Book Review ‘Finding Freedom’: Harry and Meghan’s Breakup with Royal Family Shows Institution Enmeshed in Pop Culture

Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, arrive for the annual Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey in London, England, March 9, 2020. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

A new book purporting to tell the real story of Harry and Meghan’s breakup with the royal family reveals how enmeshed the ancient institution has become with pop culture.

As Prince Harry’s Land Rover swept through the gates of Sandringham House, the favored country estate of his grandmother, the queen, he grew increasingly nervous. The Duke of Sussex had entered uncharted territory, write Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand in Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family. Just days earlier, the sixth-in-line to the throne and his wife, the American TV actress Meghan Markle, had bypassed the palace and announced their intention “to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family.”

The time had come to “carve out a progressive new role” within the monarchy, the Sussexes concluded in an Instagram post. In particular, they would “work to become financially independent,” while retaining their royal duties and patronages. This forced the queen’s hand. Her Majesty called a meeting, which was dubbed “the Sandringham Summit” by the press. In attendance were the queen, Harry, his father, Charles, Prince of Wales, and his brother, William, the Duke of Cambridge.

Somewhat befittingly, they convened in the Long Library — so named because the Edwardian study, replete with oak furnishings and classical busts, had once been an American-style bowling alley. The Windsors have long made a habit of melding the old with the new, the traditional with the modern. But on this occasion, it had proven untenable to recast the Los Angeles–born Meghan in the starring role of a dutiful, reserved British aristocrat. In a little over 18 months from their wedding day, Harry and Meghan’s honeymoon with the British public was over. The couple had all but vacated the country. And for those who cared enough to notice, Megxit had already begun. Where had it all gone wrong?

In this self-described “first, epic and true story” of the Sussexes’ lives together, Scobie and Durand pledge to bring more than two years of “behind the scenes” reporting to bear in answering this question. Well, sort of. There is very little new information here — at least, nothing the reader wouldn’t have gleaned by occasionally dipping into the tabloids. And the author’s note doesn’t exactly bolster the idea that this is a work by two enterprising, “fact-driven, objective journalists.” The pair write:

The aim of this book was to portray the real Harry and Meghan, a couple who have often been inaccurately portrayed and [are] victims of those with personal agendas. Our mission has been motivated by the desire to present the truth of misreported stories that have become gospel simply because of the amount of times they have been repeated.

Um, okay. These aren’t the only alarm bells ringing against claims of impartiality, however. The authors boast that the book was informed by 100 sources, but none of them are named, and they all parrot the same fawning praise of Harry and Meghan. Scobie and Durand offer up a smorgasbord of terms for anonymous sources — “an aide,” “a close friend,” “a trusted confidante” — before exhausting the list and having to rehash them all over again. This repetition is tedious. And not only that, it strips quotations from their useful context: Who knew what, how, why, where, and when? The reader is left to fumble through a thicket of meaningless verbiage that pads out the narrative. Far too many “sources” chime in choruses of agreement with the Sussexes, offering tidbits that are starved of any real insight. For example, on the feud between Meghan and her father, whom she describes as having become “fully corrupted,” a “friend of the couple” muses that “it is his own behavior that he is truly the victim of.”

In the prologue, the biographers deny that the couple had any input into the book, yet that claim is hedged by the late admission that they have spoken with the couple “when appropriate.” One wonders whether Scobie’s closeness to the Sussexes, hinted at from the beginning, is not a strength so much as a liability. Time and again, Finding Freedom sounds a lot like a 354-page press release issued on behalf of its two protagonists. It’s not difficult to detect the Sussexes’ feelings, thoughts, and even their voices percolating throughout the text (often in personal, albeit trifling details). For instance, did you know that Harry texts ghost emojis instead of smiley faces? Or have you ever wondered which luxury shoe brands Meghan believes are worth “the obscene price tags”? Spoiler: Stella McCartney, Chloé, and Marc Jacobs.

Finding Freedom is written in this cloying, gaudy style, which is ironic, given that its saccharine prose is not too dissimilar from that of the lifestyle magazines with whom the couple have waged a war of words. We hear of how Harry fretted that his “famed ginger locks” would make him an easy spot in Toronto, not to mention all the “conflict-free” jewelry he has gifted Meghan over the years.

