by prince harry
random house, 416 pages, $36
Every Briton seems to have reached a verdict on Prince Harry’s memoir, most without having read it. They should give it a go, because it has a lot to say about him, them, and the moral architecture of monarchy. Spare is a compelling psychological portrait of a man dragged up in a fantastical institution that treats its sons like delicate exotic animals—creatures who must not take risks, speak plainly, or even think for themselves, but instead muddle along in a neo-Gothic theme park, occasionally shooting deer. An example: When Harry decided it was time to break it to Elizabeth II that he wanted to marry Meghan, he judged the optimal moment was during a hunt. “Shooting trips always put Granny in a good mood.”
He waited till he was alone with the sweet old lady (“while we scanned the ground for dead birds”), then nervously mentioned that he’d like to get married and understood that he had to speak to her about it first.
“You have to?” she replied.
“That’s what your staff tell me, and my staff as well. That I have to ask your permission.”
“Well then, I suppose I have to say yes.”
A yes is a yes, thought Harry— though “I have to say yes” might have been meant as a joke or as an indication that Her Majesty would prefer to say no but hadn’t the means to stop him. It’s no wonder Harry elsewhere states that one of the things he admires most about Americans is that they say what they mean.
The English would retort that at least we know when to stop talking. Spare reads like the transcript of several weeks of Californian therapy, culminating in an orgy of “oversharing” that covers everything from his brother William’s baldness (“alarming”) to the cut of Harry’s genitals. Hunting is its cleverest motif. His mother was chased by a press pack to her death—the fate he wanted to save Meghan from, hence his flight across the ocean. He hunted and killed terrorists during his time in the army—twenty-five by his count. The British media have lifted sentences out of context, he says, and stuck them in headlines to make him sound utterly insensitive, such as when he called those dead terrorists “chess pieces.” But that’s what war is like—if you don’t like it, don’t send young men to do it—and his point is that we dehumanize those we mistreat, which is what he feels Britain did to Princess Diana, Meghan, and him. This is a more perceptive book than you might expect.
Then again, he didn’t actually write it—for Harry is famously thick (a point he makes light of several times). Penguin hired the brilliant J. R. Moehringer to do the spadework, a Pulitzer-winner no less, and the stories he teases from his subject are far more lucid and evocative than memory ever can be. Ah, Balmoral: “The dense woods. The deer-nibbled hill. The River Dee snaking down through the Highlands.” Sometimes, it reads as if Moehringer had consulted not the Duke of Sussex but Lonely Planet. Elsewhere you can hear Meghan walking into the ghostwriting session and saying, “Make sure you call the English racist,” such as when Spare takes an odd detour to denounce the Battle of Rorke’s Drift as a case of Britain’s “trespassing” into another nation. It is probably Moehringer and Meghan who have the greatest animus toward the monarchy, certainly not Harry, who has said in interviews that he supports the institution and wants back in. Yet if Spare is just 10 percent accurate, why on earth would he want that?
For that matter, why do we Britons keep the monarchy going, when we can see how unhappy it has made this amiable young man? One answer is that he’s not nearly as special as he thinks, that his misery is common to all families, royal or not—so suck it up like the rest of us! Brothers argue. In-laws are often made unwelcome. Harry says his father struggled to say “I’m proud of you,” so he put it in a letter. Lucky him. My father never even wrote it down. And he acknowledges that far from being an unprecedented blow to the monarchy, his rebellion is something we’ve seen before: Edward VIII’s affair with Mrs. Simpson, Princess Margaret’s romance with the divorcé Peter Townsend, the countless marriage breakdowns of the 1990s, the fire at Windsor Castle that seemed like a judgment from God, and the death of Diana.
On the Netflix show The Crown, Elizabeth II gives a sad speech in 1992, calling the year of the conflagration her “annus horribilis” and apologizing for the monarchy’s arrogance. This is Hollywood frou-frou. In reality, the late Queen told a good joke about the woman who, when offered a giant balloon glass for her brandy, said “only half a glass, please”—for one should practice “moderation in all things,” including sadness. Future generations will look back on 1992, she said, with perspective and conclude it wasn’t all bad; she certainly didn’t apologize for it, sticking to the Windsor maxim that seems to have really got on Harry’s nerves: “Never complain, never explain.” Today, the louder Harry shouts, the more interviews he gives, the more the monarchy seems to double down on silence—and the greater the public sympathy it enjoys.
It’s not because the British are inveterate forelock-tuggers. In his wonderful books on postwar British history, David Kynaston reminds us that when George VI died in 1952, the nation mourned, of course, but it also complained about the disruption to the radio schedules: Where have our favorite shows gone? they asked. Likewise, when the Church and Crown ended Margaret’s love affair with Townsend in 1955, the public probably took the princess’s side—an example of the monarchy, in trying to uphold its constitutional role as defender of the last vestiges of faith, walking a few steps behind its subjects. When all those royals split up in the nineties, one could see it as a weakening of the institution or as its catching-up. Relevance, goes the argument, flows from authenticity and representation, and the modern monarchy has done its best to be a mirror to its audience.
