In extracts leaked from his autobiography, Spare, Prince Harry reminds his readers that when his mother was killed in a car crash he was in a different country and only twelve years old. How was the young prince supposed to react? He saw his grief twisted into pageantry, which was a form of silence. Instead of saying anything, he became part of the spectacle.
Well, he’s saying something now.
Traditionally, the infantilised British royal family is supposed to be seen and not heard. In response to the now almost hourly outbreaks of Harry-shaped information, Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace have “declined to comment”. They maintain a silence that is implicitly considered dignified. Silence is thought to suit the royal family because for seventy years a largely silent monarch ensured that not much changed, at least not for the monarchy.
A year after his mother’s death Harry was taken into care for money, at Eton College, where he had to pretend that in the absence of both his parents he was fine. The rules of English belonging meant adopting the cold emotional camouflage of the tribe. Again, silence came with the territory. “Nobody ever complained,” the former poet-laureate Andrew Motion wrote about his boarding school in his memoir In the Blood, “because nobody ever listened. Not even our mums and dads.”
Bet dad’s listening now.
Harry the prince didn’t really need a public school training in how to join the ruling class. Instead of the standard transaction where emotional repression is accepted in exchange for later material success, for Harry emotional repression (including silence) was the price of a later quiet life. But a quiet life is not what Harry seems to have now.
It’s easy to blame Meghan – new to the royal family, new to smooth-edged public school Englishness. Prince William is reported in Spare as saying his sister-in-law was “difficult”, “rude” and “abrasive”. All three adjectives can mean “not one of us”, with an upper-class English appreciation of right and wrong, much of it to do with manners and appearances. When the stakes are high, right and wrong become good and evil.
Does talking out loud constitute a betrayal? Talking is what defectors do, it’s what they can offer once they go over to the other side. Harry sings for his supper with secrets from behind the curtain. In the novel A Perfect Spy, John le Carré’s East German spymaster is surprised at how easy it is to turn establishment English gents against their own country. He persuades them, often gently, to consider the blatant hypocrisy of the British class system and the unfair privileges reserved for the few.
By staying silent Harry could help to preserve, to a certain extent, the national illusion of his consolingly decorous family. Which in turn, out in the wider country, nourishes a conservative reluctance to change the way Britain is organised. By following the example of reserved royal role models, we the people should also keep quiet, whenever required to do so. But Harry knows these royals. They failed to protect his mum and regularly attack his wife. They push him over in his own kitchen, he says, and make him break his dog bowl.
Speaking out, especially about feelings, disturbs the complacent rhythms of English privilege, and Harry evidently has a lot of feelings to speak out about. On Netflix, on ITV and CBS, to his ghostwriter John Moehringer, to Oprah Winfrey and to a woman who channels Diana from beyond the grave, he’ll communicate with just about anybody. He talks to his wife, about love. After the altercation with William in his kitchen he talked to his therapist.
“I don’t know how staying silent is ever going to make things better,” he says in his interview with Tom Bradby, to be broadcast this Sunday on ITV.
The past is telling him he’s making things worse. Maybe his family is, too, and those British citizens who wish to be infantilised along with their impeccable and tight-mouthed role models. Meanwhile, by the simple act of speaking out, Harry chips away at the outdated theme-park England that traduced his grief with trumpets and flags. What he may not know himself, yet, is whether to expect applause or redemption. I hope he gets both.