Prince Harry – HRH as was – has long had to endure cruel snarks about, among other things, his paternity, yet in Finding Freedom, he confirms one thing beyond a doubt: he is 100% his mother’s son. Just as 1992’s Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words, by Andrew Morton, gave readers an intimate look at the royal family from the perspective of a disgruntled member of the firm, so this book repeats the trick with Diana’s younger son and his wife, Meghan Markle. What this semi-sequel lacks in novelty, it makes up for in cattiness (aimed largely – and this is the only real surprise of the book – at the woman born Kate Middleton, now known as Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. We’ll return to that in a tick.)
Writers Carolyn Durand and Omid Scobie insist Harry and Meghan were not involved in the book. Given the deluge of personal minutiae – from Harry’s emoji habit to Meghan’s favourite hair highlight shades – as well as their litigiousness when it comes to undesired invasions of privacy (they are currently engaged in legal battles with the Mail on Sunday and an American paparazzo), this seems about as credible as Diana’s similar protestations of innocence, all of which Morton scotched about 10 seconds after she died. But whereas Diana chose a tabloid hack as her Boswell, who knew a good story when he saw it, Harry and Meghan opted for two royal journalists. This means the reader is subjected to the Sylvie Krin style of writing that is de rigeur in the genre (I could just about stomach Harry and his “famed ginger locks”, but details of his and Meghan’s glamping trip to Botswana, on which “their days were spent getting closer to nature and their evenings, closer to each other” made me briefly furious that the book hadn’t come with a health warning). Less forgivable than the predictable fluff is how the authors fluff the tale. Because Harry and Meghan definitely have a story to tell, but it is not the story in this book.
By now, everyone – and certainly everyone who will buy this book – knows the outlines of this saga: Harry, the scampish prince, meets Meghan, the beautiful American actor, who wows him with her glamorous civilian ways (“In fact, Harry,” Durand and Scobie exclusively reveal, “lived within a bubble of sorts”). They marry and live happily ever after – if by “living happily ever after” we mean the British tabloids were wretched to Meghan, her father Thomas behaved even worse, Harry fell out with his brother and then he and Meghan opted out of the whole shebang and moved to Los Angeles. (The book opens with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote beloved of people who post slogans on Instagram: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Whether shacking up in director Tyler Perry’s $18m mansion in Beverly Hills is quite the pathless existence Emerson had in mind is a question for another day.)
Morton proffered up Diana’s eating disorder and Charles’s affair with Camilla; the most Scobie and Durand get are that Buckingham Palace was bad at protecting Meghan from the press, and William and Kate weren’t very warm to the new couple. That Meghan was treated abominably by an institutionally racist and sexist British press is a fact, and the book, with satisfying brevity, alludes to one particular tabloid columnist whose obsession with Meghan ranges from hysterical to certifiable. He is deftly dismissed as a social-climber with a grudge “after not receiving an invite to the wedding.”
It is not Harry and Meghan’s fault that their book has come out in the middle of a global pandemic, but it does underscore their occasional tone deafness in the latter half of the book. Even in the best of times, one would be tempted to break out a tiny violin to accompany their complaints about “the institution” directly following on from details of their luxury holiday in Ibiza and a stay chez Elton John in Nice. Finding Freedom chokes the reader with banal details (if you ever wondered if Meghan craved sweets during pregnancy, this is the book for you), yet it is opaque when it comes to real insights, such as how much Meghan encouraged the press in the early days of her relationship with Harry. Perhaps the most WTF moment is a casual mention that they “were forced to let [their son’s night nanny] go in the middle of her second night of work for being unprofessional and irresponsible”. Call me shallow, but I’m a lot more interested in why a couple would sack a nanny in the middle of the night than Meghan’s cravings. As for Harry, he comes across as goodhearted but oversensitive and impetuous to a degree one can only describe as Diana-esque, whereas chilly William is 100% a Windsor.
The Sussexes were hung out to dry by the palace and the press; the question the book fails to answer is why, when they were such a boon to the brand. Last year there was a widely circulated rumour that they were being used to distract from some ugliness involving William. Finding Freedom has the space to respond to every other media claim, but on this it stays schtum.
Yet the real story here is Prince Andrew. While palace courtiers bitchily leaked Meghan’s yoga schedule, the spare from the previous generation merrily lived his life, despite his known friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. “The couple prefer to keep their thoughts [on that matter] to themselves,” Scobie and Durand coyly note in one of only two references to Epstein in the book, yet here is where Harry and Meghan have a real argument: why were they given such a rough time when a man accused of sleeping with trafficked young women (which he denies) was granted so much leniency for so long?
Their silence may tell its own story. Despite all the fuming, the book is very cautious when it comes to the senior members of the royal family, and it’s interesting that it’s Kate who is the focus of the criticism rather than William. It may well be that, despite claiming he has finally found freedom, Harry is keeping a door open to his gilded cage. His mother could have told him that pulling punches doesn’t make for a satisfying book, but perhaps he also learned from her that burning bridges doesn’t make for an easy life.
• Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family is published by HQ (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.