Usually, deciphering British palace intrigue is like reading tea leaves: trying to discern nuance from opaque gestures. But the latest chapter of the saga of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle requires little decoding. In “Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family,” the Duke and Duchess of Sussex effectively spill the tea on their frustrations with the monarchy, from which they officially exited senior roles in March.
Co-authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand draw on interviews with more than 100 friends, aides and others in the Sussexes’ “inner circle” to draft, if not an authorized biography, the couple’s version of the past four years. The open question is whether Harry and Meghan are among the sources for this friendly account. Scobie and Durand have said they did not speak with the couple on the record for the book, though the authors’ note acknowledges direct conversations “when appropriate.” A spokesman for the couple stated last month: “The Duke and Duchess of Sussex were not interviewed and did not contribute to Finding Freedom. This book is based on the authors’ own experiences as members of the royal press corps and their own independent reporting.”
The sensitivity of some details — Harry’s secret Instagram handle (@SpikeyMau5), the prince’s fondness for the ghost emoji, that the couple fired their night nurse over “unprofessional and irresponsible” behavior on her second shift — suggest proximity to the couple, who, tellingly, have not denied the accounts. There isn’t much for them to quibble with.
For admirers of Harry and Meghan, “Finding Freedom” is 354 pages of sorbet: a dishy narrative that pushes back against media attacks while tracing the couple’s connection from a July 1, 2016, blind date (“ ‘Almost immediately they were almost obsessed with each other,’ a friend said. ‘It was as if Harry was in a trance.’ ”) through their engagement, globally televised wedding and the birth of their son, Archie Harrison. (While fans of Harry and Meghan will undoubtedly enjoy the book’s unwaveringly positive portrayal of her angelic disposition and his emotional intelligence, those who sympathize with other relatives, or closely follow the royals are more likely to see the book as telling only part of the story — or as a means to air grievances against palace courtiers and Harry’s relatives.)
After their relationship became public in October 2016, paparazzi and media outlets aggressively hunted Meghan. When friends questioned the fast-moving relationship or the “suitability” of the biracial divorced American actress, Harry “would wonder, ‘Is this about race? Is it snobbery?’ ” He cut off longtime friends and grew estranged from his older brother after Prince William reportedly urged Harry to “take as much time as you need to get to know this girl.”
Citing the rapid emergence of bias and race-baiting in media coverage, the book says a “major theme” of racism in Britain involves “the question of who is authentically ‘English’ ” — which means “to be born and bred in the UK — and be white.” (Scobie, whose father is Scottish and mother Iranian, mentions his history with biracial bias, including “microaggressions” from a palace staffer that suggest authority on discrimination Meghan may have faced. His previous sympathetic coverage of the couple also suggests why Harry and Meghan would have authorized friends to talk.)
Beyond mentioning some of Meghan’s earlier experiences with racism, and saying Archie’s birth raised “visibility around race and inclusion at the heart of the monarchy,” the book says little about how the Windsors — as opposed to aides — viewed Meghan as a person of color. Although Meghan called herself a “woman of color” in South Africa last fall, how she or Harry hoped to explore her — or Archie’s — heritage in their work is unclear.
Scobie and Durand report on the distant relationship between Meghan and her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton. They go deep behind the scenes in unraveling the controversy Meghan’s father, Thomas Markle, caused in colluding with paparazzi to appear in sympathetic images shortly before the wedding — which he ultimately didn’t attend. The book also chronicles the Sussexes’ longtime unhappiness with palace practices of not commenting on media inaccuracies (with occasional exceptions for higher-ranking relatives) and prioritizing senior royals’ initiatives. Unaddressed is the implicit issue that however right Harry and Meghan’s arguments may have been about their popularity, and media bias, they were outranked in a centuries-old hereditary hierarchy. Yet, the book notes, “the establishment feared their popularity might eclipse that of the royal family itself.”
Harry’s trauma over the media’s role in the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, and the damage tabloid scrutiny inflicted on previous relationships is evident in his hair-trigger hostility toward paparazzi and his determination to protect his wife. “Battered and bruised” by media attacks and absent family support, the Sussexes decide to opt out — and announce their plan before finalizing details with the palace, sparking a media firestorm and family rifts that remain unhealed.
As the book details the couple’s final official engagements, a tearful Meghan tells Scobie, “It didn’t have to be this way.”
The book portrays a couple driven away by a toxic media environment and untenable protocol. “I don’t need to have that movie moment where we get out of a car and wave to a hundred photographers before going into a building,” Harry reportedly told a friend, saying the focus should be on “the work happening inside.” Therein lies the conundrum: The Sussexes quit official life, but the monarchy is Harry’s family business. Criticizing the Windsors stands to damage family ties — and possibly weaken the affiliation that produced the couple’s platform. Harry and Meghan may feel freer to speak out, but as the very existence of “Finding Freedom” demonstrates, there’s still reason to be careful about what they say.
Autumn Brewington, a journalist in Washington, is a former editor and royal blogger at The Washington Post.
Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family
By Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand
Dey Street. 354 pp. $27.99