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Thursday, 12 November, 1998, 18:26 GMT
A 'non-negotiable' love
Camilla Parker Bowles
Camilla Parker Bowles: She has determinedly avoided the limelight
By BBC Royal Correspondent Jennie Bond

She is, by all accounts, the life and soul of any party - funny, witty and refreshingly down to earth.

The Prince in pictures
Her name is one of the most famous in the country, her face one of the best-known. But to those who worshipped the Princess of Wales, she remains a figure of hate. And to most people, Camilla Parker Bowles is something of an enigma.

Love of his life

At 51, Camilla is indisputedly the love of Prince Charles's life: his soul-mate, lover and companion who holds a place in his heart which he says is "non-negotiable".

That necklace: A subtle but strong statement of Charles's love
Charles and Camilla now spend more time together than ever before.

She - a country woman through and through - stays with him at Highgrove a couple of nights a week, but she is also a regular guest at his London home, St James's Palace.

This year she has met the two young Princes, William and Harry, and Prince Charles has taken her on holiday to the Aegean.

The elusive couple

Camilla is mega news. A picture of her hand-in-hand with Prince Charles would probably fetch in the region of 2m.

In newspapers and magazines, on television and radio, people discuss whether they should be allowed to marry, whether she could ever become Queen and how long they can carry on as they are.

But she has determinedly avoided the limelight, shunning all publicity and refusing to discuss her relationship with the prince with anyone outside her close circle of friends.

Consequently she remains something of a mystery. Her views are an unknown quantity, even the sound of her voice a secret - all of which tends to fuel the public's suspicions about her.

And that is the dilemma for the prince and his advisers - how to counteract hostility to Camilla, without subjecting her to the full glare of the media.

In retreat

Before the princess's death, there had been plans for Camilla to adopt a higher profile through her charity work. Those plans were immediately shelved.

Charles's public appearances still do not include Camilla
Even now, more than a year later, Prince Charles and Camilla do not feel able to be seen in public. Attending the same wedding last month, they arrived and left separately - and did not sit together or talk to one another during the reception. It is a strange way of life for two people in middle-age who have loved each other for many years.

But friends of the couple believe marriage is not uppermost in their minds. They say that what the prince and Camilla need now is time and space - a view recently echoed by the Bishop of Oxford when he said they deserved compassion and understanding.

The prince believes his private life should be private. He is fed up with people telling him how to run it and thinks he should be allowed some peace.

But his position as heir to the throne and future Supreme Governor of the Church of England leaves little doubt that aspects of his private life will remain of public interest.

And, as Camilla Parker Bowles hosts his 50th birthday party at Highgrove, the debate about their future together will go on.

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