Copies of 'Spare' displayed at Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, London (Getty Images)
A surprising number of royal personages have published books under their own names, and sometimes they have even been written by the purported authors. The first, I think, was the Eikon Basilike, published shortly after Charles I’s execution and presented as his account of himself and of events. The authorship of this highly effective piece of propaganda has been questioned, but its simple, direct, haughty tone is very similar to the king’s recorded speech at his trial. After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria published two journals of her life in the Highlands. We know that she was an enchantingly vivid writer from her diaries and letters, with a novelist’s ear for dialogue. (Lord Melbourne’s debauched, drawling conversation is beautifully captured in the single volume of her diary that Princess Beatrice didn’t get around to editing.) Publication, in the Highland volumes, put a restraint on her lively prose; but they still show how much pleasure she took in talking to people in remote places who had no idea who she was. Disraeli’s amusingly oily opening in an audience, ‘We authors, ma’am…’, is not as ridiculous as you might think.
There have been others since. I recommend a popular success of the 1950s, My Memories of Six Reigns by Princess Marie Louise, the granddaughter, through Princess Helena, of Queen Victoria. She can’t really write (‘Here I think I must relate an amusing remark my mother made’), but she is that rare thing, a bore who is not at all interested in talking about herself (unlike the author under present consideration). Her book is a mine of stunningly inconsequential tales – like Queen Victoria snobbishly telling a religious lady-in-waiting that when she died she would not receive the prophet Abraham.
The Duke of Windsor published an autobiography, A King’s Story, which rather demonstrates the factors preventing royalty from writing well. At the end of this interminable volume, you can only conclude that nobody ever said to the duke ‘Oh do shut up’ or, at the end of an anecdote, ‘Is that it?’ or ‘No, I don’t think I want to read your letter from 20 years ago to your father about meeting the Japanese ambassador’. The duke comes across as a frightful bore who was under the impression that he fascinated everyone he ever met. But how should royalty ever think otherwise?
The Duke of York only produced one book, an inept volume of his photographs, back in 1985, but his wife has been very energetic. Among her dozens of books are at least two autobiographies, published after her departure from the royal family, though the first still uses her royal title. The apparent aim of the second of these, Finding Sarah: A Duchess’s Journey to Find Herself, was to explain the great spiritual journey she went on after being caught by the News of the World attempting to sell introductions to her ex-husband. Also to offer life advice to her readers: ‘Always be grateful for your family and friends.’ Interestingly, there is a chapter about escaping to the sanctuary of a place in California called Montecito, where a kind lady called Oprah offered her support and a deal to make a docu-series.
Despite all the whipped-up outrage over the Duke of Sussex’s memoir, we should try to remember that it is basically Sarah York’s autobiography with better, or at any rate more transparently vindictive, timing. You will have read the principal revelations elsewhere, which I will not dwell on. They seem to fall into the dog-bites-man category, including that a public schoolboy took cocaine at a party when he was 17, two brothers had such an angry argument that one hit the other, and a medium got in touch with a famous and rich adult orphan with the news that ‘You’re living the life [your mother] wanted for you’.
Other stuff includes the astonishing news that the present Prince of Wales drank rum on the night before his wedding, and that though he didn’t mind having his brother as his best man in church, he asked other old friends to speak at the reception. I don’t know why you might not trust your brother to give a speech on one of the most important days of your life. Maybe it was because two years earlier he referred on camera to his ‘little Paki friend’? My general view of the supposedly devastating revelations contained in this book is: the publisher paid £20 million for it?
Spare represents a well-established literary genre, the misery memoir, like Ma, He Sold Me For a Few Cigarettes and The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog (real examples). The reader is not expected to recognise his own life in these pages, whether through not being royal or not growing up in the direst poverty. The villains are plain, and in the later stages redemption is offered, quite often, though not in the case of Sussex alas (‘Not really big on books’), by learning to read and write. One has to feel for the Duke of Sussex to some degree, though his account is unconvincing and horribly hurtful to decent and honourable people who can never answer back. He was born into a position he is patently unfit for. He suffered a terrible tragedy when young. He evidently has very few inner resources such as intellectual curiosity or even interest in other human beings to sustain him. He is easy prey for the sycophants and opportunists who always surround royalty in ways that his brother and father aren’t and his grandmother never was. All that is exceedingly sad.
