The Collateral Damage of Queen Elizabeth’s Glorious Reign (2024)

Harry and Meghan, the Duke and duch*ess of Sussex, went the other way. In Brown’s telling, Harry fell in love with Meghan Markle very fast, amazed by her dynamism and poise, and then watched, in fury and wonder, as she was brought low by the same forces that made him sweat before he even left the house. “At the core of the difficulties was determining whether the Sussexes were celebrity royals or royal celebrities,” Brown writes. “Two very different states of being.” The Sussexes are planet-level influencers—their causes are legion—but their glamour derives, as water flows to the sea, from Harry’s nonagenarian grandmother, something that, between them, they failed to apprehend. Harry “is a deeply caring person who wants to make a positive difference,” a palace source told Brown. “He doesn’t understand that the reason he’s getting to do that is because he’s a Prince.”

It was the Queen, in C.E.O. mode, who freed them from the royal cage. Now they are comfortably adrift in Montecito, California, a reported more than a hundred million dollars richer—courtesy of Netflix, Spotify, and Penguin Random House—and doomed to trade, forever, on the damage done to them by an ancient Crown. (Harry is currently involved in a court case against the British government over the cost of his security arrangements when visiting the U.K.: he wants to be able to pay for police protection; the Home Office says that the police aren’t available for hire.) “I never thought I would have my security removed, because I was born into this position,” the prince told Oprah last year. “I inherited the risk, so that was a shock to me.” He inherited much more than that.

Unaccountably, there are characters who have managed to survive—even prosper, albeit briefly—in the purgatory of this Elizabethan age. By coincidence or not, the two people who come out best from “The Palace Papers” are Charles’s wives: Camilla and her tragic predecessor. Camilla just seems to have had the right constitution for it all: raised in a happy family, tough as teak and made convivial by generations, eons perhaps, of well-bred English socializing. Tennis. Riding out. A glass of sherry after church. “I’ve never been able not to talk,” she told Geordie Greig, the former editor of the Daily Mail, in 2017. “It’s in the psyche, not to leave a silence.” Camilla is, in Brown’s memorable phrase, “marvelously salty fun.”

You wouldn’t say the same of Diana, who flickers in the background of “The Palace Papers” like a candle about to set fire to a curtain. She came from a fancy family, the Spencers, even more fractious than the Windsors. Her mother, Frances, lost custody of her four children after she left Diana’s father, Viscount Althorp, in 1968, and was deemed a “bolter” by her own mother. (It was never explained to the kids why she was leaving, according to Brown.) Diana suffered grievously as a princess, but she also, by instinct and upbringing, had a sophisticated feel for the dynamics of royal power: whose charisma was whose. “I was a different person,” she told Martin Bashir, in her now infamous BBC interview, in 1995, recalling her overseas tour with Charles to Australia and New Zealand, twelve years earlier. “I realized the sense of duty, the level of intensity of interest, and the demanding role I now found myself in.” A poignant episode in Brown’s book is her recollection of a lunch in New York with Diana and Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, six weeks before the princess’s death. “I was bowled over by the confident, skilful way she wooed us,” Brown writes. Divorced and in exile, Diana planned to make a film every two years, to highlight social problems that were important to her. She was going to start with illiteracy. “Diana was always ahead of the curve,” Brown writes. “Her plan sounds very like what Meghan and Harry are attempting with their entertainment deals today, but with one central difference: It was better thought out.”

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, in 2020.Photograph by Justin Tallis / AFP / Getty

The succession looms. The Queen was born more than thirty years closer to the assassination of President Lincoln than she was to the present day. “How will anyone know how to be British anymore?” Brown asks of the dreadful moment, when it comes. Her Majesty has been streamlining her team for the transition, tying up loose ends. In 2019, palace Kremlinologists noticed that a family portrait of the Sussexes was absent from its place near the royal elbow during the broadcast of the Queen’s Christmas message. Earlier this year, after the defenestration of Andrew, she announced that she would like Camilla to become Queen Consort, rather than stay a simple duch*ess, when Charles takes over.

Brown makes the point that at least Charles’s deepest political concern—the state of nature in the face of climate change—is in synch with the present moment. At last year’s U.N. climate-change summit in Glasgow, the almost-king, who drives an Aston Martin converted to run on whey and the by-products of English wine, repeated his call for “a circular bioeconomy” to save us all. The reality is that Charles’s relatively short reign is likely to be busy with the last fourteen countries outside the U.K. where the British monarch is the head of state rushing for the door. Last week, on a visit to the Caribbean, Prince Edward was greeted by protesters and demands for reparations for Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. The long-term survival—and sanity—of the House of Windsor now rests in the happy, close-knit, middlebrow care of William and Catherine, and their clutch of little Cambridges. What could possibly go wrong?

The Collateral Damage of Queen Elizabeth’s Glorious Reign (2024)
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