The opening scene of Spare is close to one in the film The Slipper and the Rose, a musical retelling of Cinderella. The Prince (Richard Chamberlain) tells how, as a child, he was brought to his future tomb and told: “That’s yours. That’s waiting for you.” Then he sings. Spare begins at the royal burial ground after the funeral of Prince Philip, in April 2021. Prince Harry – Harold to his brother, Hal to me, because he’s a fool seeking wisdom – is a singular creature: a reluctant archetype. At the end of the book, he frees a hummingbird and there is his metaphor: the hummingbird, c’est moi.
He is at the burial ground to meet his father – always Pa – and William, whom he calls Willy because he thinks it makes him sound stupid. Not only does William get the crown, but Hal fears that one day he will have to give him a kidney, being a spare. He wants to explain why he is so angry, and waits near a gothic ruin (“some bit of stagecraft”). They arrive and, “our feet almost on top of Wallis Simpson’s face, Pa launched into a micro-lecture” about dead relatives. Spare is filled with allusions to death: being smuggled away from a nightclub in the boot of a car, Hal compares himself to a man in a coffin. On his way to Afghanistan, he wonders what the headline will be if he dies and chooses, “Bye, Harry”. It’s a fair guess.
The princes shout over each other, and the mood is dangerous. The media are so skilled at trying to make Windsor men cry it’s easy to forget that the brothers are trained killers. Hal has an epiphany: he will write a book. “How can I tell them? I can’t. It would take too long. Besides, they’re clearly not in the right frame of mind to listen. Not now, anyway. Not today. And so: Pa? Willy? World? Here you go.”
Spare is an act of transgression. Puppets are not meant to speak; they are not meant to shame you. Britain heard Elizabeth II’s silence and poured into it everything it loved, and, increasingly, everything the country wasn’t. For me, Spare is whistleblowing, but then I think monarchy is a personal cruelty and a national idiocy. A belief in it may be a bewitching act of projection, but there are too many victims to judge it benevolent: Margaret, Diana, Hal, even Elizabeth. When I watched her body driven down the A40, with a little jewelled crown atop, I wept for the life she might have had. What was it for?
Now we have what we imagine we wanted, and we don’t like it, because it’s truthful: a portrait of life with the Windsors, written by one of their own. It is bitter reading: like watching people try to be human when humanity won’t serve them. There is love here but it is eerie, calcified and fiercely guarded: each duke for himself in the battle for semi-divinity, fought by planting trees and laughing on Instagram.
Hal, who resembles his grandfather Philip – look at the eyes and the bridge of the nose, a photographer told me, when I was pondering the rumours – has at least partially fulfilled Virginia Woolf’s prophecy, outlined in an essay: “And suppose that among the autumn books of 2034 is Prometheus Unbound, by George the Sixth, or Wuthering Heights, by Elizabeth the Second, what will be the effect upon their loyal subjects?… Words are dangerous things, let us remember. A republic might be brought into being by a poem.”
But first the reader must untangle Hal from their ideal of him, and from his skilful ghostwriter. There is the Hal of Channel 4’s satire The Windsors, or, as the headlines have him, Prince Thicko. This Hal ruminates on the character of swans, talks to a bin – “you’re welcome, mate” – loses his virginity in a field and projects his feelings onto elephants, who he thinks are having a meeting. He wonders if he should live in Svalbard. He fantasises about working at a fondue bar. He drinks alcohol out of prosthetic legs and loves Stewie from Family Guy because he is a baby and a truth-teller, and Hal identifies.
There is the heartbroken child, who was loved by a country, which isn’t love at all. Hal meets Gurkhas who will not let him go to the toilet alone – they think he is semi-divine and needs assistance – and a woman who shouts “Diana’s baby!” at him and passes out. (Earl Spencer’s disgust on hearing that the children would walk behind the coffin was righteous. He said it was barbaric, and it was, though it stopped Pa getting heckled, or shot.)
