The Royal Family at Trooping the Colour in London on June 2, part of the Jubilee weekend celebrations marking the late Queen's 70 years on the throne, with (left to right): Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall; Prince Charles, Prince of Wales; Queen Elizabeth II; Prince Louis; Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; Princess Charlotte; Prince George and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images. Insets: Diana, Princess of Wales, in Auckland, New Zealand in 1983. Photo: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images. Prince Harry, kisses Meghan Markle on their wedding day in Windsor on May 19, 2018. Photo: Ben Stansall/Getty Images
‘Spare’: An Engrossing Memoir Covering Harry’s Childhood, Military Service and the Meghan Years
In Prince Harry’s memoir, the former senior working royal details the little things that added up to a big Windsor family ruction. / BY Leanne Delap / January 10th, 2023
I read Spare, Prince Harry’s memoir, and I am glad I did. As I hit the buy button on the digital copy at midnight on Jan. 10, I was worried I would be in for a long, difficult night. I was suffering from the Sussex Fatigue after watching the six-hour Netflix series before the holidays, experiencing the adrenaline ride from the shrieking headlines accompanying the early leaks last week, followed by Harry’s slate of promotional TV interviews that began on Sunday. I’d already spent dozens of hours of my life consuming a memoir that hadn’t been released, and the tawdrier revelations made me feel squirmy. The surfeit of “explosive” and “blockbuster” revelations in the salacious tabloid coverage over the weekend left me shell shocked: numb, bored and sad.
But context is everything. When you read Harry’s life story in order, in full, nothing is really so very shocking. There isn’t always a “why” for our actions in life, but there is always a series of little things — nuanced things — that add up to a breaking point. So many families are marred and marked when members are out of sync. That is the simple lesson here. “Facts” ripped from the headlines are a violent rupture of the narrative, where little tidbits are taken out of proportion.
The book itself is an engrossing first-person narrative, and it zips along through three major chunks: Harry’s childhood, his military years and the Meghan years. (The reading app helpfully tracks my progress, and exactly 40 per cent of the book is AM, or after Meghan, from their 2016 meeting onward.) It is lyrical prose, thanks to ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer, whose 2006 memoir, The Tender Bar, was turned into a movie in 2021 (helmed by George Clooney and starring Ben Affleck), and who did a stellar ghostwriting turn for Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open.
Moehringer has elicited wonderful detail and texture from Harry’s memories to create moving set pieces, such as Harry’s return to London for his grandfather’s funeral. The first meeting with his father and brother after he and Meghan quit their jobs as senior working royals begins with Harry alone on a bench as Charles and William walk toward him, shoulder to shoulder and in lockstep. There is a tepid greeting, and a complete lack of understanding of what had happened and why. Harry writes of his father: “He stood between us, looking at our flushed faces. ‘Please boys, don’t make my final years a misery.’ His voice sounded raspy, fragile. It sounded if I’m being honest, old.” Harry then takes the measure of his brother: “I looked at Willy, really looked at him, for the first time since we were boys.” He notes his brother’s fading resemblance to their mother, and ends with a paradox. “In some ways he was my mirror, in some ways he was my opposite. My beloved brother, my arch nemesis, how had this happened?”
The narrative plays with the notion of memory, and Harry is very upfront about how some memories of his mother are blurry or missing, and others are searingly vivid. The first two-thirds of the book is about Harry blunting his childhood trauma with partying and escapes to Africa, then with total immersion in his military career.
The book, of course, starts with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the inciting incident that defined Harry’s life up to the moment he met his wife, Meghan Markle. “I remember feeling numb. I remember clenching my fists. I remember keeping a fraction of Willy always in the corner of my vision and drawing loads of strength from that. Most of all I remember the sounds, the clinking bridles and clopping hooves of the six sweaty brown horses, the squeaky wheels of the gun carriage they were hauling.”
