clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Prince Harry’s Spare is a sad and self-indicting portrait of royalty on the brink

The press is the villain but there are no heroes in Prince Harry’s new memoir.

From left, Prince Harry, King Charles, and Prince William at Lancaster House on February 13, 2014, in London, England. 
John Stillwell, WPA/Getty images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Spare, the explosive new memoir from Prince Harry, is a conflicted book. It feels like a diatribe from someone who has only recently learned that it is physically possible to talk openly about his life and his anger, and who now has no idea how to modulate himself. The result is occasionally insufferable, but also oddly fascinating. At times you wonder if it should ever have been made public.

By turns artless and lyrical, affectionate and bitter, Spare’s 400 pages read in a chaotic swirl. It spirals from the death of Harry’s mother Princess Diana in 1997, across his stunted and laddish adolescence, through his manly army days and his marriage to Meghan Markle, and up to the point that he decided to step down as a senior member of the British royal family in 2020.

Throughout, Harry’s ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer channels Harry’s voice with disarming candor. Intimate details of royal life stream out unceasingly: the brown peat-sweetened water in the baths at Balmoral, the petty squabbles over parking spots at Kensington Palace, the miserly Windsor Christmas traditions. (Princess Margaret, upon gifting Harry a cheap ballpoint pen, points out that it has a tiny rubber fish wrapped around it. “Wow,” says Harry.)

Moehringer, who won a Pulitzer under his own name for his 2000 Los Angeles Times article “Crossing Over” and ghostwrote Andre Agassi’s celebrated memoir Open, presents Harry to the reader as a likably jockish sort, straightforward and uninterested in literary flourishes. His sentences are simple and sparse, often broken into single words. Harry (via Moehringer) introduces a Faulkner reference by noting that he found it on brainyquote.com, and he is charmingly overwhelmed by Meghan’s literary sophistication when she references Eat Pray Love, a book Harry informs us he has never heard of.

More Harry’s speed, it seems, are stories about how he lost his virginity (an older woman behind a pub) and how his penis was frostbitten during a trek to the North Pole (“Now my South Pole is on the fritz”). These he presents to the reader with a sort of dirty wink, an establishing of his credentials as a lad’s lad who would certainly never want to get in the way of anyone’s good time.

And yet even Harry, the subtext goes, can see that there is something badly wrong with the relationship between the British monarchy and the British press — especially when it comes to the way the British press treated Meghan, the British monarchy’s first member of color. So what’s everyone else’s excuse?

What, especially, is the excuse of Harry’s father and brother, King Charles and Prince William, that fraught, fragile family unit left behind after Diana’s death? They are the people to whom Harry was at one point closest in the world, and from whom he is now estranged. His relationships with them, and with his lost mother, are the beating heart of Spare.

Harry writes with palpable tenderness about Charles and William, whom he calls Pa and Willy. (In turn, Charles calls Harry “darling boy,” and William calls Harry “Harold.”) Charles appears during Harry’s childhood as an absentmindedly sweet man who leaves notes on Harry’s pillow about how proud he is of him. Every morning, Charles does headstands in his underwear for physical therapy, and he is attached to his childhood teddy bear, which he totes around everywhere. Meanwhile, William, the only person who truly understands the trauma of Diana’s death and of growing up in the glare of paparazzi flashbulbs, is in the first section of the book a partner in crime, a comrade, the first person Harry turns to with problems large and small: both when one of Diana’s old friends writes a tell-all, and when one of Harry’s school friends convinces him to shave off all his hair.

Yet Charles and William are both, in Harry’s telling, corrupted by the force of the crown, which pushes them to prioritize their own reputations and consider Harry’s expendable. Heirs, always, over spares.

“I was brought into the world in case something happened to Willy,” he writes bluntly. “I was summoned to provide backup, distraction, diversion and, if necessary, a spare part. Kidney, perhaps. Blood transfusion. Speck of bone marrow.” In real life, William seems to be in little need of organ donations, but both he and Charles could always use something to take the pressure of the press’s attention off of them. Harry provides a handy distraction.

