you’re probably good, too. What I will say, though, is that it’s helpful to sometimes hear what people see and takeaway when they’re not in the throes of this on a regular basis. Perspective, etc.
Ok, before I dig into this next part I’m going to go ahead and say that I like Camilla. I know that offends some people, and I know that there are many who still hold her responsible for the Waleses’ marital breakdown. I get that and I respect that there’s disagreement on the subject. My personal opinion is that all three – Charles, Diana, and Camilla – are/were decent people in a bad situation. Much like with the Cambridges and Sussexes, I criticize and praise in roughly equal measure (or at least when I deem necessary). So, you’ve been forewarned 🙂
The last real installment on Camilla comes from the years in-between Diana, Princess of Wales’s death in 1997 and her wedding to Charles in 2005. Per Brown, the narrative is essentially that Camilla’s game plan was never originally to marry Charles – neither in 1970s nor in the ’80s and early ’90s when they were both married to other people. For one, it was unrealistic given that up until the point Charles and Diana *did* divorce, it was unthinkable that they *could* divorce. For two, divorcing Andrew, as unhappy as he may well have made her, didn’t factor into Camilla’s long-term planning because they had long-established a pattern of unacknowledged mutual infidelity.
The tipping points came one after another. Once the taped conversation between Charles and Camilla (you *know* what I’m talking about) leaked, Andrew was less than pleased that their arrangement had been broadcast to the public. And once they divorced in 1995, Camilla’s financial situation changed against the backdrop of widespread public shaming for being the “other woman” against Diana’s much more sympathetic “wronged wife” persona.
Brown argues that Charles had long become a non-negotiable part of Camilla’s life because he was her only emotional support in an unhappy marriage. And what I will say on that is this: I have long argued that when it comes to Charles and Diana, there aren’t heroes and villains. They both had ugly moments and when you dig into it, it’s hard to not also feel empathy for both. If you can’t, then I suggest you give that some thinking. When you’re trapped in a bad situation and don’t see a way out, your behavior is borne out of desperation and is, unfortunately, pretty irrational. That desperation and irrationality manifested itself in very different ways for Charles and Diana, but it was present for them both.
I would argue, Camilla was in a similar situation. Charles, for better or for worse, was emotional and mental sustenance in a bad – or at the very least, unfulfilling – marriage. Was it selfish? Maybe. But Charles’s marriage was never Camilla’s responsibility and let’s be clear, had she bowed out, Charles and Diana were never going to ride off into the sunset and Charles (AND DIANA) were never going to remain faithful to one another. Two bad marriages, folks. And guess what, Charles and Camilla have now been happily married for 17 years. The only people who have a right to get out of bent out of shape over what happened at this point are their children, which, well, we’ll get there 🙂
Anywho, back to our timeline. Once both parties were divorced and post-Diana’s death in 1997 (though the wheels were likely in motion before the latter), marriage was really the only tenable way for Camilla to remain a permanent and respectable fixture in Charles’s life. The only thing more galling than a divorced king having a second wife was a divorced king with a long-term “companion” who floated around Buckingham Palace like Madame du Barry. In the end, Charles re-marrying as the only practical solution.
And you want to know why there isn’t much more Camilla fodder in this book? Because there hasn’t really been any drama. Charles and Camilla work. They are happy. Camilla has proved herself by – and this will come as a revelation to anyone who only plugged in during the last couple years – Quietly. Doing. The. Job. Camilla will never be the most popular member of the Royal Family, but she’s far more well-liked than she used to be and she’s highly respected by the members of press who cover her. Through the lens of history I think she will end up well-regarded.
And then there was Kate. Personally, I feel like Brown barely covered Kate in this book even though technically there is a chapter dedicated to her upbringing. I guess I feel like this: You know how when you watch The Crown, everyone’s favorite characters are the people around the Queen and never the Queen? It’s because even the writers of the show can’t really get their claws into Elizabeth II. We still don’t really know her personality or opinions, so in the absence of color we draw her as cold, regal, or painfully professional. She likes horses, she loved her husband, she’s too conflict-avoidant, she takes her job seriously….yeah, that’s not a personality. I trust she has one, but we’re not privy to it.
