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How a “pan­icked” Prince Charles pro­posed to Diana.

What­ever ‘in love’ means.” It was Charles’s awk­ward re­ply to a sim­ple ques­tion posed by a tele­vi­sion in­ter­viewer fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment of the prince’s en­gage­ment to Lady Diana Spencer on Fe­bru­ary 24, 1981. Af­ter Charles said he was “just de­lighted and happy”, the in­ter­viewer had asked, “And I sup­pose in love?” Diana in­stantly replied, “Of course,” with a gri­mace and an eye roll. When the prince of­fered his four-word qual­i­fi­ca­tion, she fell in line. “Yes,” she gig­gled. “Put your own in­ter­pre­ta­tion on it,” added Charles af­ter a beat.

Set against his tor­tured ru­mi­na­tions on the mean­ing of love and mar­riage over the years, he was be­ing hon­est, in his bum­bling way, about his un­cer­tainty. His friends knew he hadn’t fallen in love, but that Diana fit Dickie’s [Lord Mount­bat­ten, Charles’s “hon­orary grand­fa­ther”] ideal vi­sion of a “sweet char­ac­tered girl” lack­ing a ro­man­tic past. In the TV in­ter­view, Charles said he was “amazed” that she was “brave enough to take me on”. Charles thought he could grow to love Diana, just as the ar­ranged mar­riage of his grand­mother and King Ge­orge VI later grew into love.

The prince had al­ready given no­tice that he wouldn’t let his heart rule his head in such a de­ci­sion. But he’d been ruled by nei­ther. Pres­sured and pan­icked, he had rushed into a de­ci­sion be­fore he was ready, un­der­stand­ing lit­tle about the girl of 19 who gave him be­guil­ing side­long glances. At 32, he should have known bet­ter. “How could I have got it all so wrong?” he wrote six years later in an an­guished let­ter to a friend.

How in­deed? On pa­per, Diana seemed per­fect, if wor­ri­somely young: ten­der with chil­dren; sporty and en­thu­si­as­tic; sen­si­tive, in­for­mal, and open, with an ap­par­ent love of the coun­try­side and its pur­suits. The Spencer blood­lines were en­twined with the royal fam­ily’s.

Since Charles’s first en­counter with Diana at her fam­ily home, Althorp, in No­vem­ber 1977 [he was a friend of her sis­ter Sarah], they had crossed paths on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. Diana even came to San­dring­ham for a shoot­ing party in Fe­bru­ary 1980: a good start, but the twin forces of duty and plea­sure-seek­ing kept Charles busy for the next two months.

In mid-april 1980, Charles was off to Africa to rep­re­sent the Queen in the trans­fer of power from the Bri­tish colony of Rhode­sia to the newly elected gov­ern­ment. He was ac­com­pa­nied at the in­de­pen­dence cel­e­bra­tion in the re­named coun­try of Zim­babwe by Lieu­tenant Colonel Andrew Parker Bowles. Camilla at­tended the cer­e­mony with her hus­band, but she had trav­elled to Africa with her royal lover. Dur­ing a din­ner in Gov­ern­ment House on the first night, she and Charles were re­ported to be flirt­ing so openly that a dis­mayed Ed­ward Adeane, the prince’s pri­vate sec­re­tary, left the room. There was no doubt that Charles still felt a pow­er­ful grav­i­ta­tional pull to­ward Camilla.

The ex­pec­ta­tions for Charles to set­tle down were ris­ing even as his op­tions were nar­row­ing. In early May he joined a group, in­clud­ing Diana, at the Royal Al­bert Hall for Verdi’s Re­quiem. While Charles had no “ap­par­ent surge in

me ear­lier in the sum­mer, and she said noth­ing at all about Prince Charles.”

Charles in­vited Diana to join him on [royal yacht] the Bri­tan­nia for the an­nual Cowes re­gatta in Au­gust. His valet, Stephen Barry, watched as Diana “went af­ter the prince with sin­gle­minded de­ter­mi­na­tion. She wanted him and she got him.” Charles as­ton­ished one of his clos­est friends by con­fid­ing that he had met the girl he wanted to marry. As the Queen’s long­time ad­viser Martin Char­teris ob­served, Diana “un­der­stood that few men can re­sist a pretty girl who openly adores them”.

The ro­mance broke into the open when the Queen asked Diana to Bal­moral in early Septem­ber dur­ing the week­end of the Brae­mar Gath­er­ing, where they sat in the royal box to watch tug-of-war con­tests and tar­tan-clad dancers. The Palmer-tomkin­sons and Parker Bowle­ses were there as well, to of­fer their ap­praisal and, Charles hoped, their ap­proval.