Victoria’s family image was almost bourgeois. We’ve had royals blessing democracy, touring NHS hospitals, and opening supermarkets. (Harry took an HIV test in public pour encourager les autres.) And now the Windsors have gone woke, easily as woke as Harry and Meghan, reassuring us that the coronation in May will be diverse, featuring a choir of refugees, disabled people, and LGBTQ+ Brits. It’s possible that in its embrace of social activism, the monarchy is for once skipping a step beyond its subjects, but the key thing is that Spare’s portrayal of royal life as one long killing spree in the Highlands is inaccurate—indeed the Family, and the pliant media, were initially delighted by Harry’s marriage to Meghan because it served Project Inclusion. It allowed an institution that is essentially feudal to look a bit more like the rapidly changing country around it.
As the monarchy does its best to reflect us in itself, so we see ourselves in the biographies of the royals. Reading Spare is like dipping into a family photo album and occasionally spotting oneself on the edge of the frame.
Harry and William are my contemporaries. I can recall where I was when their mother died; my cohort graduated when they graduated, got married, had babies, and, in the most tragic cases, lost their hair. No presidential system, which swaps its characters in and out in election intervals, can match the longevity and continuity, and thus familiarity, of the royals. So it’s hardly surprising that even someone like me, raised in a socialist, republican, nonconformist household with absolutely no interest in collecting coronation cutlery, has matured to see the royals as distant relatives, over whom one has some right to pass judgment.
That is why Harry’s escape hurt so much. Because we loved him. He was the fun one, the naughty one, whom the army reformed and, we hoped, a nice wife would tame. Today, most British men are disappointed with Harry because they feel he neglected his duties. Women tend to be angrier with Meghan because she stole him away.
Princess Margaret once confided to Gore Vidal—a big mistake, hence we know all about it—that “when there are two sisters and one is the queen who must be the source of honor and all that is good, the other must be the focus of the most creative malice, the evil sister.” The monarchy thus fulfills a Jungian role as theater of archetypes: good prince, bad prince,virtuous daughter-in-law, wicked daughter-in-law. And by discussing it in pubs or around the water cooler, we debate what’s right and wrong, and what we have a right to expect from one another. Thanks to Spare, Britain has discussed whether it is moral to tally the dead in war; whether it’s best to talk about your problems or keep them to yourself; whether the trauma of a bad childhood is grounds to run away under pressure. Is it okay to gossip about your family? Probably not. Harry’s exceptional behavior has helped us reinforce our sense of the rules, and of what it means to be British.
For a long time, definitions of Britishness have been in flux, thanks to economic and social change, but perhaps most of all because of the invasion of the very American, emotive, self-obsessed culture that Meghan embodies. The backlash against Harry has restored the distinction between us and the U.S., because it turns out that most Britons prefer Her late Majesty’s stoic quiet. She just got on with the job. Elizabeth II understood that the monarchy’s real function is to be a smooth cog in the constitutional machine, guaranteeing us stability and the entertainment of custom and ritual. The country is so invested in this institution, and personality defers so absolutely to its higher offices, that we could very well crown a panda bear and not notice the difference.
All that said, if a monarchy only emphasizes its utility, it risks undermining the magic—and there is still some magic. Britain has lately been in danger of losing its soul; so few of us go to church, and our culture scene is crude rubbish.
The death of Elizabeth II showed us another side of ourselves, nearly forgotten—but there it was again in pomp and Christianity, as if the best china had been dug out and put on display. The queue to pay respects to the late Queen was akin to the pilgrimage to see a saint, moving both to take part in and to watch from the press gallery. Westminster Hall was noiseless but for the rotation of the guards. Phones were banned. It was a tribute to the power of silence, which the awe of the monarchy’s ceremonial inspires: Mindless chatter gave way to reflection, perhaps prayer. Harry was present, permitted to stand guard in his uniform, back where he belongs—in Britain, with family—and for once saying precisely as much as we’d like to hear. Nothing.
Harry is not himself religious, but he told his ghostwriter he experienced something close to it when hunting stag. He was “blooded” as per tradition, his face smeared with the aftermath of the kill: a “baptismal” act that made him feel “close to God.”
“If you loved nature, Pa always said, you had to know when to leave it alone, and when to manage it, and managing meant culling, and culling meant killing. It was all a form of worship.” I wish that I, like Harry, could pretend I wrote this well.
Tim Stanley is a columnist for the London Daily Telegraph.
Image by Bruce Detorres via Creative Commons. Image cropped.