Harry’s boarding school years at Ludgrove and then Eton are difficult to read, a sad little boy harbouring a desperate bit of magical thinking: that his mother had not perished in that Parisian tunnel in 1997, and instead was in hiding, waiting to reach out to him and retrieve him when the time was right. Ludgrove was a cosy escape from home, where hugs from the matrons were plentiful. At home, they were non-existent. Efforts to make a man of the bereft young prince were focused on teaching him to hunt; there is a painful scene where Harry’s face is ritualistically pushed into the recently disemboweled stomach of the first stag he has killed, an image that will stay with him forever. Also searing, the number of people who told Harry he was a “thicko” or more charitably, “not the family scholar” (that last one was from King Charles III). The narrative hits this point over and over, and you can see how Harry came to believe it, and how it was picked up as a fact in the press after it was repeated so many times. I’m crushed for that little boy and what it did to his potential, and by the power of words and labels to cling to and drag down people.
Here is Harry on his aptitudes: “At all costs I avoided sitting quietly with a book. It struck me that the whole basis of education was memory. … My memory had been spotty since Mummy disappeared, by design, and I didn’t want to fix it, because memory equalled grief.” Later, when he meets Meghan, this thread is picked up again. She describes the Eat Pray Love journey she has planned the summer they met. He replies, “Eat what now?” She says, “The book.” He counters with, “Ah. Sorry. Not really big on books,” explaining to the reader, “I felt intimidated. She was so the opposite of me. She read. She was cultured.”
Harry is not so relentless or vituperative on his theme of press intrusion into his life in this memoir as he has been in interviews. The theme runs through the book, but the argument is built slowly and thoroughly with evidence as he relives his own experiences with tabloid front pages, from the time he is a teen, and how other people’s ideas of him affects his self-worth.
What feels freshest in this life story is Harry’s recounting of his military and war years, which was reduced to a kill figure in the pre-release coverage. That does a great disservice to what we learn of his growth in confidence as he finds the skills he really is good at, and the camaraderie of anonymous service to country. The other standout is his descriptions of his relationship with Africa, beginning with his gap year in Lesotho and his friendship with the Botswana filmmakers who became substitute parental figures. He brings Meg, as he calls her, to them during their radical third-date week in the bush.
The sections on William and Kate and how they did not take to Meghan have been much analyzed in the advance coverage. Reading the sections in their entirety, it feels like culture shock. Kate and William are very formal — that is their defence mechanism to life in a fishbowl. That Meghan was coming in fully formed, a grown woman with a career and an entirely different way of looking at the world (American, touchy-feely and huggy, with a can-do hustle) makes perfect sense, in retrospect. The Brits and the Americans (and Canadians) are different. Kate earned her place in the royal pecking order; it must have felt like Meghan was parachuting in without the years of grinding subservience. Similarly, Meghan likely could not comprehend the sometimes-bizarre British traditions and the entirely different understanding of meritocracy.
The unwinding of Harry and Meghan’s London life and setting up their new life and content creation-philanthropic careers in California is not that dramatic a tale, despite what it felt like in real time. All the drama we hadn’t heard about came before the rupture. In California, they set about expanding their family and fulfilling their work contracts. Harry threw himself into therapy to break his patterns. Here’s the secret: the busier he became, the less drama ensued. If Harry’s life as a “spare” holds a universal lesson, it is that he, like all of us, is so much happier being doing fulfilling work. Sitting around any sized palace isn’t healthy for anyone.
There are a few petty little things in the text that I honestly wish hadn’t been included. It would have been stronger without those clickbait nuggets. But a seven-figure advance must come with expectations of spilling all the tea in the cupboard.
Let’s hope that this deluge of pre- and post-Christmas Sussex truth-telling and the frothing and backlash will peter out after the book’s publication. The endless speculation about whether or not Harry will reconcile with his family will never happen if the heat doesn’t get turned down now. Will the palace respond? I’m glad they waited for the release of the book to consider that question. Again, I hope the answer is no. There is no more fulsome way Harry could have expressed or explained himself than he has in the past few months. It’s time for next steps.