Queen of his heart

profile; Camilla Parker Bowles; Her great achievement was to love him. Charles Oulton on the Prince's mistress
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IN COMMON with others more ordinary, the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles will no doubt sit down (separately) to their Christmas fare tomorrow, and reflect on the eccentricities of family life. At Sandringham, Charles - who has seen his estranged wife flounce out of the festivities at the last minute - may also seek some explanation from his mother who has just started writing letters to him again, as if he were still a homesick new bug at Cheam. His mistress, meanwhile, will be in Wiltshire, pulling crackers with a man who used to be her husband, but whose heart for some time has been elsewhere.

Such family reunions are often endured, of course, for the sake of the children. In Charles's case, the ages of William, 13 and Harry, 11, ideally require the attendance of both parents, even if one has just told the world on television that the other is not fit to rule. But with Camilla, the children are virtually grown up - Tom is 21 and Laura 17 - and it would have been understandable if she had wished her former husband Andrew greetings of the season, and sent him on his way.

Understandable, but out of character for a woman who doesn't seem to make any serious enemies - with the exception of the woman currently residing at Kensington Palace and the women who last year peppered her with buns and bread rolls in a supermarket car park after Charles's Dimbleby interview - and whose emotional stability and friendships (even with her former husband) seem so far to have survived the relentless scrutiny of the role she has played in the destruction of Charles's marriage.

In a week when the Queen appears to have done Camilla a big favour by instructing Charles and the Princess of Wales to divorce, there has been much speculation about how this will affect the modus vivendi of a woman who, despite Charles's statement that he has no intention of re-marrying, could still in theory one day become his Queen. In private, and that is how it will seemingly remain, Camilla has always discounted her prospects of marrying Charles, and his statement would seem to make it more unlikely than might once have been supposed.

However, irrespective of the status of the liaison, the impending divorce does change the public perception of a relationship that started innocently enough on a polo field in 1970, but grew in strength and wild abandon through three different phases over the following 25 years. In the course of this development, and in many ways as a result of it, a tragically ill-fated young woman who thought her husband was marrying her for love was driven to near suicide. Rarely can a marriage (endorsed by Camilla herself) have been so important to a nation's sense of well-being; rarely can a marriage's self-destruction have been so minutely and often so cruelly observed.

Now that the final act seems near, the opening scene of the new drama is eagerly awaited. Will Camilla Parker Bowles play centre stage, appreciated by the audience in the way they appreciated the woman she preceded and then displaced? Or will she forever be a bit player soothing the fevered brow of the lead actor, but always flitting to the back of the cast, hurriedly adjusting her clothing (if inside stories from various butlers and valets talking to the News of the World are to be believed) when the curtain call comes?

For the foreseeable future, she will definitely remain back stage. The obvious comparison with Wallis Simpson is always made, but there are significant differences between the two women. The diarist "Chips" Channon described the American as possessing "the air of a personage who walks into a room as though she also expected to be curtsied to". Camilla is not like this: She is unpretentious to the extent of being almost base. Her language is often coarse (as can be testified by anyone with the Beaufort Hunt whose horse impedes her progress), and she has, it seems, a healthy libido (and doesn't mind talking about it one jot - "all right, darling, I wish you were pressing mine" she tells her lover on the Camillagate tapes). Charles has always simply been a recipient of her almost motherly love, never an agent of her own aggrandisement.

No Mrs Fitzherbert, she; Unlike the one-time lover of George V who had to be carted off by the king's heavies when she tried to gatecrash his coronation, Camilla will always rather be the woman who plumps up the cushions at Highgrove (or wherever Charles is living at the time) organises his house parties, participates fully in all his private social engagements, but gracefully and willingly retires when calls of state are made.

Because it was ever thus. She could have married him in the early Seventies if she had targeted him as a husband in the way some biographers claim Diana and her family did; the grand-daughter of Lord Ashcombe, she was sufficiently aristocratic, but at the relatively young age of 25 when the first phase of the affair was about to take place, she was already aware that she had too much of a "history". This history included the not-so-young officer in the Blues and Royals, Andrew Parker Bowles, who moved quickly and decisively as the young Charles dithered, and then lost his chance cruising in the Caribbean on HMS Minerva.

