Rather than uncovering the dark secrets of the royal family, Spare embodies some of its worst traits. Prince Harry’s book is a monument to a culture of narcissism and cruelty cultivated by a family completely unaware of the lives of ordinary people.

A week after Prince Harry’s Spare was published in the UK, a homeless person sleeps beneath the royal face and books which are displayed in the window of a bookshop in London. January 16, 2023. (Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Review of Spare by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (Penguin Random House, 2023)

Midway through Spare, Prince Harry’s autobiography, he recounts an unfortunate experience of frostbite on his genitalia during a visit to the North Pole in 2011. The autobiography relates in intimate detail how he tries to bring his nether regions, which he refers to as his “South Pole,” back to life by various home remedies, including applying Elizabeth Arden cream to it. Lotioned penis in hand, the Duke of Sussex, steadily guided by his ghostwriter, recalls that “the smell transported me through time. I felt as if my mother was right there in the room.” It would be over a decade later, and in Los Angeles, that Harry would run into the man who made his fortune writing the lyrics to Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle.” John Joseph Moehringer — who goes by the Rowlingesque penname of J. R. Moehringer — would transform the princeling’s oedipally tinged memories into unintentional comic poetry: “my todger, softened by Elizabeth Arden.”

Following in the ordained order of those who are born into the royal family, Harry attended first Eton — the training ground of twenty of Britain’s fifty-seven prime ministers — and later entered the military. He remained, throughout this time, constantly aware of his role as second or “spare” to his brother William, who is in line to inherit the crown, and has always seemed eminently prepped to do so. Pushed to the margins, Harry had, according to his account, the role of rebel forced upon him.

In the world of the Windsors, Harry, like a character in a nineteenth-century picaresque novel, runs to-and-fro, skating around the former imperial centers of Great Britain — the North Pole, the South Pole, Botswana (“true garden of Eden”). His recounting of these episodes falls somewhere between earnest child’s recollection of their gap year and the imperial fantasies of the good old days held by conservatives nostalgic for empire.

Alongside Harry the postcolonial cosmopolitan stands Harry the sentimental lothario. Accounts of sexual encounters — never raised to the level of indiscretions — come hard and fast. Like Gustave Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, Harry’s sentimental education includes a liaison with an older woman, to whom he lost his virginity and rode “like a stallion”; not forgetting his rebrand as a modern man, unafraid to cry and in touch with his feelings, the prince makes sure to tell the reader that, despite his sexual precociousness, he found this experience humiliating.

Later he will date a woman descended from the man responsible for the Charge of the Light Brigade, the catastrophic act of military command that led to the deaths of a hundred men during the Crimean War. Harry thinks of lines from the Tennyson poem as he seduces her; when seeking to enact an advance against the will of his commander in military training, the poet’s lines come to him again and offer him guidance.

Trapped in 1997

Harry is familiar to most of those who grew up in the 1990s for his drug-taking escapades and various acts of offensiveness, which include cosplaying a Nazi and using racist terms he claimed to believe were simply neutral language. He has since reformed, and become one of us: a woke liberal, now scorned by the tabloid press for his supposed virtues rather than vices.

Having previously received the wrong kind of education, first at Buckingham Palace, and later at Eton (where, as he concedes, he was inducted in a view of “Britain, which didn’t permit new facts”), he set out to set the world to right, shining a light in his mother’s footsteps: he undergoes therapy; he campaigns on behalf of the environment in Botswana; he takes an HIV test with Rihanna in Barbados; he slips gradually out of the net of royalty into the more general, ostensibly democratic category of celebrity. Here again he follows in his mother’s footsteps. Diana’s simultaneous inhabiting of the role of royal, and her partial subversion of that role through also acquiring the status of celebrity, made her both the most beloved royal of the people and the most vilified royal of the firm.

Harry’s therapist tells him that she fears that part of him “is trapped in 1997” — the year not only of Diana’s death but also of Tony Blair’s election, the Spice Girls’ claim for world domination, and the historical blockbuster Titanic. On a state visit to South Africa with his father in the late 1990s, designed to maximize press optics, Harry met both Nelson Mandela and the Spice Girls. The British flag tightly emblazoned on the pop stars’ chests prompts a moment of reflection, where Harry ponders whether his mother really would have wanted a British flag on her coffin; whether South Africans wanted Britain as colonizers is a question too complex to interrogate. Recoiling from the possibility of political introspection, Harry tells us that he sees value in an image of “manly courage, and British power” and is “inspired” by it.

Moehringer the Friendly Ghost

As a child, Harry still believed that Balmoral was “Paradise”: he was “too busy,” he tells us, “fishing, shooting, running up and down ‘the hill’ to notice anything off about the feng shui of the old castle.” An odd choice of words to say the least, but strangely not out of place in Spare, which jumps chaotically from a myriad of different stylistic registers. At one point he refers to the radio as “the wireless;” at another the British press as “padre” — who speaks like this? Is this vernacular supposed to add charm and approachability to the millionaire prince? It’s unclear, but perhaps, like Daniel Craig’s bizarre Southern accent in Knives Out, the jarring effect is the point.

Moehringer, a former New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who also ghostwrote Andre Agassi’s autobiography, acts as Harry’s friendly ghost, ushering his foibles and missteps into the comforting arc of psychoanalytic knowledge. Moehringer was brought to the tennis player’s attention after publishing his own memoir The Tender Bar in 2005, about growing up with a father who vanished from the family when he was young. To tell Agassi’s story Moehringer got into Freud, Jung, and all kinds of mythology — seeking out any frame of reference to give a complex explanation for the tennis player’s deeply conflicted psyche.