To that end, Charles allows his office to form an alliance with a journalist who falsely reports that a teenage Harry has gone to rehab for his cocaine use. Rather than denouncing the story, they use it to make Charles look sympathetic as the harried single father to a teen addict. (Harry darkly sees the hand of Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles’s longtime mistress and now queen consort, at work here, as the source for the piece is a known Camilla ally.)

The pattern continues for decades, with Charles and Camilla continually prioritizing their own rehabilitation narrative over the reputations of their children, and justifying the practice because they are the ones closest to the throne. They even, Harry reports, try to pressure Kate to change her name from Catherine to Katherine so as to avoid having too many royal “C”s. (Kate apparently declined.)

Meanwhile, William, Harry writes, is incensed with the way Harry gets to ignore the rules that regiment William’s own life: The heir must always be beyond reproach, but the spare gets to have fun. William has to shave his beard, but Harry gets to wear his even when in military uniform, in violation of protocol. William has to get married in his bright red Irish Guards uniform even though he prefers to wear the Household Cavalry frock coat uniform, but Harry gets to wear his uniform of choice to his own wedding.

To compensate for the loss of autonomy, Harry writes, William pulls rank constantly. As a teen, he tells Harry not to talk to him when they are both at Eton. As an adult, he seems put off that Meghan goes for a hug rather than a curtsy upon first meeting him. He squabbles over how he and Harry should split up their charitable concerns and tries to veto both Harry’s Invictus Games for wounded veterans and his environmental advocacy in Africa. “I let you have veterans,” he tells Harry, “why can’t you let me have African elephants and rhinos?”

When the tabloids falsely report that Meghan made Kate cry during the lead-up to her wedding with Harry (the truth, as Meghan told Oprah, is that Kate made Meghan cry), Harry traces the story to William, who fed it to Charles and Camilla, who fed it to the press. No correction, he writes, will ever be forthcoming from any of them, “because it would embarrass the future queen. The monarchy always, at all costs, had to be protected.”

Later, Harry writes that William has grown suspicious of the enlightened new attitudes Harry espouses post-Meghan, and post-therapy (suggested by Meghan). He seems to feel almost abandoned, as though Harry has left him behind in the suffocating structure of the monarchy. He refuses to join Harry in therapy, calling him “brainwashed.”

In the midst of one argument, William throws Harry to the floor so forcefully that a dog food dish shatters below him. The act is both violently aggressive and oddly plaintive, like the last resort of a spurned lover. “Come on, we always used to fight,” William says. “You’ll feel better if you hit me.” Harry refuses. As William leaves, he asks Harry not to tell Meghan about the incident and says, “I didn’t attack you, Harold.”

As in all families, deep betrayals and petty nonsense seem to hold equal emotional weight for the Windsors. Harry is justly furious with Camilla for the public relations rehab maneuver, but he’s also angry that she converted one of his many old bedrooms into her dressing room after he moved out, and that she once seemed bored talking to him at afternoon tea. He’s glad she makes his father happy, but he resents her for taking Charles away from him, in the same way that he resents Kate, whom he seems to genuinely like, for taking William away from him.

Harry is ambivalent not just about his family but also about the press, the central villain of this story and an object of fascination for him. He despises them, actively blames them for his mother’s death, compares the sound of a paparazzo’s clicking shutter to the sound of gunfire. He also reads their coverage obsessively, to the point that absorbing press coverage of the royal family seems to be his main hobby. He has nicknames for his least favorite journalists and follows the minutia of their careers with interest. When he bitterly mocks one reporter for starting two sentences in a row with the word “but” in a negative story written about him when he was 15 years old, he does so with the cadence of a man who’s been workshopping the bit in his head nonstop for multiple decades. A therapist suggests that he is addicted to the press, and he doesn’t dispute it.

The root trauma here is, of course, Diana: radiant, beloved, unreachable Diana. Harry was 12 years old when Diana died in a car crash in Paris. After her death, he had to march behind her coffin in a funeral procession while the world watched, and then shake hands and exchange pleasantries with the many mourners who had never met her, and whose hands were often, he writes in a striking detail, wet with their own tears. He himself only cried when Diana was interred, and then felt “ashamed of violating the family ethos.” Then he found himself unable to cry over her again until he was an adult.

