Over the centuries, royal dukes have been a mixed bunch. These are the younger sons of English monarchs on whom dukedoms are conferred from a traditional selection of titles: Gloucester, Clarence, Albany, Cumberland, Kent, York, Cambridge, or Sussex. If the dukes have sons (in wedlock), the title persists, but a remarkable number haven’t: Of the seven of King George III’s sons who survived into adulthood, none managed to beget a male heir.
It wasn’t that they were chaste; far from it. Queen Victoria’s “wicked uncles,” as she called them, lived with a variety of mistresses, had a variety of children by them, and treated them more or less badly. The duke of Clarence, who became King William IV, dumped Mrs. Jordan and their daughters, agreeing to keep paying them as long as Mrs. Jordan didn’t return to her former métier as an actress. When she did, she was cut off, and she died penniless.
More recently there were the sons of King George V. The second son was the duke of York, shy, stammering, and inarticulate, as memorably played by Colin Firth in the movie The King’s Speech. He became King George VI when his elder brother, the Prince of Wales, who inherited the throne as King Edward VIII, abdicated within a year to marry the twice-divorced American adventuress Mrs. Simpson, a melodrama that prompted Queen Mary, George V’s widow, to exclaim, “Really, this could be Rumania!” The youngest son was the duke of Kent, a bisexual coke snorter who fell into the grasp of another American adventuress until he married, settled down, and was ultimately killed in an air crash in 1942 while serving with the Royal Air Force.
That left the third son, Prince Henry, duke of Gloucester, our late Queen’s uncle and my favorite royal duke, a simple soldier with the plain humor and understanding of his Hanoverian forebears. His favorite evening entertainment was to make the company, regardless of age or sex, sing the song “My Grandfather’s Clock,” omitting the letter l, and when once asked whether he had ever read Wuthering Heights, the duke replied, “Yes indeed, jolly funny.”
Which brings us to another Prince Henry or Harry, from our latest batch of royal dukes. Prince Harry, duke of Sussex, and his wife, Meghan Markle, are the stars of the Netflix series Harry & Meghan. This show is, according to taste, a poignant account of their struggle to win freedom, a cruel betrayal of Harry’s family, or just a cheesy shlockarama. As Queen Mary might have said, “Really, this could be Hollywood!” That’s where the Sussexes’ litany of complaints, therapy talk, and psychobabble hail from, and there is a perceptible sense here that they are losing the elusive battle for public opinion, not least as some of their claims — starting with the caption at the very beginning of the Netflix show, “Members of the Royal Family declined to comment,” and continuing with Meghan’s laments that she was offered no help or advice when she married Harry — appear to fall somewhere between gross exaggeration and downright falsehood.
The first three episodes on Netflix lambasted not so much the palace as the press, the evil British media, which has treated Harry and Meghan so cruelly. That the London tabloids can seem savage when they bare their fangs is something I don’t deny, having myself rowed in those galleys at the rough end of Fleet Street in years gone by. Ringing in my mind’s ear to this day is the voice of an editor on one tabloid asking me for a disquisition on some exalted personage with the words “And don’t forget to give him a good kicking, Geoff.”
Maybe Harry and Meghan have had something of a kicking of late from Fleet Street, and on the day after the first Netflix episodes were screened, the tabloids did have a Day of Rage before they moved on to something else. But when the Sussexes decry tabs and paps and invoke memories of how Harry’s mother was treated, they are quite misleading. The claim made at the time — and made in the most lurid terms by her brother Lord Spencer in his very ill-judged harangue at her funeral — that Princess Diana was hounded or hunted to her death is simply false. For years, Diana colluded with the tabloids, briefing chosen journalists to give her side of the story, and she didn’t always seem to mind the paparazzi snapping her notably photogenic features. She wasn’t killed by the paps; she was killed because a drunken chauffeur drove recklessly at high speed through an underpass in Paris.
The Sussexes have also forgotten the adulation they received at the time of their engagement and wedding, when the tabloids lavished endearments upon them. To be sure, the popular press can have a very short attention span, and they sometimes match Churchill’s description of the Germans: “Either at your throat or at your knees.”