But mostly there is rage, and the possibility of renewal. Hal is like a teenage alcoholic who has just stopped drinking. He is amazed at himself, and he cannot stop revelating. Elizabeth II is a deity tended by pages, a cloud in spectacles. I don’t doubt she loved her family, but she presided over a vacuum into which their souls were poured, and Hal tells us how she did it. Observing her during the Golden Jubilee concert in 2002, he writes, “I was startled at how unstartled she was. It wasn’t that she felt no emotions. On the contrary, I always thought that Granny experienced all the normal human emotions. She just knew better than the rest of us mortals how to control them.” Then he looks closer, and sees that she is wearing bright yellow earplugs. That is her secret: she didn’t listen.
Then there are Pa and Camilla. Pa is a sentimental workaholic, never at the scene of the crime. He smells “flowery, with a hint of something harsh, like pepper or gunpowder”. He falls asleep at his desk and awakes with letters stuck to his face. He has a battered teddy bear that travels with him: Hal wonders if the teddy looks like Pa as a child did after he had suffered a beating from the bullies at Gordonstoun, his public school. Watching Hal play Conrade in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (“Can you make no use of your discontent?”) Pa laughs in the wrong places. He tickles Hal’s face to soothe him until he falls asleep, and leaves notes on his pillow telling him how proud he is. On the night his mother would die, “Pa stopped by on his way to dinner. He was running late, but he made a show of lifting the silver dome – ‘Yum, wish I was having that!’ – and taking a long sniff. He was always sniffing things. Food, roses, or our hair.” When Hal rings him from Afghanistan, Pa says: “I love your letters. I’d much prefer a letter.” When he tells Harry his mother is dead, he pats his knee, and leaves him to it. “Who knows if I’m really the Prince of Wales?” he asks at one point. “Who knows if I’m even your real father? Maybe your real father is in Broadmoor, darling boy!”
Pa briefs against his sons when it suits him, because there isn’t enough favour to go around. (“There was always a but with him when it came to the press, because he hated their hate, but oh how he loved their love.”) The boys complain of leaks from their father’s office to keep Pa and Camilla up the popularity rankings, which YouGov publish. Pa frets: “Granny has her person [her press contact], why can’t I have mine?” And again: “But Pa just kept saying it. Granny had her person… High time he had a person too.”
As Hal’s mental health declines, he talks to his father: “Towards the end of the meal he looked down at his plate and said softly: ‘I suppose it’s my fault. I should have got you the help you needed years ago.’” Then he disappears, an apprentice cloud.
William emerges as a man who learned life from a textbook, the CEO of a failing corporation. He builds walls as swiftly as any medieval prince, sometimes giving affection, sometimes withholding it. Help is available, but “I must come to him. Pointedly, directly, formally – bend the knee.” You don’t know me and I don’t know you, he tells Hal when he starts at Eton, like a young Godfather or David Brent. It’s the same in Botswana, and later, too, when William is living with Catherine at Kensington Palace, and the invitations to dinner do not come. (In fact, they are busy watching Suits, which is hilarious.) Or William says, “I let you have veterans, why can’t you let me have African elephants and rhinos?” Or: “Raw deal, Harold,” when the newspapers scoop Hal’s life again.
William can be giddy. The night before his wedding, he is drunk on rum and insists on going down to talk to the crowds. He expresses this with a peculiar intensity: “‘I need to see them!’ He asked me to come. He begged.” I watch the footage. William is sweet and ruddy as a baby, chomping his teeth, talking to some women dressed as daffodils. I wonder if, when drunk, he can imagine himself a saviour.
The most interesting scene is the fight, which as a story leaked first: William pushes Hal into a dog bowl. When I profiled William for the New Statesman, I wrote that he is a “parental child” with an urge to rescue – if he cannot rescue, he cannot cope. “He said he was trying to help me,” Hal writes. Hal replied: “Are you serious? Help me? Sorry – is this what you call this? Helping me?” So, William, thwarted in his rescue, throws him to the floor. At the burial ground at Frogmore, in a scene as gothic as the ruin, William grabs Hal, who is talking about “being stripped of everything” since he and Meghan left the UK. (His security detail is gone. The threat to his family is real, and the leaking has made it worse.) William shouts: “That was Granny! Take it up with Granny! Listen to me, Harold, listen! I love you, Harold! I want you to be happy. Harold you must listen to me! I just want you to be happy, Harold, I swear. I swear on Mummy’s life.” This is the shattered heart of the book: William wants this to be true – hence his fury – but he knows it isn’t. It can’t be. There is not enough favour to go around.