His version of events is worth reading, although it should be read in conjunction with more detached accounts, such as Tom Bower’s biography. The most damaging claims against members of his family are hearsay, such as what the King is supposed to have remarked when the Prince was born. Or they are toxic speculation, such as comments about the Queen’s long-term strategy to acquire the crown, which I find very implausible about such a patently decent woman. Some of Sussex’s accounts of incidents are objectively incorrect, such as his version of the Daily Mail’s defence in the court case – it was specifically a claim that the Duchess had shown friends the letter the Mail had published, with the intent that they quote it in the American media. Sussex gives the impression that they were being taken to task merely for defending her, which is quite wrong. Other previous claims have now been dropped. The Duchess’s absurd suggestion that they were married by the Archbishop of Canterbury in private before the public ceremony is not repeated.
Of course we will never know the truth about much of the rest of it, since the individuals berated are not going to respond. But within the Duke’s version of events lie a number of inadvertent suggestions that the reader will ponder on. It was not so very unreasonable for the then Duchess of Cambridge, heroically continuing her official duties through a difficult pregnancy, to be offended when the Duchess of Sussex told her that her condition was making her stupid, nor for the Duke of Cambridge to tell his brother that he found his wife rude. The Duke of Sussex now says that his brother was ‘parroting’ the characterisation of his wife in the media. But why would his thoughts about his sister-in-law come solely from the Daily Mail? He’d met her. He knew her. The solipsism of Sussex’s version of the confrontation is interesting. Cambridge asked him not to tell his wife that they had had a fight. For Sussex, this shows Cambridge in a bad light; but there may be a reason that justifies his brother. Untrue and very upsetting stories about the Cambridges’ private relations had started to appear in American magazines. Some of them, the Cambridges may have believed, were magazines with a close relationship either with the Duchess of Sussex or her intimates. The belief may have been unfounded, but it is plausible that Cambridge said ‘Don’t tell your wife about this’ primarily because he didn’t want to read about it in glossy magazines. Trust had quite broken down.
Spare has been ghosted by the experienced American writer J.R. Moehringer, who is the 130th name to appear on the list of people thanked by Sussex. I personally would have placed him higher than the ‘superb’ fact-checker who approved the claim that the Koh-i-Noor is the ‘largest diamond ever seen by human eyes’ when it isn’t even the biggest diamond owned by the royal family. Cullinan 1 is four times the size. But there you go. Moehringer has made a decent stab at simulating an English voice for his narrator, though there are too many ‘mates’ to be quite convincing, and the register weirdly varies. Unlikely American usages enter, such as ‘worrisome’ ‘tardiness’, or ‘snack’ as a verb. I can’t admit to being terribly enthralled by Moehringer’s evocations of Africa (‘The sun beat down from a hot blue sky’) or by his encouragements to emotion (‘Her tears glistened in the spring sunshine’). The reader may be amused by his making the Duke the first person in history to stand in front of Sandringham and say: ‘I was struck again by the beauty of it all.’ But that is part of his chosen genre, and may be forgiven.
The Duke says that he wants to repair the relationship with his father and brother. He is either completely disingenuous, or an idiot. Whatever feelings the King and Prince have for him personally, there is no possibility they will have any conversation with him while knowing that his account of it will be promptly sold to the highest bidder for broadcast. Nobody would. The Duke has said in a television interview that he has a ‘huge amount of compassion’ for the Queen. It’s just as well: I don’t think anyone else is going to make that observation about his attitude to that admirable woman unprompted.
This is a sad and a lowering book, and the saddest aspect of it is that the Duke of Sussex strangely believes that he is the person to lead a charge against the practitioners of the written word, to control and restrict it. I may be old-fashioned, but I don’t consider that the appropriate person to advocate any restrictions on published writing is somebody who has only ever, it appears, read one book under the demands of his very expensive schooling, and who evidently regards our noble trade with undiluted contempt, which may of course be justified, and unmitigated ignorance, which never is.