Spare no sympathy for the British Press, Prince Harry gives his biting account of growing up under the watchful eye of the public
It’s 1997. Two teenage boys parade behind their mother’s coffin, their black suits, despite careful tailoring, look oversized. A slight, ginger-haired boy passes by mourners with his gaze trained downwards to the floor.
This image was seared into cultural memory. The news of Princess Diana’s cataclysmic car accident sparked waves of grief, disbelief, and conspiracies that perhaps “The Firm” was responsible.
Growing up in the UK in the early 2000s, the young Princes felt the closest of the Royals to my generation due to their youth and resemblance to their late mother. They represented a contemporary generation of royals, members of the Mountbatten-Windsor clan that would bring fresh perspectives and rejuvenation to the Monarchy.
In his 2023 memoir, Spare, Prince Harry presents a very different image than one of brotherly camaraderie. It promises to expose generations of hurt, and silence claims that the Royal family conflict is a recent development. Beginning with the loss of his mom, Prince Harry recounts constant press interference and distanced, cold relationships within the British Royal household.
The burden of Princess Diana’s passing weighs heavy, and is really the fundamental narrative of Prince Harry’s formative years. It is heart-wrenching to read about Harry learning of his mother’s death and his utter disbelief that she was gone.
He tells the narrative of “Pa,” sitting at the foot of his bed in Balmoral Castle, breaking the news. “They tried darling boy, I’m afraid she didn’t make it,” he said. During these moments, King Charles seems to be attempting to comfort his son, a bumbling but well-intentioned father. In all, the King is painted as misguided, perhaps selfish, but never evil. The Prince also speaks highly of “Granny,” Queen Elizabeth, and praises Prince Phillip’s wicked sense of humor.
More biting is the tumultuous relationship with his older brother. Perhaps the insistence on calling him “Willy” is another subtle jab; a fond nickname, maybe, but also British slang for male genitalia.
The harshest words are reserved for the Queen Consort, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Though Harry has since gone on record to say she is not an “evil stepmother,” in the book he accuses her of leaking stories to the press.
The true villains of the book are the ruthless paparazzi and press who hounded his mother to her grave before turning to her sons. Though he stops short of saying it, the public shoulders some blame for this too, for their morbid curiosity and complicit need to read about the Royals. The public’s outpouring of abject misery seemed to deepen the wounds of his mother’s passing. You can’t help but sympathize with the young Prince as he describes placing flowers at Diana’s grave on behalf of total strangers, bewildered by their grief while he couldn’t shed a tear.
Reading the book, it’s evident the press and public have made the Prince’s life a misery. However, given the record sales figures for Spare, it feels like a wasted opportunity to draw international scrutiny toward social issues close to the Prince’s heart.
Though he paints his mother as a victim of the press, he neglects to mention that she was also sometimes incredibly savvy with the media, often using public adoration as a way to uplift causes. Images of Princess Di, gloveless and shaking hands with HIV patients were hugely influential in destigmatising public understanding of HIV/AIDS. In contrast, the Prince uses his platform for what feels like a personal vendetta, seemingly rebutting every headline ever written about him.
The second part of the book recounts Harry’s military deployments. His discussion of his time in the military has a detached, clinical feel to it as he reels off statistics of his kills. In a moment of reflection, he asks if he was “callous, perhaps desensitized” before dismissing his work as “simple math.” At first glance, it seems like his question is redundant — how could taking a human life ever be so calculated? It’s off-putting, but it reads like an authentic insight into the psychological distance required to survive a warzone.
It’s hard to read the harrowing tales of combat tours, and harder still to empathize with the comparison between journalists and the radicalized youth of terror organizations. Prince Harry goes as far as to compare paparazzi’s outfits to the “uniform of terrorists everywhere.” These statements seem alarmingly insensitive and out-of-touch with the mass devastation and plight of civilians caused by the war in Afghanistan. The language may amply communicate his disdain for tabloids, but it seems vastly out of proportion.
The final third is dedicated to the love story between the Prince and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex. Though the descriptions are heavily clichéd and syrupy, they do communicate genuine adoration. “I’ve known you forever, but still I’ve been searching for you forever,” he says.
This section of the book oscillates between lavish descriptions and strange mundanities. The Prince uses Snapchat and Instagram, and eats at Nando’s (a chain chicken restaurant). Simultaneously, he whisks Markle off to Botswana for a third date, as though it’s akin to Netflix and Chill. He does acknowledge how lucky he is in the first chapters, recognizing how many little boys and girls wish to be a prince or princess. Still, the more you read, the more the challenges of being a Royal seem to outweigh the benefits — at least for the Prince.
Spare is marketed as Harry’s insights and revelations into life as a Royal. It feels timely, given the re-examination of media and celebrity culture we are undergoing in 2023. The tabloid culture of the early 2000s is having a moment of reckoning.
There are fascinating passages describing his transition out of the military and what feels like true adoration for his wife and mother, endearing him to the reader. Anyone who is fascinated by the Netflix documentary Harry and Meghan, will find many of the same relationship dynamics here.
In press interviews, he’s expressed looking forward to moving on and repairing relationships with his family, but it’s tricky to see how this book will help that cause. The comments on his brother’s receding hairline seem cruel and the countless descriptions of verbal arguments often read as petty. No one comes out squeaky clean, Prince Harry included. Ultimately, it’s a battle of “he said, she said” that leaves a chasm of distance between the Royals and little hope the Prince will ever return.