Hal’s hatred of Camilla is a ghost limb, or a feint. It is his father he is angry with, for betraying the mother he never really accepts is dead. Should it surprise us that the high priest of the cult of Diana is her younger son? The pain, he writes, is “all I have left of her”. Beyond repurposing his childhood bedroom as a dressing room, Camilla doesn’t do much: as seen in Spare, she is essentially too lazy to be a villain. Catherine emerges as a female mirror of William: careful, hypersensitive, and, when asked to lend Meghan a lip-gloss, territorial. A better villain is Angela Kelly, Elizabeth II’s dresser, a master in working-class snobbery, who you sense would rip the tiara off any madam’s head if she could, their being inferior to her madam. Who isn’t? Royal servants snipe where it is safe to do so. When you read that Mr R, an equerry, parked his Land Rover Discovery to block out Hal’s daylight, you suspect it is deliberate: Jeeves revenged on Wooster is a trope.
I was prepared for Hal’s account of the savagery of the press, who took photographs of Diana dying. But I was not prepared for the savagery of his social class. Here is his description of a stay with his childhood friends the Van Cutsems: “Hair pulling, eye gouging, arm twisting, sleeper holds. Black eye, violet welt, puffed lip.” Being emotionally cauterised, he doesn’t mind, “on the contrary”.
Walking in the woods the Van Cutsems find an old army Land Rover. “Willy and the boys smiled. Harold, jump in, drive away, and we’ll shoot you. Either get in and drive or we shoot you right here.” At Balmoral he shoots a red deer with a gamekeeper. They kneel by the carcass, and the gamekeeper stuffs his head in it. On his stag night, “they dressed me as a giant yellow feathered chicken and sent me downrange to shoot fireworks at me”. What a lifestyle! He is tortured as preparation for war in Afghanistan. A female soldier plays a terrorist and says: “Your mother was pregnant when she died, eh? With your sibling? A Muslim baby!” This is a conspiracy theory and later they apologise: “Hard for us to find something about you that you’d be shocked we knew.”
Then came Meghan, and who wouldn’t prefer her to a weekend with the Van Cutsems? Racism, classism, misogyny and xenophobia fell on her, though people were excited about the wedding. The closer you get to the throne, the easier it is for the women. Catherine had only to deal with classism and misogyny, Camilla with misogyny, Elizabeth Regina, presumably, with boredom. Who does Meghan think she is? Human? She could not know it was a kind of acceptance, a slotting her into the pantheon of the dehumanised.
In the wake of her wedding, the Express accused Meghan of trying to kill Princess Charlotte with lilies of the valley. Then it was murderous avocados. Then it was Duchess Difficult and Tiaragate and the Tragedy of the Bridesmaids’ Ill-fitting Dresses, all leaked by palace staff to benefit the principals, which is why we know about it. Meghan was suicidal, though people refuse to believe it. She is a paradigm of the female victim, taunted, disbelieved.
Hal is only half emancipated: he still doesn’t understand class. He says his mother had a “hatred of smugness and fakery and all things posh”. She married the Prince of Wales! Extra security “was made necessary by the press stirring up racism and class resentment”. He knows the diamonds are bloody, but he still loves the crown. Is this vestigial loyalty? We don’t yet know.
I hope he will achieve full emancipation, because, having projected onto him for a lifetime, I can’t stop now. I once seriously hoped he would become a tree surgeon. Either he still believes he is semi-divine and the world needs his service, or he wants fame as an instrument of revenge. I prefer the second theory because it is self-aware, calculating and grandiose: royal, then. The best Twitter response to Spare imagined Hal and William mustering forces in their respective dukedoms and meeting halfway in battle, at a Waltham Cross Homebase.
If Hal’s theme is cruelty, his conclusion is that royalty is brutalising, and that is not an error – though he thinks, or pretends, it is. This is an extraordinary and important book, though you can argue it is likewise savage and immoral. His family do not want to join his community of happy hummingbirds, preferring, for now, their fretful royal power.
This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis