“Pandas and royal people,” Hilary Mantel wrote in 2013, “are expensive to keep and unsuitable for any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they fun to watch? Some people find them endearing; some complain about their precarious situation; everyone watches them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it is still a cage.
Now suppose one of these pandas tries to leave its cage in search of fresh bamboo. Thus begins the odyssey of Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, who is technically still Prince and Duke and still fifth in line to the British throne but has turned his back on the monarchy for the sake of the woman he loves. An old-school move that puts him on par with his great-great-uncle Edward VIII, except the way he goes about it is so distinctly 21st century: a self-righteous cross-platform pilgrimage – it’s not my faultit could be called — which has gone from an Oprah sit-up to a Netflix documentary series and is now culminating — or, more likely, gaining momentum — with a new memoir, “Spare.”
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The title, in case you were wondering, is the nickname given to Harry in his early childhood. He was to be the second-born “Spare” to “the heir”, his elder brother William, future Prince of Wales. “I was the shadow,” he now writes, “support, plan B. I was birthed in case something happened to Willy.” And if you’ve ever doubted that this is a recipe for resentment, here are over 400 pages to prove you right.
Prince Harry’s memoir attacks a family he seeks to change. They have no comment.
Like Harry, the book is good-natured, resentful, humorous, self-righteous, self-deprecating, endless. And occasionally, disconcerting. More questions are answered about the Prince’s Todger than you ever thought to ask. (He’s circumcised, and he nearly froze to death at the North Pole.) And if you’re wondering who Harry lost his virginity to, it was an older woman who “loved horses very much and treated me a bit like a young stallion. Quick ride, after which she kicked me on the rump and sent me to graze.
Written with and almost surely raised by JR Moehringer, who helped make Andre Agassi’s memoir so memorable, the book features behind-the-scenes vignettes of the royal family (the Queen whipping dressing, Charles performing handstands in his boxers ) and generous helpings of woo-woo: Princess Diana’s spirit appears variously in a leopard from Botswana, an Eton fox and a Tyler Perry painting and even finds a way to spoil Princess Diana’s wedding plans. Charles and Camilla. No question that his mother The 1997 death is still the primary wound in the psyche of Harry, now 38, and the book’s most moving passages show his 12-year-old self struggling to grieve in public view. He only cried once, at her grave, then never again, and spent years clinging to the theory that she had simply been in hiding.
He became an indifferent student and recreational drug user, known as “the bad guy” and “the stupid one”. (What was he thinking when he was wearing a Nazi uniform to a costume party? “He wasn’t.”) Two stints in combat gave him some confidence before settling into the surreal life of a royal – “this endless Truman show in which I hardly ever carried money, never owned a car, never carried a house key, never ordered anything online, never never received a single box from Amazon, almost never traveled on the subway. Whatever relationships he forged could not survive the full court press of tabloid “paps” following his every step. “Royal fame”, he concluded, “was a fanciful captivity”.
Come in, as you know she must, Meghan.
Now the stages of their affair are available to anyone who cares: watching on Instagram, having dinner, a week in a Botswana tent. The same goes for the mutilation Markle received from the British media, a toxic brew of racism and misogyny that too often, Harry says, has gone unchallenged by Buckingham Palace. No wonder, as palace staff either planted the stories or actively courted the reporters behind them. “Pa’s office, Willy’s office,” Harry fumes, “allowing those demons, if not outright collaborating.”
“Honey boy,” his father advised, “don’t read it.” Not an option for Harry, who was, by his own admission, “undeniably addicted” to reading and furious at his own media coverage. But when he decided to step down from royal duties, the rage returned to him: William, according to an already well-publicized anecdote, grabbed him by the collar and threw him to the ground. Deprived of their royal allowance and eventually of their security service, Harry and Meg fled first to Canada before settling in America, or, as Harry cheekily calls it, “the unknown land, of which no traveler not come back”.
Meghan and Harry had a fairy tale escape. They always seem trapped.
So meet them in their current iteration: still gorgeous, parents of two gorgeous kids — and also, the author tactfully concedes, relying on “corporate partnerships” to “shed light on the causes that we cared about.” heart, to tell the stories we thought were vital. And to pay for our security. In a sadder vein: “I love my motherland, and I love my family, and I always will. I just wish, at the second darkest moment of my life, that they had both been Here for me.
Yet, perversely, they have been there for him, and he for them. The brand he and Meghan have so carefully nurtured depends entirely on the brand they so publicly reject. With every morsel of palace scandal they toss into the news cycle, they feed the beast they mourn, and it will never end, and, for the sake of the Windsors, can endlessly because that would mean our interest in them has dried up. We almost end up regretting the time when the royal family poisoned itself or waged civil war. If nothing else, they took it out of their systems.
Louis Bayard is the author of “The Pale Blue Eye” and “Jackie & Me”.
By Prince Harry the Duke of Sussex
Random house. 416 pages. $36
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