This frivolity could be forgiven if it didn’t so accurately mimic Harry and Meghan’s own attitudes. The couples’ “humanitarian passions” might be taken more seriously if they weren’t bookended by safari vacations in $1,957-a-night deluxe tents and a mid-pandemic move to a $15 million Mediterranean-style villa in a gated community. Then, there are downright weird passages, including one about a lawsuit that the Sussexes filed against the Mail on Sunday, which alleges that the paper had been “deliberately inflammatory” in equating the duchess’s love of avocado toast with environmental harm, and reporting a “controversy” over the couple’s use of air fresheners in St. George’s Chapel ahead of their wedding day. We are reassured by Scobie and Durand that “the discreet Baies scented air diffusers for the chapel provided by Diptyque . . . had been okayed by all parties involved.” Thank heavens for that.

Similarly, Meghan and Harry appear incapable of organizing any aspect of their lives without involving some high-profile figure. From having Oprah check in on Meghan’s mom, to vacationing at George and Amal Clooney’s home on Lake Como, to borrowing Elton John’s private plane, to having Serena Williams host their son’s baby shower, it’s almost easier to count the number of Hollywood celebrities that aren’t name-dropped in this book. Heck, even former Disney CEO Bob Iger gets a mention.

If Finding Freedom shows anything, it’s that the monarchy has become inseparable from celebrity hobnobbing and pop culture. Earlier this year, The Economist ran an article pointing to the fact that, of King George V’s great-great-grandchildren, 42 percent were working in the arts and entertainment businesses. An early editor of that same publication, Walter Bagehot, wrote in The English Constitution (1867) that British government rests on “dignified” and “efficient” parts: “those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population” and “those by which it, in fact, works and rules.” The monarchy represents that first principle. But with each passing generation, through the rise of the gossip column and social media — which have pulled back the curtain on the royal family’s less than perfect lives — British society has largely lost its reverence for the pomp and circumstance of the institution. That reverence has been replaced by fame and popularity. The monarchy, therefore, exists in a strange symbiotic relationship with the press, without which it cannot survive.

It’s tricky to gauge how much Meghan knew of this before trading her life as a B-list actress for the gilded cage of Kensington Palace, followed by Frogmore Cottage. What is for certain is that the media attention ended up being too much to handle. Even the duchess’s toughest critics ought to have some morsel of sympathy for her, given the spotlight that was placed on the couple, which is to say nothing of the sheer lack of privacy within the palace itself. Every conversation and every disagreement within the royal family involves a host of courtiers and advisers, who wield significant control over the royals. As part of her initiation, the duchess was put through a two-day staged kidnapping organized by the British army, to prepare her for “high-risk security scenarios.” Her marriage also had to be approved by the queen to be legally binding — technically, Elizabeth II can veto royal marriages (as she did in the case of her sister, Princess Margaret) and can take custody of her heirs in the event of a divorce.

As for Harry, he comes across as a wayward son during his formative years, who was put through the ranks of the military for want of a greater purpose. Stricken with grief over the tragic death of his mother, Princess Diana, and never far from the flashing cameras of Fleet Street, Harry developed an instinctive distrust toward the press. In fact, it’s Harry who seems to trigger the break with the royal family; Meghan just gave him the reason and language to do it.

One of the more revelatory aspects of the book is its depiction of the relationship between the Cambridges and Sussexes. Meghan and Kate Middleton, the future queen, never quite hit it off. They appear to regard each other with a degree of suspicion. It’s clear that, as a newcomer to the family, Meghan expected more support from Kate, but there is little indication of a real bust-up. Meanwhile, the rift between Harry and William can be thought of as a natural consequence of the “heir and spare” dynamic of their upbringing. It’s an uncomfortable truth that William is fated to be king and Harry his understudy — a royal who likely won’t sit on the throne but is required to act the part. In essence, the title of this book recalls these unresolved grievances: Harry’s desperate desire to stray from the path laid out for him at birth.

And it is with that that we turn our minds back to Sandringham. It would not be necessary to have Meghan join by conference call from the couple’s $18 million rented mansion in Vancouver, Harry was told. This was strictly family business. During the 90-minute discussion that followed, the prince pleaded his case. He felt that he and Meghan had been exploited by the monarchy for their popularity, though sidelined in its future. Worse still, he claimed, the couple faced an onslaught from two sides. In public, they were hounded by the press. And within the walls of the palace, they were disparaged for being too sensitive and outspoken.

Whatever the dispute, it was clear there would be no half-in, half-out arrangement; the Sussexes dropped their royal titles (His/Her Royal Highness). And where once they spoke of stepping back from their royal duties, the couple have actually stepped away entirely. Scobie and Durand are too cautious to say it outright, but the future of this new, slimmed-down British monarchy has passed to the next generation: William and his children, George, Charlotte, and Louis. Get used to these faces.

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