Spare, by Prince Harry the Duke of Sussex (Random House, 416 pp., $36)
Spare, Prince Harry’s account of life inside Britain’s Royal Family, reads like can’t-put it-down fiction: mostly, historical fiction and Karl Ove Knausgaard-style autofiction, with a war story and a romance novel thrown in. Spare passes the only real test of any book: Is it a page turner? Yes. You want to know what happens next, even though, most of the time, you already know. The problem for Harry is that his life isn’t fiction, and he has no immediate prospect of relinquishing the hatred that has gnawed through his life: his loathing of the British press.
The main theme is purportedly how Harry’s love for his new princess, Meghan Markle, whom he met in 2016 and married in 2018, helped him overcome his love for his “disappeared” princess—his mother, Diana. “The eternal power of love over grief,” as the book jacket states. Despite the publisher’s best efforts to make this a positive book, though, the real theme is the eternal power of hatred. In case you miss the point, Harry calls reporters and photographers “a dreadful mob of dweebs and crones and cut-rate criminals and clinically diagnosable sadists.”
This contempt borders on the murderous. Harry, a two-deployment veteran of the Afghanistan war, observes of his deadly hits there against suspected Taliban fighters from his helicopter-gunner perch: “Could I honestly say that, while chasing a pack of motorbikes, not one particle of me was thinking about the pack of motorbikes that chased one Mercedes into a Paris tunnel?”
Anger on Harry’s part is understandable. Harry was a 12-year-old boy, sleeping in his half of a portioned sibling bedroom in his grandmother’s dark Scottish castle, when his father, “like a ghost in a play,” awakened him in August 1997. The then-Prince Charles, long separated and recently divorced from Diana, informed Harry that Diana was dead—and then left the child alone to ponder this fact until daybreak. “I must’ve remained in that room, saying nothing, seeing no one, until nine A.M. sharp, when the piper began to play.”
Diana had been killed in a car crash—and the paparazzi on motorbikes stalking her car that night in Paris, as she travelled the short trip from the Ritz Hotel to the apartment of her new boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, did contribute to the crash, and thus to the death of its driver and two of three passengers, including Diana. As Harry reminds the reader, the “paps” kept shooting footage of the princess as she lay helpless and dying.
But Harry’s anger goes far beyond the point of rationality. The main factor in Diana’s crash, according to the official inquest, was that the driver of the car, Henri Paul, was drunk and speeding, and had neglected to require his passengers to buckle their seatbelts. Moreover, Paul, an employee of the Fayed-owned Ritz, had no expertise in safeguarding or driving the globally famous. Diana and two fellow occupants of the Mercedes thus died in one of the most common ways possible: in a drunk, speeding, unbelted late-night crash.
Harry minimizes this fact to the point of denial. “The summary conclusion, that Mummy’s driver was drunk . . . was convenient and absurd. Even if the man had been drinking, even if he was shit-faced, he wouldn’t have had any trouble navigating that short tunnel. Unless paps had chased and blinded him,” Harry concludes, after taking his own ride through the route years later. Harry reveals a fundamental misunderstanding. Reckless drivers kill people every day on the most straightforward and shortest of routes.
The rest of his family seems to have absorbed the more practical lesson. As teens, “we always wore seatbelts after Mummy’s disappearance,” he writes, as his father, bodyguards, and nanny thereafter ensure he is always belted. Yet Harry doesn’t absorb the reality of reckless driving, even when his best friend, Henners, later dies in a similar fashion, as an unbelted passenger in a car that smashes into a tree. “Unlike Mummy, Henners wasn’t going that fast. Because he wasn’t being chased,” Harry observes in a disjointed passage. His own self-described car caper is equally jarring: racing to see a girlfriend across Africa, he and a friend “jumped into a car, drove without stopping, drinking whisky and gobbling chocolate.”