Diana im­pressed ev­ery­one with her en­thu­si­asm for the High­lands. When they went deer stalk­ing, Diana “got cov­ered in mud, laughed her head off” in a rain­storm, Patty Palmer-tomkin­son re­called. Diana seemed to be “game for any­thing”. To one of his friends, Charles said he “did not love her yet”, but she was “lov­able and warm-hearted”. He was “sure he could fall in love with her”.

As Charles dithered, three of his friends voiced their mis­giv­ings. Penny Rom­sey, the wife of Dickie’s grand­son Nor­ton [Knatch­bull], ques­tioned whether Diana’s feel­ings were gen­uine. She ap­peared to be “au­di­tion­ing for a cen­tral role in a cos­tume drama”, Penny said. When Nor­ton sec­onded her con­cerns, the prince ex­ploded in anger.

In Jan­uary 1981, Charles went to Klosters, Switzer­land, to ski with the Palmer-tomkin­sons. He con­fided his angst about propos­ing to Diana, and they tried to stiffen his back­bone. In a let­ter to a friend, Charles de­scribed his “con­fused and anx­ious state of mind” about “tak­ing a plunge into some rather un­known cir­cum­stances”. He said he wanted to, “do the right thing for this coun­try and for my fam­ily”, but he was “ter­ri­fied some­times of mak­ing a prom­ise and then per­haps liv­ing to re­gret it”. De­spite his doubts and scant knowl­edge of Diana, he made the leap to a pro­posal.

Bound by duty when he should have been lifted by love, Charles in­vited Diana to Wind­sor Cas­tle on Fri­day, Fe­bru­ary 6, 1981. He asked for her hand, and she said yes, in a gale of gig­gles. Charles knew she was leav­ing shortly for a trip to Aus­tralia, so he was in­tend­ing to give her that time to con­sider her de­ci­sion. He was taken aback that she ac­cepted “more or less straight away”. This is an edited ex­tract from Prince Charles: The Pas­sions And Para­doxes Of An Im­prob­a­ble Life by Sally Bedell Smith (Pen­guin Ran­dom House, $49.99), avail­able now.


feel­ing” for her, he had be­gun “to think se­ri­ously of her as a po­ten­tial bride”.

At 31, he was fac­ing the fact that ev­ery woman suit­able in terms of pedi­gree, age, world­li­ness, and in­tel­li­gence was ei­ther mar­ried or had long since lost her vir­gin­ity. In 1980 – more than a decade af­ter the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion had started – he was hemmed in by the royal cus­tom of mar­ry­ing a vir­gin, or at least a woman who seemed vir­ginal. He was forced, in ef­fect, to rob the cra­dle.

The 12-year age gap be­tween Charles and Diana was un­bridge­able. He had been through the ups and downs of the for­ma­tive years of early adult­hood, push­ing to find a role for him­self and chan­nel his pas­sions into ac­tion, while Diana was still an ado­les­cent. They had no in­tel­lec­tual con­nec­tions, few mu­tual friends, no in­ter­ests in com­mon, and none of the shared life ex­pe­ri­ences he would have with a con­tem­po­rary. While Camilla had the same lim­ited up­per­class ed­u­ca­tion, she was on Charles’s wave­length – ab­sorbed as he was by hunt­ing and other coun­try pur­suits, at home in the same so­cial cir­cle – in a way that Diana could never be.

Diana came sharply into fo­cus dur­ing a Sus­sex house party week­end in July 1980. The host’s son was part of Diana’s Lon­don crowd, and he had in­vited her to watch polo at nearby Cow­dray Park, where Prince Charles’s team was play­ing. Af­ter the polo, dur­ing a bar­be­cue, Charles and Diana had their first ex­tended con­ver­sa­tion. When they spoke of Dickie’s mur­der and fu­neral, Charles was touched at Diana’s ob­ser­va­tion that he was lonely and needed some care. An­other house guest, Charles’s ex Sab­rina Guin­ness, took a more jaun­diced view. “She was gig­gling,” said Sab­rina, “look­ing up at him… fu­ri­ously try­ing to make an im­pres­sion.”

Within days, Diana had de­camped to a cot­tage at Bal­moral with her sis­ter Jane, now mar­ried to a Nor­folk neigh­bour, Robert Fel­lowes, an as­sis­tant pri­vate sec­re­tary to the Queen. Jane had re­cently given birth to their first child, and Diana was on hand to help with the new­born. Charles, who was stay­ing with his par­ents, took the op­por­tu­nity to spend time with her. “The ro­mance didn’t start, in my opin­ion, un­til she went up there,” said Diana’s cousin Robert Spencer. “She had vis­ited

FIT FOR A PRINCE (from top) Charles and Diana with their sons Wil­liam and Harry in 1986; Charles mar­ried Camilla in 2005; with Prince Philip, Wil­liam and the Queen; (op­po­site) Charles and Diana on their wed­ding day in July 1981.

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