On the Sunday before the Netflix show, Camilla Long of the Sunday Times denounced Harry for having told Oprah Winfrey that his father had “cut me off financially,” when in fact King Charles III had given him very large sum (might it be returned now that the Sussexes have collected $100 million from Netflix?). Long said that Charles should have put “these grasping, talentless, trolling mediocrities out in the cold.”
A week later, and having seen the show, Long changed her tune. She found that “every minute of the first three-hour instalment felt strangely gripping: Why are they seeking all this publicity, while slagging off the media? Why do they despise people who take money for pictures, while selling their own family album? Why do we have so much of the shallow Meghan when the real story is the broken Harry?” She said she had been so affected by Harry’s “unimaginable sadness and pain” and pronounced him a victim after what he was put through when his mother died: “It’s not uncommon for people to lose a parent at a young age, but none of them except him has had to smile in front of millions just afterwards.”
That still doesn’t answer the question of how veracious Harry and Meghan’s account has been. When Meghan was formally beatified by St. Oprah, she was told, “Thank you for telling us your truth.” Oprah is evidently a postmodernist for whom objective truth is an illusion of bourgeois society; one person’s narrative is as good as another’s, and “your truth” is as true as anyone else’s. But really there are too many obvious contradictions in Harry and Meghan’s account.
While they complain bitterly about the media’s invasion of their privacy, in the Netflix show they invade their own privacy to an embarrassing degree, with endless pictures of them embracing and cooing while they discuss their romance. And when he criticizes the palace and the monarchy, Harry might try to remember that if he weren’t the son of the king of England, no one would be listening to him. Onscreen, Harry mentions a painfully awkward episode from his own early life. He was invited to a fancy-dress party with the theme of “Colonists and Natives,” and he went dressed as a Wehrmacht officer with a swastika armband. While he says that he subsequently received healing instruction from a rabbi and a Shoah survivor, really that affair is a reminder that, even making allowances for the follies of youth, and even by the modest intellectual standards of the House of Windsor, Harry isn’t the brightest bulb in the lamp.
For that matter, would anyone really be listening to Markle if she were still just a B-list television actress? There’s an obvious danger in criticizing her, with the critic liable to the double charge of racism and sexism. It’s not difficult to find evidence of racism in England (or America), but those who like to portray us as a land of unreconstructed racial bigots must not have been concentrating or have noticed the present British cabinet. We now have a prime minister who is the Hindu son of immigrants from the Punjab, a home secretary who is a woman also of Indian descent by way of Mauritius and Kenya, and a foreign secretary who is the son of a woman from Sierra Leone. Is there any other western country whose government looks like that?
I’ve described before how the British monarchy has been often been ahead of its time in its distaste for the more blatant kinds of racial prejudice and oppression. The Sussexes calling the Commonwealth “Empire 2.0” is not just offensive but plain wrong; it forgets how attached Queen Elizabeth II was to the Commonwealth as multiracial association. There is a memorable photograph of her dancing with Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian ruler, in 1961, at time when, in many parts of the United States, for a white woman to be seen dancing with a Black man was extremely dangerous.
“From the point of view of New York City, where I live,” Tina Brown predictably tells us, “everything is going Meghan and Harry’s way.” But is that really true? I now write from back in the old country (though I was in New York last month), but what we read suggests a more complicated picture than the one painted by Brown, that Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. The New York Post described the Netflix show as a “hypocritical attention grab” and little more than a “big snooze.”
The implication was one that many British people have already drawn, to judge from polls: If Harry and Meghan really want to find freedom, they should relinquish all their royal titles and privileges and live like any other California couple. Ms. Markle could go back to acting like Mrs. Jordan, and unlike her, she wouldn’t have to worry about money.
By now, the truth is that the British have wearied of the Sussexes. On the Sunday after the Netflix broadcast, in every pub in England people were talking about Harry, but not the Duke of Sussex. It was poor Harry Kane, the captain and leading goal-scorer of the England soccer team, who had missed a penalty kick over the bar as France beat England 2-1 in the World Cup quarterfinal. Now that was a true subject for national lamentation. We do still have some sense of proportion and priorities.