In Harry’s mind, the press, and only the press, killed Diana, and his rage bleeds into his relationship with the rest of his family. This impulse starts soon after Diana’s death. An editor—“an infected pustule on the arse of humanity”—at the News of the World tabloid informs the palace that it will publish a story about the then-teenaged Harry’s pot use and asks for a comment. Harry’s reaction is understandable for a teen. He thinks his father is all-powerful and can save him from embarrassment. “Pa will do something. Stop her,” he tells an aide.
Instead, in Harry’s view, Charles betrays him by “going full Neville Chamberlain” and deciding to “appease the editor and also bolster the sagging reputation of Pa. No more the unfaithful husband, Pa would now . . . be presented to the world as the harried single dad coping with a drug-addled child. . . . I felt heartbroken at the idea that this had been partly the work of my own family, my own father and future stepmother” (Camilla Parker Bowles, now the Queen Consort). “They’d abetted this nonsense. . . . To make their own lives a bit easier.”
Yet, it’s hard to see what Charles should have done differently. Strip the hyperbole away, and Charles chose the least-worst of several choices. Despite Harry’s belief, Charles could not have killed the story. Today, to be sure, a much-chastened British tabloid press, humbled after the mid-2000s phone-hacking scandal that led to the News of the World’s demise, would not go after the behavior of a minor child. But this story was more than two decades ago. Even the BBC and the New York Times thought the topic worthy.
Charles could have made no statement, making it seem that he was indifferent to his bereaved child’s drug abuse. He could have denied the story, daring the paper to hunt for photos. Instead, he did what still appears the best option: acknowledge that the story was true and assure the paper that the family was acting responsibly, by counseling Harry on the dangers of drug use.
This teenaged incident becomes the theme of Harry’s life, and grows in drama when, in his mid-thirties, he meets actress Meghan Markle. It is true that the U.K. tabloids exploited and sensationalized Meghan’s biracial and American background: “Straight Outta Compton” was the Daily Mail’s contribution, despite the fact that, as Harry notes, Meghan had never lived in Compton. But it is also true that, had Meghan been from, say, Northern Ireland, they would have run a Belfast-teased headline similarly playing on her having been supposedly shaped by the Troubles rather than by California gangs.
Moreover, Charles, Camilla, and now-heir-to-the-throne Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton, all received the same treatment over decades. What Americans remember about Camilla and Charles’s intimate relationship 30 years ago came from private conversations splashed across the papers. Two decades later, the press called out Kate’s parents for allegedly “cashing in” on their association with the royal family, even though the party-supply company they owned had long sold royal-themed decorations. The papers repeatedly ran photos of college-student Kate in her underwear. Even the queen wasn’t immune: after Diana’s death, the press bullied her for not appearing empathetic.
None of this was right, and none of this was, or is, good journalism. Moreover, some practices would be forbidden today by standards enacted after the phone-hacking scandal. Even without such new standards, members of the public today, mindful of the fact that they and their own children may be just a few digital photos or tweets away from a mini-scandal that could cost them their job or reputation, are more sympathetic to famous people whose private conversations or photos have been stolen or sold (though they still love juicy gossip, true or false, something that will never change).
Still, condemning the press doesn’t make it disappear. Thus, from childhood through middle adulthood, Harry’s family’s counsel is sensible. “Don’t read it, darling boy,” came the sage advice from his father, appears nearly a dozen times in the text. Harry won’t, or can’t, take this advice. He reads the papers, and then the Internet, and eventually anonymous social-media comments, too.
He encourages unhealthy habits in his soon-to-be wife. Meghan herself greets her star turn in the tabloids by ignoring it. “As a rule, Meg wasn’t looking at the internet,” Harry writes. “She wanted to protect herself.” But this approach was “not sustainable if we were going to wage a battle. . . . I needed to know . . . and that meant asking her every few hours about something . . . that had appeared online,” until “she’d often begin to cry.” He even wakes her up to inform her of fresh bad ink.