It’s an Elizabeth problem in The Crown and a Kate problem here. I would actually say Brown has a better handle on the Queen than the Duchess of Cambridge, which is interesting. Kate is basically described as a blessing handed down by the heavens on the House of Windsor (with a touch of irony, of course). She is beautiful, photogenic, a good wife, a good mother, and – most importantly – respectful of the monarchy. There are no skeletons in her closet, no scandals of her own making, and no visible angst. Almost everything is projection. Arguably, she is almost irritatingly perfect, which does in fact sometimes draw ire because there’s very little about her that can seen relatable.
Brown seems more interested at times into digging into Carole Middleton than adding flesh and blood to her daughter. Which brings me to one snapshot in Kate’s earlier years that Brown does touch upon, and which I don’t think I’ve ever raised here (though it’s possible I’ve just forgotten). When Kate graduated from Marlborough College in 2000 she had been accepted at Edinburgh University, but at the last minute she declined her spot, took a gap year, and applied to St. Andrews University – all after news broke that William would be matriculating there in the autumn of 2001.
The question has thus become: Did Kate change her university plans in the hopes of catching William’s attention (and, I suppose the logic follows, eventually marrying him)?
Biographers often lead you there and stop just short of saying a definitive yes, mainly because they can’t. We don’t know. Presumably only Kate can answer that question. If the answer is yes it certainly speaks to a steely determinism that feels a bit odd given the fact that they are currently – and happily – married. We now know that William and Kate likely encountered one another prior to University, so it’s not quite the same as Kate having a celebrity crush. But it’s still a bit strange, and it’s hard to imagine Kate’s parents signing off on such a seismic change of plans based on their teenage daughter liking a boy. (Unless of course you accept the narrative that Carole Middleton is a Mrs. Bennet-type figure trying to arrange socially ambitious marriages for her daughters.)
I’m agnostic on the subject. If this is the way it went down, I definitely find it odd and a bit off-putting. Then again, William and Kate are happy so I guess the proof is in the pudding? I also think it’s entirely possible – if not likelier – that other factors prompted Kate to change course and it’s all coincidental, if fortuitous. I will also say this: Given how Kate embarked on her royal life (which is to say, slowly and quietly), I don’t think she is a woman who was enthralled by the idea of becoming a “princess.” If the onset of her relationship with William had any strategy behind it, I do think it was based on him, not his title. And God knows, she had plenty of time to learn about the downsides to royal life before accepting his proposal.
I’d actually love to hear what you all think.
The most acidic commentary on Kate comes from her years post-graduation and pre-engagement, so 2005-2010. She was living in London, only occasionally working, and tabloids reported on her endlessly, though those “reports” were essentially just her walking to and from her Chelsea flat and various West London clubs. The overarching thesis on those years is that it wasn’t so much that Kate had trouble finding her professional path, it’s that finding a professional path at all came second to her in prioritizing her relationship with – and thus availability to – William. And I will admit, this aspect of Kate’s trajectory is the one that I find the hardest relate to.
We’ve seen a definite shift in Kate over the last couple years. Whether that has to do with the presence of Meghan on the scene for a while, her having completed her family, or simply comfort with the job – or some amalgam of all three – I don’t know, but it’s worth bearing in mind that for a long time there was a steady side eye at Kate’s work ethic and how seemingly retro she appeared in comparison to the experience most women her age live. That narrative was still extremely present when Meghan’s relationship with Harry truly took off in the public sphere in 2017, and it’s also worth remembering that there was a very real period of time when Meghan was met with excitement from the press because it was believed she would have a comfort with publicity and public life that Kate lacked. Meghan was applauded for her career and activism, as well as the speed with which she seemingly embraced wanting to double down on royal duties.
The sharp turnabout that happened over the course of 2018 and 2019 is all the more remarkable against that origin story.
The closest we get to a strong opinion from Brown on Kate before she became duchess is this:
“But Love and Strategy would be a good name for a Kate Middleton perfume. A Trollopian longing for social validation and an irrepressible desire to marry up cannot be overestimated even if it bubbled serenely below the surface.”
And yet, Kate is also one of the most successful brides since Mary of Teck married the future George V in 1893. So, if she had a master plan, then it’s only fair to note that it worked – for her, for William, and for the rest of the Royal Family.