The sound and the fury
Prince Harry’s memoir an uneven but revealing look at life in the Royal fishbowl
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Prince Harry’s memoir Spare opens with a poignant epigraph by William Faulkner — “The past is not even dead. It’s not even past.”
There are many ways in which this pertains to the life of the Duke of Sussex — the centuries of family history tied up with the British monarchy, which struggles to retain and define its place in the modern world, or the grief and trauma he grapples with 25 years after the loss of his mother, Princess Diana, when he was 12 years old.
Then just pages later comes a revelation — of the Faulkner quote Harry writes “When I discovered that quotation not long ago on BrainyQuote.com, I was thunderstruck. I thought, Who the fook is Faulkner? And how’s he related to us Windsors?”
At least readers know early on that Spare isn’t going to be some profound literary experience (despite the ghostwriting assistance of J. R. Moehringer, who helped Andre Agassi pen the memoir Open).
That’s not to say there’s nothing of value in Spare — provided you give one hoot about the archaic concept of the monarchy. The memoir chronicles the life of a boy, and then man, who has had to deal with the loss of his mother, play second fiddle to his older brother, suffer the mental after-effects of combat and live life in the fishbowl of British tabloid media.
Clearly many care what Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and the “spare” to his brother William’s role as heir, has to say; in the first nine days the book sold more than 3.2 million copies worldwide, half of which were in the U.S. — not a country one normally associates with much interest in the British royal family.
The book surely wouldn’t have made such a splash on this side of the pond were it not for the Netflix dramatic series The Crown, the six-part Harry & Meghan documentary series (also on Netflix, for which the couple were paid a hefty sum) and the fact Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle are now two of California’s best-known residents. If they wanted to step away from life under the microscope, it’s an odd way to go about things — but you’ve got to pay the bills somehow.
Spare is organized chronologically into three sections: the first recounting the years after his mother’s death in August 1997, the second chronicling his military service and the third recalling his life with now-wife Meghan Markle.
The first section is the book’s weakest. On numerous occasions throughout Spare, but particularly in the early pages, Harry admits he might not be remembering things exactly as they happened. (Since its publication, some incidents recounted in the book have been fact-checked and debunked or revealed to be inaccurate.)
In one presumably accurate early passage Harry recalls his father (then Prince Charles, whom he calls Pa throughout) coming into his room, placing his hand on Harry’s knee and breaking the news to his “darling boy” that his mother had died in a car accident in Paris. That’s about as emotionally connected with his son as Pa ever gets. Harry, meanwhile, copes with his mother’s loss by refusing for many years to believe she was dead — rather, he told himself she had gone into hiding, and would resurface and summon her boys when the time was right.
He employs other coping mechanisms including booze, drugs and sowing his wild oats, much of which is offered in a cheeky detail (as are later trips to Botswana to get away from the public eye). Indeed, there are some juicy and hilarious passages throughout Spare that sometimes border on too much information (how he lost his virginity comes to mind, as does, of course, his infamous frostnipped “todger”).
The second portion of Spare offers more structure and detail, chronicling Harry’s time in the military, his training as a helicopter pilot and his time serving in Afghanistan (where he reveals he killed 25 people). His connection to wounded veterans would eventually lead to his setting up the Invictus Games, an Olympics-type competition of sorts for soldiers injured in combat.
The final third of Spare details how Prince Harry met his now-wife Meghan Markle, their courtship and marriage, and the lengths they went to in order to evade the paparazzi (or “paps,” as Harry calls them), who invade every aspect of their life together, hounding them (and anyone associated with them) incessantly for photos then sold to the British tabloids.
It’s the paps that prompt Harry and Meghan to leave the U.K., and who contributed greatly to what the prince calls his “red mist” of grief and rage, for which he eventually seeks therapy — no small step or admission for a member of the Royal family. (Various U.K. tabloids have since picked up on reports the Royals believe Harry has been “kidnapped by the cult of psychotherapy,” which reveals just how much they’re still disconnected from reality.)
Throughout Spare, Pa is painted as emotionally aloof but seemingly trying his best, a result of his own stiff-upper-lip upbringing as a monarch in the U.K. The late Queen Elizabeth II (Granny) is clearly beloved by her grandson; he lauds her levelheadedness, dry wit and sense of humour.
The sharpest jabs are saved for Prince William (or Willy) — their relationship strained over the years, the growing animosity between the two (Willy’s fault, in Harry’s telling) culminates in a physical altercation. Harry’s stepmother Camilla, meanwhile, is also portrayed in a less-than-flattering light more than once, deemed to be feeding the tabloids info on Harry and Meghan in order to bolster the palace’s own image.
While many in the palace and royal family seem complicit in driving Harry and Meghan away, at no point does the estranged Duke of Sussex call for the abolishment of the monarchy — near the book’s end, in fact, he does quite the opposite, which is perplexing given how poorly he has seemingly been treated by them. Harry wants reconciliation with his family, but Spare won’t help that happen. He and Meghan probably shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for an invite to King Charles’ coronation in May.
Anthony Sampson once said: “Once you touch the trappings of monarchy, like opening an Egyptian tomb, the inside is liable to crumble.” In Spare, Prince Harry pulls back those trappings and reveals the extent of the corrosion at the monarchy’s core. Whether it will crumble or, as it has so far, retain a defiant, insular, “no comment” approach remains to be seen.
And yes, that Sampson bit was nabbed from BrainyQuote.com.
Ben Sigurdson is the Free Press literary editor.
Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.