In Spare, Harry writes about Diana with a child’s idealization. In his prose, she is beyond saints, beyond goddesses. When he meets a woman who remembers Diana cuddling her on a charity visit when she was a small child, he is overwhelmed with jealousy. Trauma has gnawed holes into all his own memories of his mother.

The army, in Harry’s narrative, both steadies and further traumatizes him. He feels that he grew up while on active duty, that he found his sense of purpose. (He believes wholeheartedly that the war in Afghanistan was just, although he notes that he doesn’t think the army was all that effective at swaying Afghan hearts and minds for the cause of Western democracy. He also makes a point of noting that he made sure each of the 25 people he killed were verified Taliban operatives and not civilians.) But after he returns from his tours, he begins to suffer from panic attacks every time he has to speak in public. Agoraphobia keeps him tethered to the tiny bachelor’s apartment his father has allotted him, watching Friends reruns and identifying with Chandler.

Things will be different, Harry thinks, when he is married. “You weren’t a fully vested member of the Royal Family, indeed a true human being, until you were wed,” he explains. After he’s married, he imagines, he won’t be afraid to go out in public, because his family will start to respect him. His grandmother will stop sticking him in the servant’s wing during holidays at Balmoral, because he’ll have more seniority. His father will up his allowance and give him a family home. He’ll get his beloved brother back, because he and William and Kate and whoever he marries will get to be couple friends together. And he’ll have, at long last, a partner, someone to replace the source of unconditional love he lost when his mother died.

Instead, when Harry marries, Charles tells him that he can’t afford to support both him and the Cambridges. (Supporting his children, Harry notes with outrage, was supposed to be part of Charles’s job as Prince of Wales, not something he did “out of any largesse.” After all, being the sons of the Prince of Wales rendered both William and Harry unemployable.) William darkly repeats tabloid stories about Meghan being pushy and abrasive, while Kate flinches away from Meghan’s American friendliness. And Meghan is so badly harassed by racist tabloids that she begins to struggle with suicidal ideation.

Harry does not explicitly blame the monarchy for any of these problems. In subtext, Spare is a searing indictment of the British crown, which Harry depicts as a force that warps family dynamics under the strength of its imperative: to protect the crown, and those in the direct line of succession, at the expense of everyone else. Yet textually, Harry declares his full-throated support for the monarchy and for his commander-in-chief. He writes lyrically of the “magic” of the crown itself, the beauty of its jewels, of how much he believes it means to the people of the British Commonwealth.

“The crown seemed to possess some inner energy source, something beyond the sum of its parts,” he writes, in an apparent attempt to square the difference. “But all I could think … was how tragic that it should remain locked up in this Tower.” The implication seems to be that the monarchy is strong and powerful and a force for good, but that it’s been hindered by forces that go too far to protect it. The idea appears nowhere else in Spare, and here it feels less than convincing.

Spare does not exist, though, for the monarchy. Spare exists, apparently, for William and Charles, the lost loves of Harry’s life, stolen from him by their wives, by the press, by the institution, by everything they chose before they chose him. He is writing and publishing Spare, he explains in the foreword, in order to explain to them why he felt he had to leave them and the rest of the family behind, to move to California and start over.

He can’t explain it to their faces, he writes. “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.”

The tragedy of Spare is that everything Harry has told us makes it clear that Charles and William will take this memoir not as an explanation or a love letter but as a betrayal worse than anything they ever did to Harry, and that they may not be wrong. Even if they never read it, as seems highly possible, how can they avoid the endless stream of coverage, the interviews Harry has granted about the book, the Netflix documentary that came in December, the nonstop stream of information about Harry and Meghan that the two of them have flung out into the world? You close the book with the queasy sense that in reading it, you’ve been prying into something deathly private, that probably this book should not exist at all.

It’s as though Harry, who hates the press and its constant invasion of his privacy, has had to become press himself in order to finally bring the emotional force of his argument home. Because reading Spare, it’s hard to avoid the thought that we never had any right to these people’s lives at all.