Review: Prince Harry and the Chamber of Secrets

Updated on Jan 19, 2023 12:22 PM IST

While Spare provides insights into the diabolical cult-like aspects of British Royalty and its mutual vulture-predator relationship with the British tabloids, it is essentially the story of an outsider who craved acceptance

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in a photograph taken on November 27, 2017 following the announcement of their engagement. (Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) PREMIUM
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in a photograph taken on November 27, 2017 following the announcement of their engagement. (Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)
ByFarzana Versey

The clandestine works well in literature. It gives the non-fiction genre an edge. People appear interesting – skeletons tumble out of teakwood closets, idiosyncrasies rattle in the dark, truth is camouflaged with falsity and falsehood with truism.

Who is to decide how real reality ought to be?

As I began reading Spare, I was glad I chose not to be taken in by the sensational extracts or the laborious quasi woke analyses that, strangely, give a free pass to the monarchy. A large part of the book’s appeal lies in its language, and Pulitzer Prize winning writer JR Moehringer who has ghost-written it makes the lengthy descriptions evocative without resorting to purple prose. You get to see a person and not a cardboard prince. Therefore, I wonder why Harry chose his titular title as author, referring to himself as “Prince Harry”, for it screams out both attention-seeking as well as helpless attempt to hold on to all that he voluntarily lost.

The book works because Harry comes across much like the Beatles’ Nowhere Man “making all his nowhere plans for nobody”. There is artistry in revealing one’s warts for they expose the flaws in others.

416pp, ₹1599; Bantam Books
416pp, ₹1599; Bantam Books

As a story of recollections, it comes across as a Dickensian world of a privileged Oliver Twist. As you enter it, you get insights into the everyday life of a special person, a peep into a home that is a palace and another where a statue (Queen Victoria) stands on the second floor and before whom the young princes bowed each time they passed. “Everything at Balmoral was either old or made to look so. The castle was a playground, a hunting lodge, but also a stage.”

On this stage, some became players and some got played. Harry’s version is that of one persecuted. He concedes that his father too was when his parents sent him off to a boarding school to toughen up. How did he, the current reigning monarch King Charles, cope? By clutching his teddy bear that “he still owned years later. It was a pitiful object, with broken arms and dangly threads, holes patched up here and there…Teddy expressed eloquently, better than Pa ever could, the essential loneliness of his childhood”.

Charles could not even bring himself to express love to his son so Harry would find notes addressed to “Darling boy” on the pillow minutes after they’d sat across from each other.

Britain's King Charles III delivers his message during the recording of his first Christmas broadcast in the Quire of St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (Victoria Jones/Pool Photo via AP)
Britain's King Charles III delivers his message during the recording of his first Christmas broadcast in the Quire of St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (Victoria Jones/Pool Photo via AP)

He spent a good deal of his time observing the adults who sat at dinner to the “bleaty notes of the accompanying bagpipes”, being “forced to remain ramrod straight before china plates and crystal goblets… forced to peck at quails ’eggs and turbot, forced to make idle chitchat while stuffed into their fanciest kit…I thought: What hell, being an adult!”

Memoirs and biographies are my favourite genre. Much of ‘misery literature’ is about a life a person was denied. The vacuum gets occupied by the subject/writer and the readers together. Secrets are shared.

***

One cannot expect objectivity from an autobiography, for memories are selective. Even if Harry has fictionalised his role, isn’t the response to it a peek into how others would have used his story? Perceptions of a person’s reality by others cannot be more honest than their own for such perceptions aren’t uniform.

They aren’t even consistent. Critics who’ve been portraying Harry as a poodle of his wife Meghan Markle are shocked by him admitting to killing 25 Taliban fighters. The British Army Air Corps had deployed him as an Apache helicopter pilot and “ trained me to “other” them, and they had trained me well…I made it my purpose, from day one, to never go to bed with any doubt over whether I had done the right thing. Whether I had shot at Taliban and only Taliban, without civilians in the vicinity. I wanted to return to Great Britain with all my limbs, but more than that I wanted to get home with my conscience intact”.

In this Dec. 12, 2012 file photo Britain's Prince Harry or just plain Captain Wales as he is known in the British Army, wears his monocle gun sight as he sits in the front seat of his cockpit at the British-controlled flight-line in Camp Bastion, southern Afghanistan. (John Stillwell, File/ AP Photo)
In this Dec. 12, 2012 file photo Britain's Prince Harry or just plain Captain Wales as he is known in the British Army, wears his monocle gun sight as he sits in the front seat of his cockpit at the British-controlled flight-line in Camp Bastion, southern Afghanistan. (John Stillwell, File/ AP Photo)

What the West did in Afghanistan was reprehensible. If we apportion the blame for such attacks on individual soldiers, then Harry is culpable too. Wars dehumanise.

