On Writing about the Royals (and Treating them as Humans)
For two years, I shadowed him, interacted with him, enjoyed the odd walk with him and an even odder dinner. He elbowed his way into my waking thoughts and invaded my dreams. “I can’t wait to stop thinking about you,” I once exclaimed, to his, and my, surprise. Finally, with publication of my book, came closure, or so I believed. Now, as a new edition hits the headlines and the shelves, Prince Charles is back in my life, and I have mixed feelings about it.
Relationships between biographers and living subjects tend to be complicated. Any author who approaches the task with settled conclusions or a single animating emotion is going to make a hash of it, whether that emotion is adoration or seething hatred (and royal biography appears more susceptible to these extremes than other categories). Ideally a writer should keep a critical distance, but unless you’re hacking out a potboiler, that’s not the same thing as remaining disengaged. To be a biographer is to be an obsessive.
While researching my book, I hoovered up details about Charles. When I was with him, I took endless photographs of his hands, of those famous ears, of his shoes. The images were intended as aides-memoires, but they also tell stories. His favourite Oxfords, for example, have seen half a century of service, buffed and polished to a sheen that speaks both to their owner’s life in the public eye and his dependence on valets. He often clasps his hands behind his back lest, given their freedom, they accidentally semaphore what he’s thinking.
Members of his inner circle tell me that I correctly divined many of his thought processes despite the barriers erected by aides and layers of official secrecy. Who knows if he’d agree with this assessment—I doubt he’s read the book—but if a biography is challenged by its subject, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Few people know themselves as well as they imagine.
This goes for biographers too—and that matters because who we are determines what we write. In updating my biography of Charles, originally published in 2015, it seemed important not only to document the new and seismic upheavals roiling the royals—the worst self-inflicted, others external—but also to be honest about my own altered perspectives.
To observers, Charles and I had always looked an unlikely pairing, but for me he was a natural subject, fascinatingly strange, his influence by turns benign and unsettling, and far greater than is widely understood. As king, he will wield more formal powers. The tentacles of the Crown stretch far and deep. Unwinding them would risk exacerbating systemic vulnerabilities that anti-monarchists have a habit of minimising. Even so, if I hadn’t already harboured republican tendencies, recent years would have planted them. I co-founded the Women’s Equality Party a month after the biography came out and now spend a good portion of my time working to highlight and dismantle the sorts of inequalities embodied, to the point of absurdity, by hereditary monarchy. Accidents of birth should not consign a vast majority to precarity nor grant those in possession of particular genes or chromosomes dominion over the rest of us.
Intensely personal events inform my current thinking too—and counsel caution, not in the overseas Realms, nor all the countries of the (dis)United Kingdom, but specifically within the ambit of Westminster politics. Since the book first appeared, I have lost, in quick succession, far too many people close to me, including, at the start of the pandemic, my stepfather and, just a month later, Andy, my husband and partner of three decades. Things that appear solid–whether institutions or those we love—disappear in a heartbeat. Transformations can be convulsive and are apt to hit the most vulnerable hardest. With a government more intent on shredding rights than tackling the crises it has created or fostered, the coming end of the Elizabethan era looks less like an opportunity for an orderly move to a republic than a moment populism threatens to exploit.
Polarisation serves the populist agenda. Debate has given way to hair-trigger brawling with the unlikeliest of topics capable of inspiring existential conflict. The royals are by no means immune. Warring hashtags on social media have co-opted the Sussexes—Meghan and Harry—and the Cambridges—Kate and William—as champions in culture wars, casting the former as avatars of progress and the latter as noble protectors of tradition. Neither categorisation is fully accurate. In such an inflamed context, it feels ever more important for those of us charting living history to insist on complexity and nuance—and never to forget the humanity of our subjects.
Not everyone agrees. During my initial research for the book, I travelled to speak at a festival and found myself sharing the journey with US biographer Michael Wolff. Our conversation swiftly turned combative when I observed that the question of privacy is especially tricky with respect to royals, who are born as the inmates of a human zoo and, the Queen excepted, without pre-defined purpose apart from modelling supposed ideals of family and service. Nonsense, Wolff said. Public figures, whether or not they choose their prominence, forfeit all entitlement to privacy or empathy.
I still take issue with this, but it’s a lot easier to argue that Princes William and Harry should be able to keep their personal lives shielded from the public gaze than to make the same plea for their uncle Andrew. Similarly, although I understand Charles’s reckless fundraising for his charities to be largely driven by good intentions, that doesn’t justify the lack of governance or sense brought to bear on this endeavour or the possible legitimisation of illegitimate funds. In updating the book, I revisited a small 2013 dinner that Charles and Camilla hosted for donors and prospects. Several guests have subsequently featured in stories of scandals ranging from money-laundering and murder to Boris Johnson’s infamous Downing Street refurbishment. While not implicating the guests or hosts in any of these misdemeanours, the stories highlight the risks of tin-rattling among the super-rich.
There’s good material on Charles’s fundraising in another biography of the heir to the throne, by Tom Bower, an author known for a Wolffish approach to his subjects. At its best, this approach produces important revelations about the biographee. In its less successful forms, it reveals more about the biographer than subject. An example of the latter is another book by Bower, Revenge, about Meghan and Harry’s departure from royal ranks. Bower’s visceral dislike of Meghan—in an interview earlier this year he called her a “brazen hussy”—strips his account of context, such as the realities of structural racism and misogyny, and the messy ambiguities that are a hallmark of all human life, even in palaces.
Bower could lob a similar criticism at me—that my “woke” values inform my analysis. I plead guilty, but not, I hope, to the extent of ignoring inconvenient evidence. My central purpose is to discover and inform and to give readers the tools to make their own judgments. Charles and the institution he is set to lead are too influential to ignore and too interesting to wish to do so. Even so, I’m already looking forward to thinking about him less.
Words and photos © Catherine Mayer apart from photo of Prince Charles and Catherine Mayer © Paul Burns Photography
The new paperback edition of Charles: The Heart of a King, published by WH Allen/Penguin, is available now.