In the face of the symbolic force of royalty, Moehringer turns not only to Freud but to Shakespeare’s kings to fit Harry into a glorified literary tradition. But his subject is not made for heroic, or indeed antiheroic, drama. The first part of the book revolves around the ghostwriter’s attempt to make his subject worthy of Shakespearean tragedy (and the affection of his father, an avid fan of the bard). But the classic hits home too hard. “I opened Hamlet,” Harry tells us. “Hmm: Lonely prince, obsessed with dead parent, watches remaining parent fall in love with dead parent’s usurper . . . ? I slammed it shut. No thank you.”

Despite his elite education, Harry casts highbrow culture aside, opting for more down-to-earth TV viewing. The dislike of literary culture is another thread that connects him once again to “mummy.” The English writer Sue Townsend once said of Diana that she was “a fatal non-reader.” She was never known to finish a book, other than the romances of her step-grandmother Barbara Cartland.

If the book seems to grapple with the weight of the past, it is an intensely personal one: trauma is always the loss of ‘mummy’ and never the trauma that one might do to another. What if Harry could think about the twenty-five Afghans he killed with the same seriousness that he mourns the death of his mother?

The cumulative effect of Harry’s normcore lowbrow rebrand is, ostensibly, to make the prince relatable: a cute ginger; a little bit naughty; a man who refuses to shave his beard for his wedding; just like another oddball royal who married a divorcée, only this time she’s not a Nazi, and neither is he.

We, the reader, listen in to the trauma of belonging to a family where you are repeatedly told you do not belong — by that family, by the press, by a schooling system whose eminent success is molded on principles of exclusive brutality. It would be easy, after reading dozens of pages of self-absorption protesting otherwise, to forget that he is an insider. We, the reader, are encouraged to take up the role of Harry’s “mate,” accompanying him on his earnest, heartfelt journey of self-education so that he becomes, at the end of his Odyssey, woke-like-us. We see the young devilish boy, prone to drug-taking and faux pas, as a spare part in the working machinery of the royal family — the spare part who is so much surplus labor (the title is genius, and surely not Harry’s).

Eat, Death, Love

We are told that the prince-exile only fully processes his mother’s loss through a therapeutic reenactment of her fatal journey through the Alma tunnel in Paris, revisiting the site of trauma two decades later. The representation of grief in the book is moving. One might even say radical. Certainly, there has been little space for mothers or grief in the narratives of British imperial power and military machismo.

If only all men, we might say, could feel this comfortable applying Elizabeth Arden cream to their penises and writing about it, they might feel a little less need to go planting flags on the earth’s extremities. But Harry tells us that once a soldier, always a soldier. He reprimands the royal family for enacting a death cult but does not seem to see how his own role in the military operates as part of that cult.

In Spare, there is little space for reflection on his role in the military horrors of which he partook in Afghanistan, where he served for ten weeks in 2007–08 in Helmand Province, and returned in 2012–13 with the Army Air Corps. His strategy seems to be a principle of radical honesty designed, as he claims in interviews, to prevent military suicides. But honesty is not the same as accountability (a word that is used once in this context) of his role in a violent and, most would claim, illegitimate war which replays the imperial violence of the century before it.

Early on in the autobiography Harry quotes a passage from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” which he finds on Brainyquote.com and leaves him “thunderstruck.” However, if the book seems to grapple with the weight of the past, it is an intensely personal one: trauma is always the loss of “mummy” and never the trauma that one might do to another. What if Harry could think about the twenty-five Afghans he killed with the same seriousness that he mourns the death of his mother?

Harry tells us how he gets there — by dehumanizing his opponents. This is a point that has not been missed by the Taliban, who were quick to excerpt this section of the book on their social media. That these were men on motorbikes that he killed does not pass him — or rather his ghostwriter — by. He concedes that he cannot imagine that some part of his psyche might not have been thinking of his mother being chased by a pack of motorbikes into a Paris tunnel; that perhaps what he was killing was a figment of the imagination, as the undying hydras of British imperialism collided with an unresolved oedipal drama.

Instead of any serious political thinking we get a descent into autofiction about the traumas of the late ’90s and the abjection of millennial life. In the final section of the book, the ghostwriter seems to fade from view, as Harry takes command of his narrative. The section reads not like an exit or exile from power, but rather like Harry’s own version of Eat, Pray, Love, the book that Meghan Markle models her life on when they first meet, and Harry is embarrassed not to be cultured enough to have read. In the recent documentary, Harry and Meghan, the prince tells his audience how much Meghan reminds him of his mother.

In the opening of the documentary Harry informs us, as a clip of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston disappears into the Bristol harbor, pushed by the hands of anti-racist activists, that “this is not just about our story. This has always been so much bigger than us.” But in telling his story, feeding into the vastly profitable and enduring media spectacle of the royal family, Harry is neither bringing the royalty to its knees nor illuminating what Tom Nairn calls “the glamour of backwardness”; he is simply escaping into its nether regions: celebrity, where money, if no longer directly handed down to him, comes ready-made in book and TV contracts. These days no longer choosing to don a Nazi costume, Harry comes to parties dressed instead for a mediated apocalypse, in the Mad Max costume borrowed from his friend the actor Tom Hardy.

In Spare’s final section Harry suddenly finds his Shakespearean voice, quoting from the play that he once slammed shut as he exclaims the delight of arriving at a new “undiscovered country” — a country that Hamlet found only in the afterlife. He claims to leave the death cult of the royal family behind him as he makes a smooth exit to a newfound Paradise — Hollywood — where he can finally, laying down his oars and finding his Penelope in the new world, watch the apocalypse unfold with a dreamy sunset view.

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