Jhe monarchy is based on fiction. It is a constructed reality, in which adults are asked to agree on the idea that a human is more than a human – that he or she contains something that approximates the ineffable essence of Britishness. Formerly, this fiction rested on political and military power, backed by a direct line, it was assumed, with God. Today it rests on the much more fragile foundations of habit, the mysteries of Britain’s unwritten constitution and spectacle: a kind of symbolism without the symbolized. Ceremonies such as the funeral of the late Queen are not merely decorative; these are the means available to the institution to ensure its sustainability. The monarchy is a theatre, the monarchy is a tale, the monarchy is an illusion.
All of this explains why the royal family is so irresistible to fiction writers, from Alan Bennett to Peter Morgan: they are already halfway to myth. And, it seems, no one clings to myths more than the royal family itself. There is a fascinating passage in Prince Harry’s autobiography, Spare, in which he describes his father’s delight in Shakespeare: how he regularly took his son to Stratford, how he “adored Henry V. He compared himself to Prince Hal “. Harry himself tried Hamlet. “Hmm. Lonely Prince, obsessed with deceased parent, watches remaining parent fall in love with… parent usurper? I slammed him. At Eton he was cast as Conrade, one of Don’s comedic minions John in Much Ado About Nothing. To his surprise, he was pretty good. “Being royal, it turned out, wasn’t that far off from performing.”
Prince Harry describes himself as not being a big reader. Study the guest reflection; reflection invited grief; it was better to avoid emotions. But there is an injustice. He’s a voracious reader – of the press. For years, it seems, he devoured every syllable published about him, from the outlets of the London Review of Books to the Sun to the faecal depths of social media. His father’s most often quoted refrain in the book is “Don’t read it, darling”; his therapist, he writes, suggested he was addicted to it. Spare talks about the torment of a king in the age of the smartphone and Instagram; a torment of a different order even from that suffered by his mother, and certainly by Princess Margaret, forbidden to marry the man she loved by her own sister. (To Harry, Margaret is “Aunt Margo”, a cold-blooded old lady who could “kill a houseplant with a scowl” and once gave her a ballpoint pen – “Oh. A ballpoint pen . Wow” – for Christmas.)
The fiction of royalty can only be maintained if its characters are visible, hence its symbiotic but rarely frank relationship with the media. Spare argues that portrayals of the royal family in sections of the press – aside from sometimes involving shocking criminality, outright fabrication, intolerable harassment and overt racism – have also often depended on some kind of zero-sum game, in which the spokesperson for one family member will attempt to protect their client at the expense of another, trading gossip for favors. Harry, in his role as an expendable “spare part”, has often fallen victim to this process, he argues. Narrative tropes and archetypes as old as the hills were invoked in the distortions: the wayward son; brothers at war. In Meghan’s case, something even more caustic: the witch-like woman.
It is the monarchist press for which Harry reserves a particular hatred. The Telegraph’s royal correspondent ‘has always made me sick’, he writes; and he can’t even stand to name News UK managing director Rebekah Brooks, referring to her anagrammatically as Rehabber Kooks. As for his boss: “I didn’t care about Rupert Murdoch’s policy, which was just to the right of that of the Taliban”. As clueless as Harry might be about the extent of his privilege – at the start of the book he writes: ‘It looks fancy and I guess it was ‘childhood meals of fish sticks served under silver domes by footmen – he is not remotely a snob, nor, I suppose, right-wing temperament.
A striking passage says the prince told his therapist about Hilary Mantel’s 2013 LRB trial on Kate Middleton. He became notorious, willfully misinterpreted by the tabloids as being anti-Kate, even though it was the monstrosity of the representation of the current Princess of Wales whom Mantel was skewering. Harry recalls his disgust at the thought of Mantel calling the royal family “pandas” – pampered, fascinating animals kept in a zoo. “If even a famous intellectual could think of us as animals, what hope for the man or woman in the street?”
Yet he half understands what Mantel meant. The words “have always struck me as both extremely insightful and peculiarly barbaric,” he writes. “We lived in a zoo.” Describing his unpreparedness to have his funding cut in 2020, he writes: “I recognized the absurdity, a man in his thirties being cut off by his father… But I had never asked to be financially dependent on Pa. was forced into this surreal state, this endless Truman Show in which I almost never carried money, never owned a car, never carried a house key, never ordered anything online, never received only one box from Amazon, hardly ever traveled on the subway.”
In his essay, Mantel remarked that “Harry doesn’t know who he is, a person or a prince”. Spare is clearly the prince’s attempt to reclaim his personality, to claim his own narrative. Of his tabloid bullies, he writes, “I was royal and in their minds royal was synonymous with no-one. Centuries ago, royal men and women were considered divine; now they were insects. What a pleasure, to tear off their wings. This, of course, is half remembered by Shakespeare: “As flies to blind boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport,” a blinded Gloucester told Lear. The gods in Harry’s version are neither Olympians nor kings, but paparazzi and journalists – and so the circle has turned.
Spare is by turns compassionate, frustrating, oddly compelling, and absurd. Harry is myopic because he sits at the center of his truth, both hating and locked into the tropes of tabloid storytelling, the style of which echoes his ghost-written autobiography. Had he seen more of the Golden Jubilee year of 2002, he would have observed that his impression that “Britain was drunk… Everyone wore some version of the union jack” was dead wrong. ; whole sections of the UK were indifferent, some hostile. His comments about the darkness of the basement apartment he once occupied at Kensington Palace, whose windows are blocked by a neighbour’s 4×4, will seem insulting to those who cannot find accommodation or who do not can’t afford to heat one. The logical corollary of the views he defends today would be a personal republicanism, but it goes without saying that this is not the path he is taking: “My problem, he writes, has never been with the monarchy concept. What it shows, however – whether intentionally or not – is that the monarchy is laughing at us all.
Spare by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (Transworld, £28). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.