‘The fascination of monarchy is that its themes repeat themselves because its protagonists are earthly,” is Tina Brown’s conclusion to The Palace Papers, her latest book about the British royal family. This is a very Tina Brown way of saying – after more than 500 exhaustive pages of Windsor arcana – “Oh well, we’re all human.” In fact, I think the fascination of the monarchy is that no matter how many books are written about them, and no matter how hagiographic they intend to be, there’s always some new information within that proves they’re even more repulsive than you originally thought.
This is genuinely impressive – superhuman, even – given that the Windsor’s shenanigans are about as unexamined as the assassination of JFK. I’m no royalist – after all, I do work for the Guardian, which Brown describes as “mercurial” and “sour” due to its rude republicanism – but hey, I watched The Crown. I’ve even read Brown’s previous royal book about that similarly untapped subject, The Diana Chronicles. I’m up on the royals, OK? Or so I thought until I read in The Palace Papers about Charles’s other mistress in the 1970s and possibly 80s, Dale Harper, who was dropped by Charles for being too keen on him. Later she fell out of a window and was paralysed below the waist. When she “frantically pursued Charles in her wheelchair” at a polo match in 1997, he issued “a chilly statement saying they were no longer the friends they once were”. Or how about this one, which was told to Brown by “an American media executive” about the time he had lunch with Sarah Ferguson in 2015: “Andrew came in and sat down and said to me, ‘What are you doing with this fat cow?’ I was so stunned by his level of sadism. She has to sing for her supper.” In other words, Brown concludes: “He bails her out when she’s in trouble, and she backs him up when he’s assailed by scandal.”
Brown gets in an even more satisfying dig at Andrew by making good use of the unpublished memoir of Virginia Giuffre, who claims she was forced by Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell to have sex with Andrew three times. The first of these encounters, Giuffre writes in her memoir, was “the longest ten minutes of my life”. (Andrew, famously, denies he ever met Giuffre.) Even the revered Queen is diminished by some of the claims. Most people know she went away for weeks at a time when she was a young mother. But I did not know that, after a six-week trip to Malta when he was 12 months old, “instead of rushing straight back to see Charles at Sandringham as one might expect, she lingered in London for a few days, catching up on admin and attending an engagement at Hurst Park Races where she had a horse riding,” Brown writes. She missed both Charles’s second and third Christmases and his third birthday. Really puts that modern parental guilt about going out two evenings in one week into perspective, doesn’t it?
Yet Brown doesn’t want her readers to hate the royals, which is always the problem with books about them. The royals, like celebrities, only matter as much as people believe they matter, and a book just about Andrew’s awfulness and Charles’s pettiness would be true, but would also make the reader question just why they are reading about this absurd, irrelevant family. Current events, however, are in Brown’s favour as they have enabled her to play a double game. So in The Palace Papers there are the Good Royals – the Queen, Prince Philip and the Cambridges – who are written about in prose worthy of Mills & Boon (“There’s a Mona Lisa quality to Kate,” Brown writes, presumably without throwing up on her own keyboard). Then there are the Bad Royals – Prince Andrew, Sarah Ferguson, the Sussexes – who get a thorough kicking. Prince Charles is neutral, the others non-existent. In other words, she’s pretty much sticking to the script of the palace’s current PR strategy, which has cut the deadwood adrift and focused the spotlight entirely on the Queen and the Cambridges.
In regard to the Sussexes, Brown is assisted in her endeavours by Meghan Markle’s father, Thomas, who adds Brown to the long list of journalists to whom he has trashed his daughter. Brown duly rewards him by defending his indefensible behaviour, insisting that Prince Harry made Thomas feel “disempowered, perhaps even emasculated” when he asked his father-in-law to please stop talking to the press. And that’s another interesting thing about the royals: as bad as they all are, the bottom-feeders around them are even worse.
For those who haven’t encountered Brown’s writing before, The Palace Papers provides all the greatest hits. There’s her fondness for introducing people with often baffling descriptions: “the galloping Major Shand”; “a blonde dazzler with amazing legs”; and – my personal favourite – “With her tumbling mane of red curly hair and vulpine networking skills, Rebekah Brooks was lethally successful at penetrating the political and media corridors of power.” There’s also her usual balancing act of being both an insider (one person is introduced to the reader as “my pew mate at Lord Lichfield’s memorial”), but also enough of an outsider to describe Prince and Princess Michael as “low-boil, money-grubbing embarrassment[s]”. It’s a pose she perfected as editor of Tatler, that monthly annual of poshos that alternates obsequiousness with objectivity, and as with Tatler, it’s not hard to detect where Brown’s sympathies ultimately lie: the sad state of the British upper classes in the early 2000s is exemplified, Brown suggests, by the sight of “Brigadier Parker Bowles on the London tube, strap-hanging in his morning suit”.
You can’t write as much about the royals as Brown has without taking them seriously, and she absolutely does. Her writing becomes positively orgasmic when describing Kate’s alleged triumph in bagging William: “Kate did not wait eight years for any rich, connected man. She waited for the man – the future King William V, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her Other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith – Your Majesty to the rest of us.” She gives poor Prince Philip a death scene that would have made even Charles Dickens say: “Tina, mate, come on. Dial it down a bit.”
But Brown is also an absolutely dogged researcher. A significant part of The Palace Papers seems to be gleaned from earlier, very well known books (Diana by Andrew Morton, The Insider by Piers Morgan, Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire). Even so, she dredges up enough colour to enliven the outlines of this all-too familiar story. And by God, it’s familiar. Are there really any readers out there with the stomach to wade through details of Megxit again? More people still agog for the alleged fairytale of Prince William and commoner Kate? Anyone on the planet desperate for another rehash of Charles’s cruelty to Diana? The answer, of course, is yes. And that, really, is the most fascinating thing of all about the royal family.