Out of respect for his late grandmother, Prince Harry has postponed his potentially explosive memoir. He isn’t the first Windsor to raise eyebrows by putting pen to paper, writes Emily Hourican
Royal-watchers waiting with bated breath for their next fix of Prince Harry/Meghan drama will need to wait a little longer, with news that the publication of the prince’s hotly-anticipated memoir has been postponed.
The book, which he sold to Random House for a reported $20m, had been expected to be released next month, just in time for the Christmas market. But now Harry has said he is holding fire out of respect for the Queen’s passing – and possibly also in order to reflect on what he now wants to commit to print.
After all, the emotional landscape has transformed for him in the last weeks. The woman who he described as “my colonel-in-chief” is gone; his father, of whom Harry once said “there’s a lot to work through... I feel really let down”, is now king; and William, the brother he has been so distant from in recent years, is a step closer to the throne.
Whatever level of protection was afforded the Sussexes while the Queen lived is now gone – meaning that any rewrites or excisions may be strategic as much as poignant.
It’s a fraught business, the writing of royal memoirs. There is always fallout. There is a code of behaviour, a set of unwritten rules – and spilling trade secrets is most likely to get you quietly but implacably frozen out.
Just ask Sarah Ferguson. Or Meghan Markle. After all, what was the Oprah interview, except a tele-memoir?
But how much do Irish readers really care about British royalty? Susan Walsh, marketing manager for Dubray, gives some context. “In general, our experience is that Irish people are interested in royal books. These books sell very well, but increasingly, it is those with a more human story that do best.
“This year to date, the two biggest selling books in that category are Tom Bowers’ Revenge: Meghan, Harry and the War Between The Windsors, followed by Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers.
“There is still a place, in terms of sales, for the heavy, coffee-table style photographic books, but what Irish readers really look for is a more behind-the-scenes, tell-all kind of book.”
One of the earliest royal memoirs was Queen Victoria’s Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, from 1848 to 1861, published in 1868 and dedicated to her husband Albert – by then dead seven years. It was a series of slightly soupy recollections of family holidays in Scotland that were hugely popular with an audience eager for an inside view of domestic royalty. Victoria’s eldest son, the future Edward VII, dismissed the tales as “twaddle”.
The second volume – published in 1886 – dedicated to “my loyal Highlanders and especially to the memory of my devoted personal attendant and faithful friend John Brown”, was far more controversial.
Frequent mentions of Brown – and only the very odd reference to future king Edward – led the public to speculate about the nature of the Queen’s relationship with this “devoted personal attendant”.
However, beyond that, the contents were the same tame mix of prosaic observation and snippets of family life, such as this account of the homecoming of the Duke and Duchess of Connaught (the Duke, Arthur, was her seventh child and third son):
“We waited in the carriage till we heard the train (special) was approaching, when we got out. In two or three minutes more there they were, and dear Arthur and Louise Margaret stepped out, and were warmly embraced by us. I gave her a nosegay of heather. She had also received others.”
It was a very acceptable type of memoir – carefully curated to present only the most wholesome view of the royals. It was a perfect fit for its time – a time when the public were really no more eager for salaciousness than the royals were to offer it.
The gap, then, between ordinary people and the monarchy was so great that they were content that their queens and kings remain elusive, behind a discreet veil of artifice. But over the next century, that gap gradually closed, tightened by a steady drip of news stories – delivering the most intimate, and sometimes sordid details of the royal household.
The Duke of Windsor’s memoir was a milestone along this path. In 1951 the former King Edward VIII published A King’s Story: The Memoirs of HRH the Duke of Windsor. In it, alongside reminisces about his childhood up to World War I, he reprises the tone of his abdication speech – one of justification for choosing love over duty.
He writes about his “lonely” time as king, how he had “wanted to be a successful king, but a king in a modern way”, but that, finally, “love had triumphed over politics”.
Lest any reproach him, he offered this: “I certainly married because I chose the path of love. But I abdicated because I chose the path of duty. I did not value the crown so lightly that I gave it away hastily.”
