The last sentence in Angela Levin’s upbeat biography of our new Queen Consort exemplifies the problem with publishing deadlines: “Their moment has almost come,” she writes of the people the world then knew as the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. Days before Levin’s book appeared, Queen Elizabeth II died; her son and daughter-in law’s moment had, in fact, already come.
Yet it would be wrong to dismiss this well-researched, intelligent and objective life of the Queen as out of date in any other sense. Levin gives a full account of the history and interests of the woman she calls “Camilla”, a reasonable authorial decision given that one of the themes of the book is the Queen’s informality. The picture Levin paints is, from my far less extensive knowledge of the Queen, entirely accurate. The new Consort is ungrand, charming, naturally loyal and supportive, and an exceptionally good thing both for the King and for the country. She has been suddenly catapulted into the centre of the public consciousness, and having this account of her available at the same time is therefore rather useful.
We learn about the general aspects of Her Majesty’s background: her happy childhood and deep love for her parents; her first marriage to Andrew Parker-Bowles, a soldier; her devotion as a mother; and above all her love of the countryside. And she particularly majors in those two loves a proper English upper-middle-class countrywoman is expected to have: of dogs and horses. Our current Queen loved hunting, and was irritated to have to give it up in 2003, because of a bad back. It is one of the reasons she has such appeal to a swath of British life that never quite understood the King’s first wife.
Levin does not skate over the difficulties she encountered from her first meeting, as 24-year-old Camilla Shand, with the then 22-year-old Prince of Wales, when a mutual friend introduced them just over 50 years ago. The late Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, both of whom greatly warmed to her in later life, did not much approve of her in the beginning, and certainly did not regard her as an appropriate wife for the heir to the Throne. Then there was the exposure, in the early 1990s as the Prince and Princess of Wales separated, of the intimacy between the Prince and Mrs Parker Bowles, as she had become.
Even before the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, her husband’s mistress had, with the help of the tabloid press, been elevated to the status of a hate figure. After Diana’s death, the gloves came off for both apparently guilty parties. Levin documents the exceptional venom with which the public reacted to Mrs Parker Bowles, in a way that sought almost to dehumanise her. Ironically years later, when The Crown appeared on television, presenting fiction as fact and doing all it could to damage the monarchy, the vilification of the then Duchess of Cornwall sprang up again, on the poisonous modern phenomenon of social media. That the Duchess had behaved faultlessly for years as consort to the Prince of Wales was of no consequence to the imbeciles who chose to adopt this mob behaviour.
There is one disclosure in Levin’s book that is especially distressing, and may yet have ramifications. When Prince William was still a minor, Andrew, the Duke of York, lobbied the late Queen that the Prince of Wales’s behaviour had shown him unfit to succeed her; and suggested that, in the event of her death, a regency should be declared until Prince William was of age, with the Duke of York as Regent. Her late Majesty was exceptionally indulgent to her second son, but she realised there were limits. Not only was it impossible for the succession to skip a generation, but barking mad to consider the Duke, even then, before the exposure of his advanced interest in 17-year-old girls, as fit to be Regent.
Perhaps even worse, when he failed to get his way over this plan, the Duke then devoted himself to being vile to and about Mrs Parker Bowles, in the hope it seems of creating an atmosphere in which it became impossible for his elder brother to marry her. That didn’t work either. Given the Duke’s studied offensiveness towards the new King and Queen, his future will either be deeply unenjoyable to him, or will exemplify the most astonishing act of Christian forgiveness by His Majesty.
Levin’s narrative goes up to the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and describes the then Duchess’s work in support of the Royal family and the country – notably on behalf of victims of domestic violence and sufferers from osteoporosis (which killed her mother), but also founding her own book club to comfort people during the Covid pandemic.
This biography stops short of hagiography; Levin merely strives to see the best in her subject. That is a task the new Queen Consort, not least because of her ability to connect with the general public, and the qualities of experience she brings to the Royal family, makes easy for her. The Queen’s moment has indeed come, and her biographer leaves us in no doubt that she is equal to it.
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall: From Outcast to Future Queen Consort is published by Simon & Schuster at £20. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books