On a visit to South Africa with his father, he discovered about the 1879 war in which 150 British soldiers prevailed over 4000 Zulu warriors. Even though he learned that the war “was the outgrowth of imperialism, colonialism, nationalism – in short, theft”, he admits to blindsiding this information and instead “zoomed in on the bits about manly courage, and British power, and when I should’ve been horrified, I was inspired”.

***

Who or what inspired his rebellion?

“Were you silent or were you silenced?” Oprah Winfrey asked Meghan in the famous/notorious two-hour session that was watched by 49 million people across the world. In The Palace Papers, Tina Brown observes that Meghan’s look was designed to mimic Princess Diana’s in the confessional Martin Bashir interview. “Royal code breakers noted that on Meghan’s left wrist was her late mother-in-law’s Cartier diamond tennis bracelet, signifying that the mantle of wronged royal woman was now hers.”

However, there was huge support for Diana, but “widespread scepticism at Meghan’s assertion that she had nowhere to turn with her thoughts of suicide except the Buckingham Palace HR department – a surreal-sounding place”.

Harry who had spent years in therapy could only empathise. Added to that was the racism. It is surprising that critics don’t commend his stand against it. He is a late entrant into the outside-the-bubble awareness, but he is causing a rumble in the monarchy and, more so, against ingrained conservative thinking. Nobody but an insider can bring in that kind of authenticity.

Harry going against the royal family isn’t, however, really a post-Meghan dissent. The seeds were sown at birth. “I was summoned to provide back-up, distraction, diversion and, if necessary, a spare part. Kidney, perhaps. Blood transfusion. Speck of bone marrow. This was all made explicitly clear to me from the start of life’s journey and regularly reinforced thereafter.”

Sex and drugs became a crutch, the latter helping him see “the truth”. The most telling revelation is his obsession with his mother. He refused to believe she was dead even as William and he were forced to walk behind the horse-drawn carriage that carried her coffin through the streets. “It seemed a lot to ask of two young boys.” He now believes it was perhaps to “garner sympathy” to restore his father’s flagging reputation.

Much as Spare is an insight into the cult-like aspects of British Royalty and its mutual vulture-predator relationship with the British tabloids, it is essentially the story of an outsider who craved acceptance and, undoubtedly, the benefits of his inherited position. He isn’t a whitewashed nice guy, although he might have liked that, and that vulnerability makes him identifiable.

Our lives are not entirely our own. Others scar us and get scarred by us. What may work as catharsis could become exploitation of others. Jacob Bronowski has explained this phenomenon rather well: “The wish to hurt, the momentary intoxication with pain, is the loophole through which the pervert climbs into the minds of ordinary men.”

The perversion is simply a subconscious need for vengeance for the rebuff experienced. Harry was coping with what he rather indelicately refers to as “the other woman” and his fairytale like belief in the stereotype of an evil stepmother. That’s the reason why he continued to get psychic messages from his mother through a “woman with powers”. More than any factual basis to his conjecture, he wanted to continue to fight Diana’s battle posthumously. “Mummy, much as she loved peace, often seemed a soldier, whether she was warring against the paps or Pa.”

Princess Diana of Wales with her sons, Princes Harry, foreground, and William, on the steps of the Royal Palace on the island of Mallorca, Spain, on August 9, 1987. (John Redman / AP Photo)
Princess Diana of Wales with her sons, Princes Harry, foreground, and William, on the steps of the Royal Palace on the island of Mallorca, Spain, on August 9, 1987. (John Redman / AP Photo)

One thought that he would feel an affinity with his exiled great-great-uncle and his wife, but that isn’t so. “After Edward gave up his throne for Wallis, both of them fretted about their ultimate return – both obsessed about being buried right here. The Queen, my grandmother, granted their plea. But she placed them at a distance from everyone else, beneath a stooped plane tree. One last finger wag, perhaps. One final exile, maybe.”

Somewhere along, it does appear that he is conscious of the hierarchy he has spoken against. Instead of being committed to the new life, he feels cheated. “When my wife and I fled this place, in fear for our sanity and physical safety, I wasn’t sure when I’d ever come back.” Reading through his memoirs it appears as though he hasn’t quite left. The process of trying to find himself, too, is from the point of view of his roots.

Self-exploration can indeed be a narcissistic act, digging through the morass of atrophy and ambition and fabricating a mask that’s eerily real.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey

The views expressed are personal

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