The book made headlines around the world. And although the tone was still fairly dignified, the rot had set in. Revealing the painful internal dilemmas of a royal personage created an appetite for more. Which might be why his wife published The Heart Has Its Reasons in 1956, although she adopted a far more overwrought tone. She wrote: “I was prepared to go through rivers of woe, seas of despair, and oceans of agony for him”.
In 1992 when journalist Andrew Morton published Diana: Her True Story, revealing that the royal fairytale marriage was anything but – on one side, an unfaithful and unloving husband; on the other, a bulimic and self-harming wife – the initial response was that this was sensationalist nonsense by a former tabloid hack.
But it sold by the lorry load. By the time of Diana’s death five years later, it had sold over five million copies.
Two months after her death, after it emerged that Diana had secretly collaborated with Morton, a new edition appeared – entitled Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words. Revelation was piled upon revelation. In place of the fairytale, she presented a nightmare that could have been penned by the Brothers Grimm, complete with a dire warning from a royal godmother – Princess Grace – who, meeting Diana after her engagement, said: “Don’t worry, it will only get worse.”
Of the marriage, Diana wrote: “He’d found the virgin, the sacrificial lamb – and in a way he was obsessed with me. But it was hot and cold, hot and cold.”
She talked of throwing up several times a day during her honeymoon.
“Anything I could find I would gobble up and be sick two minutes later... that slightly got the mood swings going... I remember crying my eyes out on our honeymoon... At night, I dreamt of Camilla the whole time.”
Four months pregnant with William, now the Prince of Wales, she threw herself down the stairs at Sandringham, only to be discovered by the Queen.
She self-harmed in front of her indifferent husband. “I picked up his penknife off his dressing table and scratched myself heavily down my chest and both thighs. There was a lot of blood, and he hadn’t made any reaction whatsoever.”
The horror stories came thick and fast – all carefully chosen to present a very specific picture of a naïve, good-hearted girl, beset by cruel and worldly folk who have only their own survival at heart. It worked so well, that no later revelations – including Charles’s own biography-that-was-almost a memoir, written by Jonathan Dimbleby – shook the image of Diana the Persecuted and Charles the Indifferent.
For his book, Dimbleby was given full access to the then Prince of Wales, as well as to his friends, his diaries and archives, and thousands of letters. He tried to present Charles’s childhood as “unloving” – a boy mocked by his father, who considered him “a bit of a wimp” – but the story failed to elicit much sympathy.
Of the marriage to Diana, Dimbleby wrote that Charles was rushed into it by his overbearing father, and found himself unable to cope with his new wife’s profound melancholy – quoting Charles as being in “total agony about the situation and I don’t see how much longer one can go on trying to sweep it under the carpet and pretend nothing is wrong... It is like being trapped in a rather desperate cul-de-sac.”
But the public didn’t much want Charles’s side of things – not back then – and were appalled at the unmanly and unregal lack of moderation. Newspapers at the time described the book as Charles’s “crowning act of treachery” and “like driving the tumbrel to his own execution”.
By 1996, when Sarah Ferguson published the first of two memoirs, just months after her divorce from Prince Andrew was finalised, the public was hungry for actual revelation. Readers wanted to know who did what, where, and to who – rather than oblique romantic musings.
And Sarah did her best – though, typically, she had nothing that lived up to the Gothic standards set by Diana.
But she knew her dead sister-in-law was catnip to publishers – and so, despite reportedly being asked not to include any stories about her, she told a peculiar tale of getting a verruca after borrowing a pair of Diana’s shoes.
She took a leaf out of the Princess Di playbook by saying she had “endured the constant scrutiny of the British press”. She also fed public interest in the emerging narrative of the war footing on which the royal household apparently lived, describing the “barely veiled hostility of the royal household – the courtiers who run the show. Gradually, relentlessly, they had beaten me down.”
Of toe-gate (when photos were published of Fergie having her toes sucked by then-boyfriend, Texan millionaire John Bryan), she said that these same palace courtiers refused to help her keep the revealing pictures from being published.
And so, Fergie, “with heavy feet” (see what she did there?) went to tell the Queen: “She couldn’t have been pleased – but she is like her middle son; she is not easily rattled.”
