What is required of the British monarchy?
The answer is obvious, though it is both painful and embarrassing to admit: It is a willingness to be consumed. Sometimes, as when I watched the 12-year-old Prince Harry walk behind the coffin of his mother, Princess Diana, I think monarchy is less a national enchantment, or hoax, than a national sickness. I have done a jigsaw puzzle of the queen’s face. I bought it at the gift shop at Sandringham, the queen’s country home. What is that but an act of control by the subject of the object?
It is hard for outsiders to know what British people want from the royal family. Sometimes even members of the family, for reasons of self-preservation, do not allow themselves to know. And if Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, know what it is, then they are disenchanted.
The couple retired from royal life earlier this year and have retreated to California, from where they have sent a list of instances in which they have been harmed by the British media and the royal household. The list is called Finding Freedom, the new biography of the couple by Carolyn Durand and Omid Scobie, published last week. It is a book Harry and Meghan obviously endorse — and, I suspect, may have written passages of. It like autobiography.
It is a plaintive document with fascinating detail. For instance, that Meghan was accused by the British media — less a nemesis than a mean girl, an ever-watchful frenemy — of wearing the wrong colour of nail polish (too dark) to the British Fashion Awards. But, Durand and Scobie write, “There was no nail polish protocol.” Meghan asked Queen Elizabeth II’s dresser Angela Kelly, the queen’s working-class friend, for a hair with tiara rehearsal before her wedding. The dresser ignored the request until the queen intervened. We learn that Meghan “has always taken pride in being a great packer” of clothes and that Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, still colloquially known as Kate Middleton, sent Meghan flowers on her birthday but that “Meghan would far rather have had Kate check in on her during the most difficult times with the press.”How
How William and Kate reacted
No royals are explicitly abused in the book. Prince William and Catherine emerge as cold (when they are merely English) but nothing worse. Prince William called Meghan “this girl.” Catherine went shopping without offering Meghan a lift in her Range Rover, although both were going to the same street.
Throughout the book, Prince Harry’s disgust with Britons’ treatment of royalty is visible. He said as much when he filed a lawsuit against a newspaper for publishing a letter Meghan wrote to her estranged father, Thomas Markle, which he then leaked: “Though this action may not be the safe one, it is the right one,” Harry said in a statement. “Because my deepest fear is history repeating itself. I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”
Fundamentally, Harry wanted out. Deep down, he was always struggling within that world. She’s opened the door for him on that.
But it’s clear that the main purpose of this book is to serve as Meghan’s testimony. She is a perfectionist, and her failure to succeed at royalty clearly grates. This book says: I did my best. I could not have done more. But the truth is, she did too much. The best insight in Finding Freedom is from a former senior courtier, who compares Meghan with the silent — and therefore now adored — Catherine. Meghan “talks about life and how we should live,” the courtier told the authors. “That’s the way in America. In Britain, people look at that and go, ‘Who do you think you are?’”
The royal family is a sacrifice at the centre of Britain’s national life, fuel for the creation of a national soul because we can’t think of anything better. Sometimes it works. Often — and increasingly — it doesn’t. We dress them up in coronets. We play with them like toys. It has nothing to do with admiration or love. They submit to us, not we to them.
How the royal game is played
And if they are to survive this monstrous game? They do what is required. The women put weights on their hemlines, so that they do not swing in a breeze. The men are discreet and they are pliant. They allow the nation to project what it wants on them.
The Sussexes did understand this. Harry confused sacrifice with service. Meghan confused it with fame.
I always thought Harry chose a woman, however subconsciously, who would free him, and Finding Freedom seems to confirm it here: “’Fundamentally, Harry wanted out,’ a source close to the couple said. ‘Deep down, he was always struggling within that world. She’s opened the door for him on that.’”
“He was also sick,” the authors write, “of the hypocrisy of the media outlets that glorified Meghan one day and tore her down the next.” It is not hypocrisy; it is cynicism. The newspapers do not love Meghan, and they do not hate her. One day she is an inspiration. The next she is a torment.
It would eventually have settled, if they had. I think it is admirable that they didn’t.
— Tanya Gold writes for Harper’s Magazine.