Harry: A Biography of a Prince
by Angela Levin
Pegasus Books, 2018
There's only very few people in the world who are fated to have their place in the British line of succession mentioned every single time their name comes up. You are not so burdened, nor am I. But Harry, the second son of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, inevitably has his stock-value linked to his name. It's six: he's sixth in line to the throne. Charles of course is first in line and has been for longer than most of his future subjects have been alive. His firstborn, William, comes next, followed by his own three children – then Harry, whose chance of succeeding to the crown lessens every time William and his wife Catherine have a happy addition to their family.
For most of his adult life, even sympathetic fans of the British royal family have breathed a bit easier every time that gap widened, because Harry has had an erratic, licentious, and sometimes controversial young manhood, with incidents ranging from showing up at a costume party wearing a Nazi armband to – a full decade later – showing up in blurry Vegas photos happily displaying the crown jewels. The saving grace has always been the counterbalancing positives – including genuine courage serving clandestinely in the military and, perhaps more impressively, bringing a far more believable warmth and humanity to the public facade of the family “firm.” He's been, in short, beloved – an elusive quality possessed in abundance by his mother but a bit thin on the ground for his father or even his brother.
The most pressing question associated with Harry in the Royalista press circles has long focused on one thing: when would boyhood end? When would Harry fully settle down and stop making the wrong kind of headlines? The assumption for a decade has been quaintly old-fashioned: that the change would happen once he finally found the right woman.
Self-described “committed royal watcher” Angela Levin's new book, Harry: A Biography of a Prince, arrives in bookstores this May, just in time for Prince Harry's wedding to what the British tabloid press has ceaselessly referred to as “the love of his life,” Meghan Markle. It's a perfect opportunity for books quick-stepped to market for the momentous event; Levin's book is one of half a dozen, including Duncan Larcombe's Prince Harry: The Inside Story, and Katie Nicholl's Harry: Life, Loss, and Love – and although Levin's is considerably more grounded and readable than the others, all of these books are of a type: faux-forensic but faintly fawning. The Prince has never troubled to hide his visceral contempt for the press (speculation has always been that he quite rightly considers them responsible for his mother's death); he's more guarded in interviews and walk-alongs than a platinum-selling rap star.
Writers like Larcombe or Nicholl or even Levin with her often very shrewd psychological insight are always going to be on the other side of an invisible but immovable wall, granted the illusion of access but little else. Prince Charles, driven by an irrepressible need to be appreciated, will from time to time unwisely breach that wall. Prince William, like his grandmother the Queen, embodies the wall and cannot any longer be separated from it. Prince Harry in many ways seems ultimately shrewder than the lot of them. I'm happy to share the real me, he seems to be saying time and again in Levin's book, but not with the likes of you.
This reduces Levin to disseminating Palace-approved pablum on a regular basis, as when she reports on the decision William and Harry made in August of 2007 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of their mother's death with a massive concert:
The princes decided that they were old enough to assume responsibility for their mother's legacy and stuck to their decision that it was about time the positive side of their mother's work with charities was highlighted, something they felt the Palace had failed to do. It showed that Diana's boys had become young men, that they still loved and admired her, and were now in a position to show the world just how much they cared.
Mercifully, Levin's book contains about as little of this as it can decently manage, but a little goes a disastrously long way. The Prince himself, the living being who's been consistently and often calamitously re-inventing himself in full public view for over 15 years, evades these pages almost entirely; readers are mostly left with yellowed clippings from glossy royalty magazines over the years. Levin does what she can to lessen the tedium of this with some sharp character portraits and a fine sense of pacing, but there's only so much you can do when the guest of honor fails to show up at the reception.
Readers will be left with two main urges: the desire to wish this young man well as he enters married life at last, and a strong, almost indecent-feeling curiosity to see what he would have been like as King Henry the Ninth.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com