The Queen apparently told Sarah: “All right, let us see what happens.”
And yet, Fergie is not entirely without self-knowledge. “Worst of all,” she writes, “I believed my own press… I believed it when they said I was a breath of fresh air for the royal family – that ‘great fun Fergie’ would sponge away the mildew, like some Mary Poppins crossed with Cinderella.”
Her second memoir, from 2012, was rather more tame, filled with details of her weight loss ‘journey’, and was far less of a hit than the first.
Alongside these memoirs and almost-memoirs, there are the often more interesting recollections of persons very close to the royal family. These fall into two categories – those who speak out of turn and are shunned, and those who toe the delicate line and manage to remain in favour.
Chief amongst the first camp is poor Crawfie – Marion Crawford, nanny to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret for 16 years, who wrote a memoir, The Little Princesses, full of innocuous, deeply affectionate, reminisces of life in the royal nursery.
And yet, when published in 1950, the book caused the woman who would go on to be the Queen Mother to opine that Crawfie had “gone off her head”. Neither she nor the princesses ever spoke to Crawfie again.
There is a terribly sad story that Crawfie bought a house that lay somewhere along the road from Ballater train station to Balmoral Castle, and that year after year she would stand outside her house, waiting, as the royal motorcar passed by – hoping, always, for some sign or acknowledgement from the family she had minded for so long. None ever came.
Paul Burrell, butler and “rock” to Princess Diana, touched the same nerve – something to do with the impertinence of those below stairs looking up long and hard enough to describe what they see, one imagines.
His tales, in A Royal Duty – of providing alibis for Diana during her various infidelities, of having to buckle her seatbelt for her, of Charles’s inability to squeeze his own toothpaste – played a significant role in the honeycombing of unquestioning respect for the royal family, revealing them as petty, incompetent and absurd in so many little ways.
Former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, Lady Anne Glenconner, fared better.
Her book, Lady in Waiting, written as a response to Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling, is full of stories of Margaret’s kindness and wit.
“Princess Margaret used to go to The Lighthouse, the place for young men with Aids, long before Diana,” she wrote. “We never went for the photographers – she wasn’t huggy-feely – but she’d sit in their rooms, make them laugh. She was very good with men.”
These are the shoulders on which Harry’s memoir, whenever it arrives, will stand. This is the historical conversation – a long push-pull of revelation versus deflection – that it will continue.
Whatever it contains, his book will advance our understanding of this bizarrely fascinating family by another inch or so. And we can’t wait.
The Little Princesses
The book that caused all the trouble. Marion Crawford was nanny to princesses Elizabeth and Margaret for 16 years.
In 1950 she published this innocuous, affectionate portrait of life in the royal nursery (“One of Lilibet’s favourite games… was to harness me with a pair of red reins that had bells on them, and off we would go...”), along with banal observations (“Margaret... was the baby everyone loves at sight, but from the very beginning I had a feeling about Lilibet that she was special”).
Sadly, the family saw it as a betrayal – and the Queen Mother and princesses never spoke to Crawfie again.
Diana: Her Own Story
There is definitely a queasy feeling to this – knowing what we now know about Diana’s unwholesome relationship with the media and her own image.
However, it is pretty compelling, for the almost surreal quality of some of the revelations. Such as Diana begging the Queen for help over her husband’s cheating. “So I went to the top lady, sobbing, and I said: ‘What do I do? I’m coming to you, what do I do?’, only to be told: ‘I don’t know what you should do. Charles is hopeless.’”
Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret
Not a memoir or even a biography so much as a clever series of portraits adding up to a creative and energetic kind of 360-degree view of the woman famous for her arrogance, caprices and grudging sense of royal duty.
More Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, from 1862 to 1882
It’s less about the words and more about reading between the lines here – picking up on the repetition of details such as: “At twenty minutes to eleven Brown knocked and came in, and said there was bad news... ‘The young French Prince is killed;’ ... Poor, poor dear Empress! Her only, only child... Brown so distressed; everyone quite stunned” to build a picture of a woman highly conscious of the thoughts, feelings and whereabouts of John Brown, who was technically her servant.