Spare. Prince Harry. Transworld Publishers Ltd. January 2023.
“In the most eagerly-awaited memoir of 2023, Prince Harry tells his version of the story about the tragic death of his mother Princess Diana, life within the Royal Family and his marriage to Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, with remarkable candour and directness.“
It’s so difficult to review memoirs, and especially ones which have divided public opinion so dramatically, but I personally really enjoyed Spare and I ended up giving it 5 stars. I felt the ghost-writer did an excellent job of turning Prince Harry’s story into a compelling, emotionally evocative page-turner. The chapters are short and digestible, so despite the length of the book, I flew through it, because the structure really suited my short attention span.
I am not someone who has a strong parasocial attachment to the royal family, and I disagree with the monarchy’s existence from a political perspective, so I’ve never had a hugely favourable opinion towards any of them. However, for some reason, both Princess Diana and Prince Harry have always fascinated me – I guess I am drawn to people who stand out as being, thinking and doing things differently from those around them.
I’ve been following what’s been happening to Harry and Meghan very closely – I think their treatment by the press has been appalling, the racism towards Meghan absolutely disgusting, and it’s astounding to me that the tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines haven’t gotten bored of their smear campaign by now. Claudia Boleyn on YouTube as some excellent videos analysing this if you’re interested in learning more about the way the tabloid press operates in this country.
This book has been sensationalised by the media, picked apart, misreported and negatively reviewed by people who haven’t even read it, purely because they’ve decided they hate Harry and Meghan because the Daily Mail told them to. It has caused such a scandal that, naturally, I was desperate to get my hands on a copy. Whilst I knew the papers were talking bullshit as usual, the snippets I heard from the actual book intrigued me a lot. I actually pre-ordered it, which is something I rarely do these days. I’ll admit a big part of me wanted to read this book because I am thirsty for drama and I’d like to see the monarchy crumble!
But, as I began reading, I realised I was in store for something much more poignant, and I came away feeling even more empathy for Harry (and, surprisingly to me, for others within the royal system too). Anyone can experience trauma no matter how much privilege they are born into, and in so many ways, growing up within this elite system has actively contributed to Harry’s trauma. (If this system of unequal birthright isn’t even helpful to the people it supposedly benefits the most, surely it’s time to abolish it, no?)
This memoir begins with the death of Harry’s mother, Diana, and follows his journey right up until he and Meghan start their new life in America. The first few chapters in particular are a very emotional reading experience. I can’t fathom how painful it must be to lose your mum at such a young age (or at any age), and to have the whole world’s eyes on you whilst you grieve. It’s heartbreaking to see the impact Diana’s death has had on Harry – how for so long he was in complete denial that she had died at all, and believed she had simply gone away somewhere to hide from the intrusive paparazzi. The loss of his mother is something which has clearly shaped the course of Harry’s life, and the love he has for her is a powerful presence in every part of his journey. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but it feels like a huge part of the book is about his connection with her, even the parts that aren’t actively about her.
Despite the press’s insistence that this book is one big diatribe of hatred against Harry’s family, this is patently untrue. Harry may outline some things that *some* members of his family have said and done which have had a damaging impact on him (note – he doesn’t say anything offensive about the Queen, and clearly holds great affection for her), but he also continuously talks about his deep love for them, and how he longs to reconcile with them. In some ways, it feels like Harry has written this book *for* them, to get their attention and to get them to listen to his side of the story, after so many failed attempts at communicating with them.
You get the sense of a very dysfunctional family – a family so formal and detached they don’t even hug one another behind closed doors – and one in which the roles they play are seen as more important than the people themselves. The title of the book, ‘Spare’, is taken from the idea that one prince is the ‘Heir’ to the throne (William), and the other is the ‘Spare’ (Harry), born to be the back-up in case anything happens to his brother (including, for example, donating a kidney for him if required.) I’d heard the phrase ‘Spare’ before in books featuring royalty, but I hadn’t realised this was an actual thing within the British monarchy. And to me, this concept is all kinds of messed up!
