Royal ascent: Penny Junor on the Duchess of Cornwall
She already has well-received biographies of Princes William and Harry to her name and her new book, on the Duchess of Cornwall, looks set to propel her to the top of the bestsellers’ list. Penny Junor talks to Una Brankin about how Lord Mountbatten would have advised Charles against marrying Diana had he not been murdered by the IRA ... and why Camilla was not the ‘third person’ in the royal marriage.
If Lord Mountbatten had survived the horrific IRA bombing of his boat in Co Sligo in 1979, Prince Charles would never have married Diana, according to royal biographer Penny Junor.
The well-connected journalist and author of The Duchess: The Untold Story, believes Mountbatten, a cherished father-figure to Charles, would have seen the couple’s incompatibility immediately and warned off the Prince.
Unfortunately, for Charles, the Earl had deemed Camilla Shand unsuitable when Charles first met her in the mid-1970s due to the fact she wasn’t an aristocrat, or a virgin.
“Mountbatten was involved in it, yes,” says Penny, a columnist with Private Eye. “He recognised Charles as a poor, lost soul who needed comforting and help and he encouraged him to take his girlfriends to Broadlands for a quick vetting.
“Charles met Camilla when she was only 23 and thought she was fantastic, but Mountbatten was very clear that they could have a fling, but it could not end in marriage.
“When Charles was hunting for a wife later, I’m certain Mountbatten would have recognised that he and Diana hadn’t enough in common to last a lifetime together. He would have said, ‘Have a fling and have fun, but don’t marry’.
“The problem was, no one else ever did (tell him). He was never close to his parents; they didn’t discuss girlfriends. I can’t over-emphasise how much of a loss Mountbatten was for Charles.”
The author and broadcaster, best remembered on television as presenter of The Travel Show Guides on BBC (1988-1997), believes Charles and Camilla are as fond of the Irish countryside as Mountbatten was. He spent his summers in Classiebawn Castle in Mullaghmore and his death was devastating to Charles.
“When Diana met Charles at a barbecue and sat with him on a hay bale and she told him he looked so sad at Mountbatten’s funeral and needed someone to look after him, he was very touched by her empathy and looked at her afresh,” says Penny.
“It was what he needed, but Diana couldn’t give him that support and he couldn’t help her with her problems. He did try and he’s been haunted by a sense of failure that he couldn’t make the marriage work.”
Currently the target of pro-Diana trolls on Twitter, Penny stresses that there have been three phases in the romance between Charles and Camilla: after their first meeting, when Camilla was 23; when they were brought back together by mutual friends after Charles’ marriage to Diana had broken down; and their reunion after the temporary separation — on the Queen’s orders — in the aftermath of Diana’s death.
She is adamant that Diana was the first to be unfaithful within the marriage, firstly with her late bodyguard, Barry Mannakee, in the mid-1980s.
“Camilla was not the third person in the marriage, as Diana alluded to in her television interview with Martin Bashir. She came back into his life only when she was asked to by friends, who were worried about him having a breakdown over the state of his marriage and she has had the most dreadful time because of it.
“She went through years of hell, hounded by the media and vilified — and she had children.
“As a mother, the idea of putting your children through all that because of the relationship with Charles; I’d have turned and walked away.
“But she stayed with Charles because she recognised he desperately needed her.
“She makes him feel better, which is good for his very public role as a prince. If she hadn’t stayed, it would be a very different story.”
The “horrific stress” Camilla endured over her relationship with Charles — including death-threats by Diana, according to Junor — has left her with stomach troubles, unspecified in the new biography, but confirmed by the author yesterday.
She praised Camilla for working a full-time, four-day week, making hours of small talk at countless events in her royal duties, which Junor describes as “a wedding party that never ends”.
“She is astonished she’s able to carry out her role so well,” she remarks. “She never said to me she finds it boring.”
Described by critics as Prince Charles’s PR woman (and worse), Junor denies she was commissioned to write Camilla’s life story as a rebuttal to the claims made in the newly published transcripts of the tapes Diana made for her biographer Andrew Morton.
In addition to her political and celebrity biographies, Junor’s previous royal subjects include Diana, Prince Charles (twice), Prince William and Prince Harry.
“It was my choice to write this book,” she asserts. “I just felt I had to do one more before I throw my hat in forever.
“It’s such an interesting story and there’s no one else interesting enough to write another book on.
“I’m not the most popular because of it, no. I’ve got terrible hate mail, basically saying I’m vile and evil.
“It’s on Twitter — my son tells me. I can’t say I enjoy it, but this is an important story to tell. I didn’t do it for the money.”
She admits the timing is unfortunate, but side-steps any suggestion by critics that the book is an attempt to trash Diana.
"I didn't realise it was going to coincide with Diana's 20th anniversary when I proposed the idea, way down the line," she says.
