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    Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their wedding day (Getty)

    Finding Freedom: Which royal biographies caused the biggest stir?

    29 July 2020

    The controversial new biography ‘Harry and Meghan: Finding Freedom’ by Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand has thrown up all sorts of salacious details for the press to pour over in recent days – from the alleged fall out between the two Duchesses to William’s apparently ‘snobbish’ remark about ‘that girl’ Meghan.

    But it’s hardly the first controversial royal biography to be released. Incendiary biographies are part of the territory for current and ex-Royals. So let’s take a breezy look back at previous tomes which have rattled Royal cages: 

    The Royals by Kitty Kelley

    The Royals: Getty

    A self-proclaimed deep dive into the “secrets of alcoholism, drug addiction, insanity, homosexuality, bisexuality, adultery, infidelity and illegitimacy” at the heart of the Royal Family, it is no wonder that Kitty Kelley’s explosive exploration was not originally published in the UK.

    Bitchy, gossipy – with a distinctly American twang – the book revels in its prurience; even digging into how the Queen was conceived (apparently, a more complex process than you may expect). Unsurprisingly, eyebrows were raised when the book hit the shelves, but the Palace maintained its traditional dignified silence. This is a catty, salacious offering with a relaxed relationship to the truth – and, of course, it sold like Royal hotcakes because of it. 

    Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life by Sally Bedell Smith

    Prince Charles: Getty

    Public opinion is split on the heir to the throne. Some resent his treatment of Diana, and his busy-bodying attitude to public spaces. Others have warmed to his more relaxed countenance in his later years – the beetroot-cheeked complexion, the ready laugh. I place myself firmly in this latter camp – Old Charles seems fun, and he always wears great brogues.

    Sally Bedell Smith’s book, whilst not afraid of sex and alcohol, takes a more circumspect attitude to its subject than The Royals. What emerges is a portrait of a Prince who, although spoilt (he arrived at his prep school, Hill House, in a chauffeur-driven limousine) and wealthy in his own right, was never really very happy. He certainly resented how the media portrayed him (“I can’t bear that man, he’s so awful, he really is,” he was once overheard saying about the BBC’s Royal Correspondent Nicholas Witchell). But that seems to have changed now. Perhaps, as Charles relaxed, so the British media – and the British public – relaxed, too.

    The Way We Were: Remembering Diana by Paul Burrell

    Diana, Princess of Wales: Getty

    There is something unseemly about The Princess of Wales’s former butler’s willingness to pour over every detail of his dealings with Diana.

    Nevertheless, this is a book which portrays Diana as many like to think of her – the gorgeous victim, compassionate and divine. Maybe the truth is more complex; there are allusions to a skittish starlet’s temperament. Burrell seems to have adored her, in a clingy sycophantic way – he refers to her through-out as “the boss”. The public certainly never lost their affection for “the People’s Princess”.

    Controversial because of its provenance, Burrell’s insights remain a source of intrigue, and even comfort, for Diana’s legions of admirers. Expect a Hallmark Afternoon Movie in royal biography form: candy-floss, with a hint of stalker. 

    The Queen: Elizabeth II and the Monarchy by Ben Pimlott

    Queen Elizabeth II: Getty

    We love Our Queen. Well, historically, we did – and we do now. She glues our country together, with a few words able to lift our hearts and lift our spirits. But the Queen’s relationship with British citizens (we stopped being “subjects”, in the traditional sense, in 1981) has not always been as rosy as we like to think. Pimlott’s autobiography takes an unusually emotive look at the Queen’s reign. He is not an archetypal documenter of royal life: in life, a keen Labour man, he approaches his subject matter with a thoughtful but sympathetic eye.

    The portrait of the Queen which he reveals is of an enigmatic woman, surprising ordinary in her attitudes, who takes her duty seriously. Often lost in her public role is her sense of humour: her wry response to politicians, national and international is one of the takeaways of this book. She loves her grandsons, never understood Diana, and its clear that the 90s were her most challenging decade. This is a book which eschews gossipy indulgences to offer a more elegant – and more honest – take.

    The Queen Mother, The untold story of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon by Lady Colin Campbell

    Elizabeth Bowes Lyon: Getty

    Everyone remembers the Queen Mother. In fact, even if you don’t remember the Queen Mother, you remember the Queen Mother. Lady Colin Campbell’s biography, published in 2012, blew the lid on this royal icon in a way no-one had dared to before. We heard about the Queen Mother’s sex life – she wasn’t keen. Her attitude to the public – she wasn’t keen.

    Her view on Diana – she wasn’t keen. Her drinking habits – “mine’s a large one!”. A snarky read, told from an insider’s perspective, you get the impression the writer didn’t like the dear ol’ Queen mum very much – and she doesn’t want you to like her, either. If biographies fall into two main camps, positive and negative, then Lady Colin Campbell’s is very much in the latter. Which is probably what makes it such fun. So settle back with a gin and Dubonnet (30% gin; 70% Dubonnet, with a slice of lemon under the ice) and enjoy.