The title refers to the idea of “an heir and a spare,” a pithy way of saying that firstborn sons, as the heir in a primogeniture system, are viewed as more important than their younger siblings. According to the memoir, this was something King Charles III referenced jokingly to his then-wife Diana upon Harry’s birth and has shadowed his life to this day. The controversial 400-plus-page book is an insufferable tale of chronic victimhood juxtaposed with ridiculous privilege. It is replete with pathetic attempts at earning the audience’s sympathy while simultaneously showing why that feeling is undeserved.
The constant whining and woe-is-me talk comes off as absurd when contrasted with the reality of the situations he describes. For instance, the Duke of Sussex repeatedly wrote of his need to flee Britain during his life, as his royal duties and the public attention that goes along with them were simply too much to bear. Where did poor Harry go to avoid the paparazzi? Did he hide away somewhere inconspicuous? In his telling, he went on ski vacations to Switzerland and Kazakhstan, safaris in Africa, or just to his good friend Elton John’s house on the French Riveria. Sounds like a terrible ordeal.
What about when he had to leave Britain permanently due to the familial falling-out that definitely was not his fault and the deep dislike his American wife inspired in the British press? Surely, leaving your taxpayer-funded royal home must be an unfortunate dislocation that requires some real struggle, right? Well, when you end up using Tyler Perry’s multimillion-dollar Los Angeles compound free of charge, it’s something of a soft landing. None of it is presented as such, however; these lavish amenities and choice opportunities would not be available to anyone but a wealthy royal, yet Harry presents himself as put-upon.
The book does have some moments of (unintentional) comedy, especially when Harry first mentions a recurring theme throughout the book: the inability to put away the past. He describes being “thunderstruck” at reading the phrase “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” the overused Faulkner quote which serves as the epigraph of the memoir. He did not learn about Faulkner at Eton, Ludgrove, or any of the other expensive institutions of learning he attended, however. No, he found the cliché passage (I kid you not) “not long ago” on BrainyQuote.com. For a man who uses the book to try to refute his reputation as a “thicko,” this is not helping his case.
His judgment and credibility are further strained by his errant memory on various important topics, including the last gift his mother bought him before her untimely death. In that moving passage, he describes his aunt giving him the gift in the place of his deceased mother shortly after Diana’s death. It was a Microsoft Xbox video game console, which Harry would continue to play and find comfort in for years. The problem? Diana died in 1997; the Xbox was not released until 2001.
The biggest issue in “Spare” comes in Harry’s relation to the past he speaks so much of. Not his own past but the history of his family and his position as British royalty. In one very telling passage, he details a conversation he had with his history professor when “Wales,” as Harry was called, failed basic knowledge of British royal history. After telling the professor that his family history meant “less than nothing to him,” Harry wrote: “It wasn’t just that I didn’t know anything about my family’s history: I didn’t want to know anything.”
It’s a shame Harry was so incurious, as it seems to have deeply harmed his life. If he chose to know his family history, he would understand that his position as the second son has, throughout British royal history, been fulfilled dutifully and well by many of his ancestors. It has also helped to destroy others.
Perhaps the most famous second son of the recent British monarchy was also one of its most timid and understated: George VI. The man who would serve as king during the tumult of the Second World War was himself born a “spare.” He was overshadowed by his elder brother Edward VIII, who was groomed for the crown from birth. Still, he found a way to live a productive and honorable life, serving in World War I (in the British navy at Jutland), raising a family, and working manfully on his stammer so as to better speak in public. When his brother abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcée (sound familiar?), Bertie became King George VI. His accession was reluctant, but he did more than his duty, helping to carry the British public through the trials of total war and the darkest days of 1941. Today, he is beloved as an example of overcoming obstacles to fulfill one’s responsibilities.
If George VI is the prime example of a successful second son, Prince Andrew may be his opposite number. As the “spare” to King Charles III’s “heir,” Andrew has consistently courted controversy and proved unsuitable as a working royal. He has been implicated in foreign corruption scandals, financial improprieties, and the mistreatment of staff. And, most infamously, he has been linked to the alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, an accusation that took him out of the public eye for good. The entitlement that led to his abuses and eventual defenestration is always a curse for royals, but few have handled it worse than Andrew.
These are the two archetypes of the “spare” that stared Harry in the face. He could have had a positive royal career by serving proudly in the military, working with veterans, and helping his family by working hard, despite reservations and letdowns. The chapters of “Spare” dealing with Harry’s service in Afghanistan are by far the most interesting sections of the book, and his dedication to veterans’ causes is admirable. He clearly has a passion for these issues and could make it his mission as a royal to promote them. Instead, he has taken a far different approach. He has chosen to alienate his family, the British public, and royal watchers across the globe by gossiping about domestic matters and perennially claiming victim status.
The more apt analog for Harry may not be a second son at all, but the aforementioned Edward VIII, who became the Duke of Windsor after abdicating the throne. Besides marrying attention-seeking American divorcées, both put their obligations firmly behind their self-indulgences and occasionally cosplayed as Nazis.
Still, a more pertinent contrast may be drawn by relating Harry to his grandmother, the recently deceased Queen Elizabeth II. More than anything, the late queen embodied the duty of royal office, fulfilling her responsibilities as monarch until the very end — swearing in Prime Minister Liz Truss only days before her death. Harry claims in “Spare” that he abdicated his royal duty out of necessity and love, but it reads more like convenience and petulance. Thankfully, Elizabeth was spared from reading this humiliating dreck.
Mike Coté is a writer and podcaster focusing on history, Great Power rivalry, and geopolitics. He blogs at rationalpolicy.com, hosts the Rational Policy podcast, and can be found on Twitter @ratlpolicy.
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