As a child Harry is repeatedly referred to by everyone around him, including his own parents, as ‘the Spare’, and as he grows up, it becomes apparent he is to be used this way within the family’s publicity machine too: Harry essentially becomes a media scapegoat for the more ‘important’ members of his family; negative or scandalous stories about Harry (for example a fabricated piece about him being in rehab for teenage drug addiction) are allowed to run, unchallenged by the palace, because they deflect negative media attention away from those directly in line to throne. It’s not at all surprising that growing up being told you are less important than your sibling would have a huge psychological impact on a child, and it’s worrying to think of William and Kate’s three children growing up with the same dynamics in play. What impact will that have on their self worth and mental health?
In my opinion, this book is nowhere near as denigrating of the royal family as the press have insinuated, and it isn’t even anti-monarchy! Harry insists that he still believes in the institution of monarchy (although I have a feeling that one day he might change his mind). If anything, this book gave me slightly more empathy for people that I actively judged and disliked beforehand. Don’t get me wrong, I still dislike what they represent, but I came away with the impression that all of them are trapped within this toxic system, pitted against one another, operating more like a PR machine than a family, and I don’t believe it is healthy for any of them as individual people. You can see, for example, that in someone like Charles, the formal distance and repression of emotion is not due to lack of affection for his son, but because this behaviour is so deeply ingrained in him, and that’s how it has always been done within the institution. He constantly calls Harry his ‘darling boy’, yet he is unable to give him a hug to comfort him when his mother dies. It’s really quite sad to read, but somehow Harry paints Charles with empathy here – he can see that he is trying, and he knows it isn’t his fault.
Of course there are members of the royal family who come off worse than others – Camilla and William in particular – but if the things Harry says they have done are true, then I believe he has every right to share those stories. If Camilla truly has fed false stories to the press about Harry and Meghan, why shouldn’t Harry set the record straight about that? Why is he the one being condemned for ‘betrayal’ of his family? The account of William physically attacking his brother alleges abusive behaviour, and I hate that the reaction from the general public has been to laugh about the fact that Harry landed in the dog bowl, and to accuse him (the victim) of making it up. I find it so unsettling how our default position is to disbelieve those who call out abusive behaviour, to call them liars and label them ‘delusional’, and it’s very interesting to me that the comments from ‘royal source[s]’ following the publication of this book have not denied the contents of it, but rather attempted to portray Harry as mentally unstable by saying he has been ‘kidnapped by a cult of psychotherapy’. It’s worryingly easy to use somebody’s history of trauma and mental health difficulties to cast doubt on what they are saying.
The biggest villain of this story is the British tabloid press, and this book is Harry attempting to set the record straight about every false thing that has ever been printed about him, and every potential story that could be leaked about him in the future. He lays everything bare – his mental health, his relationships, his feelings towards the press – but I didn’t find anything sordid about the details he reveals. The press of course have latched onto the fact that he references losing his virginity, and that he recalls a time he got frostbite on his penis, but neither of those incidents are written in a sensationalised way within the text, and the latter is actually included to illustrate the level of press intrusion into his life – he was unable to seek medical help at the time because he was scared about the story making front page news in the tabloids.
I’ve seen a lot of people take issue with the fact that Harry claims to want privacy yet chooses to reveal personal details about himself that he knows will make the press salivate, but to me there is a huge difference between taking control of your own narrative and choosing which parts of yourself to share, vs. being stalked and harassed by the paparazzi and having horribly personal and/or untrue things about you plastered all over the newspapers without your consent. It boggles my mind that other people can’t see that!
One more thing I wanted to add before I wrap up is that I appreciated Harry’s willingness to address some of the *true* things that have been printed about him and take ownership of mistakes he has very publicly made (for example the extremely problematic time he dressed up in Nazi memorabilia for a fancy dress party.) I appreciated the work Harry has done to educate himself following this incident – it is clear that he has taken the time to listen to people who were actively affected by his actions, and to educate himself thoroughly.
There is so much more I could say about Spare, and it’s hard to accurately and succinctly review a book with this kind of context behind it and critical reception surrounding it, as I keep getting distracted wanting to discuss those things, rather than the content of the actual book. However, I guess I’d summarise by saying that this book gave me a lot to think about, I felt a lot of empathy for Harry whilst reading it, and the parts about his mother’s death really hit me emotionally and made me cry. I appreciate the bravery it must have taken Harry to write such in-depth insights into his own trauma. People are entitled to hold different opinions about books, but please make sure you actually read Spare before forming one, and don’t just listen to inflammatory things that have been written about it in the newspapers. In my opinion, it’s a very different book to the one it has been made out to be.