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Sunday 26 August 2007

This dutiful Duchess has brought peace of mind to a troubled man

Unlike Charles's first wife, steady Camilla has always had a strong sense of place and self

'A GOOD egg," said my Yorkshire hosts when I asked for their opinion of Camilla Parker Bowles. But then they are the kind of people who thought Princess Diana was a posturing, whingeing ninny.

Like me, they approve of Camilla because she keeps her mouth shut and does her duty, although it is not always clear what her duty is. Faced with the lose-lose choice of whether to go or stay away from Diana's memorial service on Friday, she agreed to go because Charles wanted her to and pulled out when Buckingham Palace told her to. Some of the tabloids are triumphant, having turned what William and Harry wanted to be a tribute to their mother into an opportunity to torment their father.

One of the major differences between the wives of Prince Charles was highlighted by the endless speculation on the guest list for the Diana service. Apart from the hullabaloo over their stepmother, there were endless tricky issues over the guest list. Should they ask the creepy butler, Paul Burrell, whose devotion was so slavish that Diana trusted him completely but who exploited her shamelessly after her death? What about ex-lovers? Friends and family with whom she was on non-speaks when she died?

There would be no such problems with a memorial service for Camilla, for unlike Diana, who was so needy and paranoid that she fell out with almost everyone, Camilla gets on famously with her family, her ex-husband and her ex-lovers, and her friendships are enduring. She will shortly be off on her annual Mediterranean holiday with a group of female intimates. Those who know her think she is honourable, sensible, loyal and good-tempered and has a terrific sense of humour.

"I adore her,'' says the novelist Jilly Cooper, a long-time friend. "She is a terrific laugh and I don't know anybody who cheers me up more than she does." Comparing her with Diana, another friend remarked: "If she has a problem, rather than see a therapist, she will go foxhunting, come back and pour rum in her tea." She needs all these qualities in the dreadful job she has taken on for love of her neurotic husband.

In her late 50s, the laid-back Camilla, who liked to spend her time in old clothes slopping around doing country things or getting merry with friends, had to have a make-over, turn herself into a public figure and spend much of her time smiling at photographers and making small talk. Typically, she gritted her teeth and got on with it. She has endured much for Charles throughout her adult life and will continue to do so with determination and grace.

They met in 1970 and immediately became friends, but Camilla was in love with Andrew Parker Bowles, a sexy, upper-crust soldier who is himself easy-going and popular. These days, the brigadier sits improbably on the board of an international property company run by the decidedly unaristocratic tycoon, Pat Doherty, and, even more improbably, introduced Doherty to the great artist Lucian Freud, who painted him as Man from Donegal 2006.

A cheerful serial adulterer, Parker Bowles was happy for Camilla to be Charles's lover as well as his surrogate mother. Although Charles was faithful to Diana for some years, his friendship with Camilla remained close and it was to her that he fled for comfort as his marriage disintegrated. Camilla, who had shown no resentment when her husband divorced her in 1995 to marry his mistress, suffered without complaint vicious media character assassination, widespread loathing and the hideous embarrassment of having a bugged conversation of great intimacy plastered all over the world press.

Unlike Diana, who was in love with the idea of being in love and thought life should resemble the Barbara Cartland novels she adored, Camilla is devoted to Charles in an uncomplicated way and does whatever she thinks will make him happy. But then, unlike poor Diana, who was brought up motherless and lonely, Camilla had a happy childhood in a happy family. She has therefore abandoned her rags and spends hours having clothes fitted, hair tended and make-up applied; she goes almost everywhere with Charles and patiently, she tries to make people accept her. They call each other Fred and Ginger: famously, Ginger Rogers said that she had to do everything that Fred Astaire did, backwards and in high heels.

To placate the Diana-worshippers, Camilla is called the Duchess of Cornwall rather than Princess of Wales, and has said she will not become Queen if Charles becomes king. But if there is any justice, the public will warm to this excellent egg, accept that she has brought peace to a troubled man and she will end her life as Queen Camilla, popular in the same rather rackety style as that which made the late Queen Mother such a national treasure.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards