The HarperCollins non-fiction title about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Finding Freedom: Harry And Meghan And The Making Of A Modern Royal Family, officially dropped on August 11 in the United States and in Britain, has garnered a flurry of headlines since its three-part excerpted serialization in the London Times beginning July 25. The book is touted to be a “positive,” if intensely gossipy, spin on the couple’s remarkably brief life together since their romance began in Toronto in 2017, very much including the climax of their bumpy, jet-setting narrative thus far, which is the ungainly mini-abdication, or “Megxit,” process that they began with a bang at the top of this year.
Taking up just over 36 months and a bit on the calendar, the book offers a markedly skinny time period for a biography. In fact, new dad and newly self-unmade royal Prince Harry is all of 34, his wife, Meghan Markle is 39, so that it’s a bit of a stretch for HarperCollins, the publisher on both sides of the Atlantic, to be calling the thing a “biography.” Hagiography, perhaps, would be a more accurate term. But in the book-flogging trade, Finding Freedom is an insta-book.
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Insta-books — defined as team-written tomes pushed out within a few months on popular subjects-of-the-moment — can work well for publishers and authors alike, and they can certainly be breezily entertaining. But their topicality means that their success depends upon the durability of the star wattage of the subject or subject matter, meaning, that subject’s currency in national or international debate, and the conditions on the ground in the instant that the insta-book drops.
The conditions for the August 11 drop of Finding Freedom are middling: On the one hand, in a glitzy self-imposed lockdown in a hilltop mansion belonging to Tyler Perry in Los Angeles, whence they fled in a “top-secret” pre-lockdown moment from their mansion in Vancouver, it’s clear that the wattage of the couple has dimmed considerably of late. Both the exile prince and his wife try mightily to stay relevant and engaged, but the triple dreadnought of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the wake of the George Floyd killing, and the onrushing presidential election have elbowed the couple adroitly from the front pages across the world.
On the other hand, as their wattage wanes — as one would expect of two well-off but wholly-unemployed beings in Los Angeles, a town that is home to many wealthier, employed, higher-wattage characters — HarperCollins is betting that a renewed late-summer lockdown may be just the tonic for light, escapist monarchical fluff, which this product is.
However the book sales figures ultimately tumble out, the book itself remains a most curious addition to the canon around the couple and in the landscape of royal-family reportage. First, it’s not an as-told-to. Second, it’s not even an as-told-by an identifiable person or persons close to the couple, be they friends or former courtiers. The sourcing is anonymous.
The project of putting a positive spin on the Megxit process — a series of unplanned events kicked off by Harry and Ms. Markle in its sudden, half-baked form in early January via an inexplicably whiny Instagram post — is a steep hill to climb. The authors of Finding Freedom certainly go at it gamely. They are: British/Iranian reporter Omid Scobie, an ingenue who has written, mainly, for the London edition of the Hearst Corporation’s luxury fashion bible Harper’s Bazaar, and Carolyn Durand, a former television producer. We do know that they have reported royal stories before.
Mr. Scobie makes no secret of the fact that, over time reporting on the couple, he somehow stood out. By this is meant that he stood out in the view of the prince and Ms. Markle as belonging to a different, more nuanced and more sympathetic hominid species than the average rabid, bloodthirsty coursing canines of Fleet Street’s royal-beat, virtually all of whom routinely (in the Windsor/Markle/Scobie/Durand world view) “unfairly” report on the prince and his bride. And, in fact, according to Scobie, Durand, and HarperCollins, Finding Freedom is intended to be the antidote to that allegedly vindictive reportage.
Meanwhile, in the real world as defined by the London High Court, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle press forward with Ms. Markle’s arguably counterproductive invasion-of-privacy and copyright-violation lawsuit against Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, for their coverage of her and her father Thomas Markle in the runup to her 2018 wedding with Harry. It was that dust-up that resulted in the current, ongoing estrangement between Ms. Markle and her father.
In the real world as defined by London’s newspapers on the royal beat, the tetchy prince and Ms. Markle have infamously issued another, separate boycott edict/post in which they explain that they will no longer be dealing with a handful of what they view as the most offensive London newspapers. The shortlist includes the Sun, which in a fine twist of fate is owned by Rupert Murdoch’ News Corp., which is the owner of HarperCollins, publisher of Finding Freedom. The list of boycotted suspects also includes the defendants of the Markle lawsuit, the Daily Mail.
There is considerable fog around the question of whether Harry and Ms. Markle cooperated by giving interviews to, or “approved,” the reporting and/or the reporters. Omid Scobie has expressly denied that Harry or Ms. Markle participated by sitting for interviews for the book, although, of course, he has interviewed both of them as a correspondent before. As the book’s publication was announced in March, when the Megxit process was nearing its final explosive burst prior to the couple’s final departure for Vancouver, the implication was that the couple had had some sort of input in the hand-picking of Scobie and Durand for the job. That remains unconfirmed by any of the parties, including the publisher.
What is clear is that the reporters enjoyed almost unlimited access. In order to weave the “positive” pro-Markle tale, the reporters have had access to multiple unidentified “sources” who are alleged to have been “close” to Prince Harry and Ms. Markle. Bluntly put, the circle of friends and colleagues was opened and remained that way for the duration of the project, ergo, it’s reasonable to assume that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will have given what passes for permission to members of that circle to speak with Scobie and Durand. Put differently, those friends and/or former colleagues would never have spoken with the reporters without permission from the couple, for fear of the axe falling on their connection to the former royals.
Two relevant passages — the first from the Harper/Collins jacket copy, and the second from Scobie himself in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar — unfortunately do not illuminate the intricacies of that. But these passages do bring clarity to the backstory of the book.
The issue in publishing this book as the couple’s “true” story — again, nominally, without the direct participation of either Harry or Meghan Markle — is about creating a safe distance between the subjects and their “biographers.” The safe distance was meant to afford the already controversial subjects a modicum of secure deniability. That, it turns out, has come in very handy for Ms. Markle and her prince since the excerpts were published last month. As the London Times‘ first book excerpt about, among other things, the very real rift between William and Harry, was published on the weekend of July 25 and the headlines exploded on every front page in Great Britain, Harry and Ms. Markle could, and did, instantly scramble to issue a swift denial of participation.
The two passages are:
“Finding Freedom goes beyond the headlines,” HarperCollins editors write, “to reveal unknown details of Harry and Meghan’s life together, dispelling the many rumors and misconceptions that plague the couple on both sides of the pond.”
For his part, Mr. Scobie seems quite proud of his own closeness to Meghan Markle. To set the scene, in early March, after the crisis talks with Charles and the Queen on the structure of their sudden exit from royal duty, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were running through their last official engagements for the Crown. Mr. Scobie was invited along to a reception at which Meghan Markle greeted scholarship students from one of her ongoing patronages. Herewith, Mr. Scobie:
Back at Buckingham Palace, the ACU students now en route to Westminster Abbey and Harry quietly slipping through the door to say hello, the reality—and the emotions—finally set in as I give Meghan a goodbye hug. She’s flying back to Canada on the last commercial flight of the day, eager to be back in Vancouver Island by the morning before Archie wakes up. For a couple who only ever wanted to focus on their work and bring good to the world, it seems like an unnecessarily cruel ending to their royal lives. Forced to give up roles they’re incredibly proud of after sacrificing so much to get there.
At this point, the 1844 Room (of Buckingham Palace) is almost empty and tears that the duchess had been bravely holding back are free to flow among familiar faces. As she embraces some of the loyal staff she will most likely not see again, I can’t help but feel sad for the dedicated team members whose tireless efforts—to promote the couple’s work, launch landmark projects, and deal with the near-daily crises brought on by tabloid lies—have come to an abrupt end.
It’s admirably sophisticated, easy-going, intimate-seeming treacle, but treacle nonetheless, reminiscent of the denouement of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, after it’s clear that the evil designs of Cruella De Vil have been dashed and the puppies have been saved. Caught in the teeth of the moment, Omid Scobie gives Meghan Markle a farewell hug. The takeaway: Hugs make everything okay. Specifically, it’s okay for a member of the press to hug a subject he or she is covering, especially if that subject is Meghan Markle.
Those would-be beach-goers who manage to find a socially-distanced holiday for the remainder of this fraught summer will be braced for more dollops of this sweetness and light as they trundle with the 250-page tome to the strand.
But none of the book’s dulcet tones mean that it carries no sting. Closely read, Mr. Scobie is saying here that Buckingham Palace — in concert with the apparently constant “tabloid lies” — are the twin villains who conspired to, in his words, “force” the bright young do-goodnik couple into cruel exile from their royal lives.
In fact, exiting royal duty was Harry and Meghan Markle’s choice, and it was they who authored the slap-dash architecture of their exit by springing their Instagram vision of it on the Palace, on Harry’s father, and on the Queen in early January. It wasn’t tactical, or even very smart, and it smacked of absolute desperation. The whole point of the subsequent scramble by the Queen, Charles and their senior courtiers was to tidy the legal and financial wreckage wrought by the couple’s firing off the announcement of their liberation from royal duty as a fait accompli.
Unclear is what the Palace, the Queen’s or Charles’ reaction to finding themselves cast in the Cruella De Vil role in Finding Freedom will be. The Queen and Charles are especially practiced at soldiering rather elegantly on without complaint, and both of them have been through tougher fires than this.
Ironically, the most pointed question that Finding Freedom poses is one for the prince-in-exile and for Meghan Markle. On lockdown in Mr. Perry’s capacious Beverly Hills mansion with not quite enough to do, it seems that they have found everything but freedom. It can be that they’ve just swapped one gilt birdcage for another.