Harry wants the palace to respond. But the senior royals’ continued advice to ignore it seems particularly sound, because Harry obsesses even over articles that aren’t lies, but merely stupid. For example, a Daily Express piece headlined “How Meghan Markle’s flowers may have put Princess Charlotte’s life at risk” informs readers that the flora adorning the heads of Meghan’s young bridesmaids were poisonous. The story is patently ridiculous—and not worthy of the attention Harry gives it. Harry also ignores the fact that much of the press’s coverage of Harry and Meghan by 2019 consisted of stories calling out their hypocrisy, as they hopped across Europe on private jets even as they lectured commoners on climate change.
Worse for Harry’s mental state, he accuses both his father and his brother of planting negative stories about him. The evidence for this is circumstantial, and Charles and William deny it. “We’ve been down this road a hundred times,” they tell him. “You’re delusional.” His father’s frustration turns to shouting: “The institution can’t just tell the media what to do!” Charles says. Harry acknowledges that he may be delusional. But then he turns that argument back on them. “Even if . . . I accepted that Pa and Willy and their staff had never done one overt thing against me or my wife—their silence was . . . damning.”
There’s a fair argument to make that perhaps the palace could have put out a statement decrying the tabloids’ negative treatment of Meghan. After Harry and Meghan had quit the royal family in early 2020 and fled to North America, the palace was unusually aggressive toward Tatler magazine over a story scrutinizing Kate. But this is only arguable, not self-evident. Moreover, from Harry’s descriptions of his father, his brother, and their staff, the palace is a conservative, bureaucratic institution, fearful of change. If they made a mistake, it seems to have been an honest one.
Harry cannot exact the full revenge he desires upon the press, but he can try to wreak vengeance on his father and brother. So he has abused his position as a trusted son, stepson, brother, and brother-in-law by invading their privacy, dishing on everything from Charles’s physical ailments to Camilla’s turning his childhood bedroom into a dressing room to William’s shoving him to the ground to Kate’s alleged verbal snapping at Meghan.
The royal family is not blameless. Its failure to protest when the British government revoked Harry’s official security after he and Meghan left the country was ill-advised. Whether a “working royal” or not, Harry remains a target for terrorists (more so since he has advertised his 25 Afghanistan kills).
But Harry’s response is akin to launching a nuclear bomb in response to cumulative grievances, some trivial, some not. Harry’s treatment of Kate, trying to puncture her wholesome reputation, is unchivalrous. He first tells us that Kate “howled” with laughter upon seeing Harry in his ill-judged Nazi costume at a party 18 years ago, a costume that earned Harry global opprobrium. He then tells us that more than a decade later, at a clear-the-tension visit among Harry, Meghan, Kate, and William after a tiff between the women (over the now-infamous bridesmaids’ dresses) that ended in acrimony, Kate “looked into the garden, gripping the edges of the leather so tightly that her fingers were white, and said” to Meghan that “she was owed an apology. … ‘You talked about my hormones. We’re not close enough for you to talk about my hormones!’”
Harry has tried to make his royal brethren look smaller, but even where they have not behaved faultlessly, the only character diminished is him. None of these cold-drawn portraits will publicly harm Charles, Camilla, William, or Kate. Harry tells us that Charles is old and William is bald, things we can see for ourselves. It’s hardly a revelation that Charles is awkward, or that Camilla’s entrance into the family wasn’t the most graceful. Nevertheless, the British public long ago accepted Camilla as Charles’s true love. (As even Harry begrudgingly notes, “they’d taken star-crossed to new levels.”)
Moreover, the royals (except Harry) are enjoying a long second honeymoon with the tabloids—the result, most likely, not of a scheming conspiracy against Harry in return for good news stories for themselves, as Harry alleges, but of a public desire for continuity after the queen’s 2022 death; the goodwill the royals accumulated by behaving in an exemplary fashion during the pandemic, never failing to follow the rules; and, finally, the weaker state of the press itself.
Spare features a compelling protagonist who is usually his own worst enemy, even with the menacing presence of a competing antagonist—the scandal-hungry popular media. Despite the riveting way that his book unfolds, Harry’s life is not a work of fiction, and he is not a fictional character within it. The damage he inflicts falls mostly upon himself.
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