It was only after the birth of their two children that Camilla started to fret about her lost love for the Prince. In the early days, her affair with Charles had been little more than an exciting escapade, characterised by that chat-up line of all time - "My great grandmother used to have it away with your great great grandfather. So how about it?"

But as the date for Charles's own marriage loomed, so did her love for him deepen. The gold cufflinks bearing two entwined C's that Charles wore on honeymoon, prompting an early row with his new wife, was an indication of a love that was never going to go away.

THE ELDEST child of Bruce and Rosalind Shand, Camilla was born in 1947, 16 months before the Prince. She withstood the cold-bath regime of her first school, Dumbrells, with more equilibrium than Charles at Gordonstoun, by which time Camilla had moved to Queen's Gate School in South Kensington, London where she fenced, rode, bypassed any serious academic endeavour and, according to a former classmate, was a "very hoity-toity madam, and always looked great".

Those looks have been much remarked upon. "Chips" Channon also said of Wallis Simpson that she was "jolly" and "plain"; most commentators say the same about Camilla, although few have ever seen her in the flesh, apparently an altogether different proposition than newspaper photographs might suggest. Certainly, she was much in demand during her debutante season in 1964 - the gossip columnist Nigel Dempster was present at her coming-out cocktail party, and describes her as "smashing, funny, with a great sense of humour". By then she had been "finished" in Switzerland and Paris and was already a confident Sixties swinger while Charles was introspectively splitting wood and feeding pigs in the Australian outback.

Her wedding in 1973 was one of the occasions of the year; as Camilla glided down the aisle of the Guards Chapel with diamonds in her hair, none of the 800 or so guests, including the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, could have imagined that the bride that hot summer's day would eventually resume her affair with the unmarried Prince; it would have been inconceivable that she could play such an instrumental part in arranging Charles's own wedding in 1981, and then resume their physical relationship when that marriage had broken down.

The passion continued, it seems, because, unlike Diana, Camilla was able to shed her light-headed antecedents - she is not known to have picked up a book in earnest until Charles came on the scene - and share his life and interests, painting, music and gardening, as well as the hunting, shooting and fishing that Diana always abhorred. While Diana had been bored by dinner-table conversations about history, architecture, and the environment, Camilla was interested, adroit and entertaining. Unlike the fashion-conscious and disco-mad Diana - her rival has never been particularly fussed in these departments - Camilla is happy to have refashioned herself in his image.

Between discussing tampons and tits during the late-night Camillagate discussion Charles had his own rather pompous way of putting this: "Your great achievement is to love me," he said. Her delightful response - "oh, darling, easier than falling off a chair" - is the sort of thing one imagines Lady Diana Spencer might have said before the ghastly reality of her life set in. With Diana in mind, the next few lines of the conversation are worth repeating. Charles: "You suffer all those indignities and tortures and calumnies." Camilla: "Oh, darling, don't be silly. I'd suffer anything for you. That's love. It's the strength of love. Night-night."

In 1981, when pressed by a television reporter on the occasion of his engagement, Charles was unable to grapple with the concept of falling in love. The tragedy of this story is that Charles had already stumbled into true and lasting love, but failed to recognise it. Unlike his great uncle, Edward VIII, who recognised it, and to hell with the consequences, Charles was always mindful of his duty as a future King. As a result, the best Camilla can probably expect is to continue her peaceful life as his mistress, just as her great grandmother, Alice Keppel was to his great great grandfather, Edward VII.

But there is still another possibility. That affair was three years old when Edward ascended the throne at the age of 60. If Charles is ever crowned, it could well be at a similar age. In the intervening years, the bishops may have come to a different view on the suitability of a divorced woman becoming a divorced man's consort. And this time, at least we'll know that they're in love.