"Camilla's 70th birthday was a good peg to hang the book on.
"The fact is, Charles and Diana's marriage was a train smash in many ways and, as Camilla will one day be Queen, it's important for the public to understand she's not some terrible woman.
"Some people will never see that, due to that very powerful interview Diana gave. Charles never defended himself and Camilla never said a word. The person who won the day in terms of PR was Diana. She gave that incredibly powerful interview and, sadly, died. So, it is frozen in time."
In her biography of Camilla, Penny makes a connection between Diana's theatrics and mood swings - such as fuming and kicking the furniture for six hours - and her bulimia, even consulting and quoting an expert on the condition.
"All eating disorders, I believe, can be traced back to trauma in childhood and Diana had a terrible childhood," she concedes. "And that was carried through into her adulthood.
"I do have huge sympathy for her and I think it's a terrible thing that people were forced into pro-Diana and pro-Charles camps.
"It's an incredibly sad story of human frailty and loss. Neither Diana nor Charles were happy and he carries a sense of failure to this day that he wasn't able to make the marriage work. But he didn't know how to.
"I don't know if Diana could ever have been truly happy. A friend of hers explained to me that she lived her life as though behind a pane of glass; she wasn't able to conduct relationships in the normal way. She hadn't spoken to her mother for four months before she died; she had fallen out with her brother.
"Fergie was another casualty in a string of broken relationships, along with some of her closest friends. She pushed people away - she pushed Charles away. Maybe it was through fear of rejection, or abandonment.
Camilla, on the other hand, knows how to be happy. Her inner contentment is attributed, by Junor, to her secure, loving childhood, something Diana lacked.
"Everything in adulthood can be traced back to childhood," she says. "Camilla was so different to Diana in this respect. Like Kate Middleton, she comes from a stable background. Camilla's childhood was idyllic.
"Lovely parents, no friction in the house, no unpleasantness. Her siblings made her feel valued and encouraged her to be brave. She'd bound along at speed on her pony and camp out, aged 10 - and there were no mobile phones back then."
Camilla's closeness to her parents and family made the castigation she received as a result of her relationship with Charles doubly hurtful.
Says Penny: "There's no doubt, it was very unpleasant for her - she was a prisoner in her own house for years, with the paparazzi chasing her. She adores her parents and her family and she was mortified by the impact it had on them.
"But she's very good at putting her head in the sand and at laughing things off, when the rest of us would be crying into our tea.
"She is a very warm, funny, lovely woman, a compelling personality. She has a real twinkle in her eye; she giggles easily, but she's a grown-up and she's not ambitious. She's not trying to prove anything. She's confident and happy in her own skin. She's actually a very ordinary woman in many ways, very natural. No airs and graces at all.
"She doesn't have that stiffness and awkwardness of the royal family, I think."
The writer cites Camilla's patronage of the Rape Crisis charity as an example of her taking on the type of role avoided by other members of the royal family and even celebrities, who turned down requests for help in awareness-raising from Yvonne Trainor, who runs the Rape Crisis Centre in Croydon.
"Yvonne simply wrote to Camilla, asking her to help them and she said, 'Yes, please'," Junor recalls.
"The centre was worried about the attention her security would attract on her visit, so she offered to go in through the fire escape at the back.
"She went anonymously to meet the rape victims and she has done some very good work for awareness since.
"She is genuinely interested in the causes she represents. Her mother and her grandmother died of osteoporosis and she is passionate about her work in the fields of rape and sexual violence and of literacy.
"People can relate to her; she has lived her life; she understands.
"And for someone who has had her sex life broadcast all over the world, to get involved in anything regarding rape and sexual abuse, it's quite something."
In her book, Junor hints that Diana was responsible for the leaking the compilation of embarrassingly intimate phone conversations between Charles and Camilla (less graphic when presented by the writer in context), but tactfully does not confirm her suspicions in this interview.
"Before she died, she had got over her antipathy towards Camilla," she says.
She has denied, in the past, being a friend of Prince Charles, but admits to having met the royal couple and "liking them very much".
"I don't know if they're pleased with the book; I hope they will be," she concludes.
"I like to think I've got the story right. I hope people will at least understand that Charles was not obsessed by Camilla while he was married to Diana and that they'll see the story as one of human frailty and of courage - all the ingredients that go into the making of the human condition.
"It's not the black-and-white story Diana painted it - the marriage did not fail because of Camilla. She came back to him, because she was asked to and the change in him afterwards was miraculous.
"I think she's responsible for the good and confident king Charles will be. Diana had got over her antipathy towards Camilla before she died. And I hope history will be a kinder judge of her than the public has been."
- The Duchess: The Untold Story by Penny Junor is published by William Collins, priced £20