The psychotherapist Esther Perel has a saying for people who seek her advice on questions of infidelity: “The victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage.” Her point is not to minimise unfaithfulness, but rather to acknowledge that there are multiple ways a relationship can break down, sometimes due to reasons beyond the control of either partner, and that adultery can often be as much a symptom of underlying problems as a cause.
I doubt this is a widespread view; even in the age of “ethical non-monogamy”, those who are unfaithful to their spouses rarely elicit much sympathy. We like our stories to have villains, and as outsiders it’s far easier to focus on breaches of the vow to “forsake all others” than to assess what other factors might be at play in the breakdown of someone else’s marriage.
The tragic tale of Charles, Diana and the notorious Camilla Parker Bowles that consumed the country 30 years ago fits the narrative perfectly. A beautiful, innocent young woman used and then betrayed by a callous prince and his equally uncaring mistress. An affair at the heart of the British establishment which sparked heartbreak, humiliation and constitutional chaos, ending in the unthinkable: divorce, then sudden death. The shock and grief following the 1997 car crash which killed Diana made it clear in the national consciousness whose side we should be on with regards to this royal scandal – and it wasn’t that of Charles and his other woman. The victimisation of Diana is a theme that is returned to again and again: in documentaries, dramas and even a musical.
That perspective is not wholly inaccurate. Without a doubt Diana Spencer was treated poorly – by the Palace, by advisers, by journalists who hounded her (even if she also courted their attention) and, yes, by her husband too. But there is another story here: a love story of truly momentous proportions.
Consider how all this began: with two lovers torn apart by antiquated notions of morality that by today’s standards seem not just sexist, but downright cruel. Various historians have documented how the young Camilla’s lack of both title and virginity made her ineligible in the eyes of the royal family to marry the heir to the throne. Charles’s great-uncle Lord Mountbatten reportedly wrote to him: “I think it is disturbing for women to have experiences if they have to remain on a pedestal after marriage.” Camilla, clearly not wife material for a prince, was instead viewed as a “learning experience”. Pressure from an establishment that valued appearances over substance separated Charles from a woman he genuinely loved. She married someone else, and he was set casting around for an alternative who would tick the right regal boxes. It’s clear in hindsight that the teenaged Diana (she married Charles just weeks after her 20th birthday) was far too naïve to understand what she was committing to – and equally clear that, in the eyes of those with influence in the Palace, this didn’t matter.
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That the illicit relationship reignited after Charles and Diana’s wedding is no surprise – the history of the aristocracy is full of marriages of convenience enhanced by tacitly accepted affairs (as long as they cast no doubt on the parentage of any heirs). Condemn the adultery if you want, but the root cause of the misfortune was surely the public and institutional insistence on a marriage that was always doomed to fail, and then on two people who were deeply miserable staying together out of duty. The scandal was not so much that first Charles and then Diana herself sought solace in other people, but that all the gory details were deemed of public interest by the gossip-hungry press. The nation was sent into a frenzy by the transcript of a phone call between the Prince of Wales and Camilla, as though its salacious nature (“I’ll just live inside your trousers or something”) could justify such an invasion of privacy. And when Diana was killed suddenly in a car crash – the result of a drunk driver, paparazzi aggression and the fact she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt – there was little sympathy for the man who was deemed to have publicly wronged her, or his mistress.
This reaction is entirely predictable. What is remarkable, though, is that despite the furore over the “Camillagate” tapes and the anger after Diana’s death, Camilla and Charles found one other again. They made their relationship public in 1999, and six years later they were married. The wedding did not resemble a fairy tale – there was no Disney princess gown, the Queen did not attend the ceremony. What the photos show instead of a royal fantasy is something more relatable: two adults in their 50s, both flawed, well aware of their histories, children at their sides, looking deliriously happy to finally be together.
This is the kind of real-life epic romance one might expect to have been the subject of countless cinematic endeavours: a prince finally getting to marry the love of his life, a belated but much-deserved happy ending. Yet while Camilla has gradually earned the respect of the British public (we’ve come a long way since 1997, when an Ipsos poll found that 39 per cent of people thought the relationship between them would “harm the monarchy”), their marriage has never been treated with the widespread adoration enjoyed by other royal couples.
Now, Charles is King, and in his first regnal address the day after his mother’s death he introduced Camilla as his Queen Consort, calling her “my darling wife” and paying tribute to their 17 years of marriage. During the course of their five-decade relationship they have overcome the kind of adversity that would destroy so many couples: forced apart due to outdated prejudice and cast as villains in a world-famous narrative about infidelity and the exploitation of a beloved princess. But seen through 2022 eyes, Charles and Camilla were as much victims as Diana was. Their lifelong dedication to one another is an inspiration, a realistic demonstration of what a grown-up committed relationship can look like. And while theirs is by no means a traditional fairy tale, perhaps now it’s time to acknowledge its power as a modern one.