Well, I hoovered it up in one sitting. Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family is the third new book about the Sussexes I've read in a month but had there been more, I'd have read them too. Stick a cannula in my arm and hang a drip bag by my head; unauthorised royal biographies put jelly in my cells. Embarrassing - but true.
Let's face it: the royal biography is the lowest of the low, even among airport paperbacks. Nobody admits buying them but they sell. Nobody reads them in public. I can think of a dozen people happy to sit in a departure lounge with Lee Child or Jojo Moyes but they'd rather be seen in their undies than read Lady Colin Campbell on the plane.
Enjoying a royal biography suggests you are a cretin: intellectually unfashionable and credulous. You must be socially conservative and a monarchist, because who else would read an entire book about Camilla Parker Bowles – an unremarkable aristocrat once described as "the laziest woman to have been born in England in the 20th century"?
Reading one implies you're not restless at all about the relevance of a cultural system steeped in hereditary privilege; in fact, you must be massively into it. You like history but only if served overcooked, mashed, and bulked up with sugar. Trust me, you'll be judged by your book cover, so tell nobody you bought it and read it at home.
It's undeniable the worst royal biogs are slavishly written by friends of the Windsors. These excuse their subject's faults, emphasise their virtues and are unforgivably boring to read. Meanwhile the more critical ones, by journalists as cross as wasps about abuses of royal power, usually fail to land hits.
In 2018, Tom Bower's Rebel Prince laid bare Prince Charles' readiness to take money for his projects from dubious foreign millionaires with yacht berths in places like the Caymans. It was genuinely eye-popping. But it was a squib.
This year's equivalent is Nigel Cawthorne's Prince Andrew: Epstein, Maxwell and the Palace. It deserves to go viral but won't. This is because Andrew's outrages are already in the news and the book confirms what's widely known about him. So far, its revelations haven't triggered strong new public feeling. Andrew's behaviour certainly threatens the monarchy, the super-rich and the political class, but the book? Not so much.
Still, once every few decades, a royal book can rock the establishment. This is what makes the genre worthwhile. The most notorious is Andrew Morton's explosive 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words. Good grief! Its pages were so white-hot, an entire generation lost their eyebrows. Everybody read it or knew somebody who'd read it. We talked about it over dinner, then got up in the morning and talked about it again over breakfast. It was gossip made flesh, as hard news.
Morton interviewed Diana by stealth. She secretly recorded her responses and the tapes were pedalled to him at night by an intermediary on a bicycle. Seriously, you couldn't make up this drama. The book was equally a story of the media age as it was about a marriage: the perfect synthesis of form and function.
Morton's book changed the public mood. It rattled the House of Windsor and undermined trust in the monarchy. It poured daylight on Charles' infidelity, Diana's bulimia and attempts at self-harm and the implacable coldness of the Palace. It made Charles into a panto villain, courtiers into henchmen and the Queen into a sculpture made of ice.
Public support surged for Diana and the book began to influence royal behaviour. According to magazine editor Tina Brown, "After Morton, the war between the couple fed the press and the press fed the war. It engulfed the monarchy." Ultimately, as we know, it led to Charles and Diana's eventual divorce and the stripping of her royal title.
Which returns us to Finding Freedom – a book soon to match Morton's for notoriety. It was published only four days ago but has triggered weeks of controversy after early extracts ran in The Times and Sunday Times. Put it this way: if you aren't the Duke or the Duchess of Sussex, you don't come out of it looking good.
Written by royal foreign press correspondents Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand, it claims to be the "definitive" untold story of Harry and Meghan's decision to blindside the Windsors, dump England, move to Los Angeles and step down as senior working royals. The writers interviewed a hundred sources, including the couple's closest friends and associates, to reveal why not just why they quit but quit so dramatically. Finding Freedom is unashamedly from the Sussexes' point of view, though they've denied their participation.
To become a lasting cultural artefact, a royal biography needs unprecedented access to its subject. It should also offer readers significant revelations, plenty of gilded detail about royal life and a cold finger of blame pointing somewhere, insisting on change. Finding Freedom has it all.
For one thing, its access is remarkable. Scobie and Durand got so close to the Sussexes they must still have Meghan's perfume on their clothes.
For example, we learn about the couple's romantic secret trips to Botswana, where they camped in the wilderness and fell deeply in love. Nobody else was around apart from water buffalo, probably but still we learn that under the stars "they made a promise never to leave each other's sides and it was a promise [Harry] intended to keep". Further, Meghan was a happy camper and willing to wee in the undergrowth. I mean, how did the biographers find this out? You've got to give credit where it's due.
Revelations, meanwhile, are plentiful. William was wary of Meghan, telling Harry to slow down and "get to know this girl" – interpreted by Harry as unforgivably snobbish advice. Kate maintained a chilly distance. A schism widened between the couples. At their final public appearance at January's Commonwealth Service, they were barely speaking, with Kate pointedly ignoring her sister-in-law.
Among other intrigues, courtiers from rival factions – Kensington Palace, Clarence House, Buckingham Palace – would not only block, discourage or frustrate the Sussexes' requests to do things quickly or unconventionally but actively brief reporters against them, leaking unflattering stories and building up a picture of Meghan as petulant and demanding. She and Harry were, as the book views it, getting bigger than the rest of the band and needed subduing. The Palace obliged.
Finding Freedom describes a desperate Harry, by turns stung and enraged by every perceived aggression. He petitioned his father and the Queen but got nowhere. "At the core of [the couple's] issues was their inability to speak for themselves. Instead, they had to reply on a large, slow-moving machine that was the institution of the monarchy."
The book's thesis is that the couple were failed – by the immovable protocols around the Windsors and a defensive courtier class threatened by the Sussexes' popularity; by the cool distance of the Cambridges, who made little effort to understand, embrace or support Meghan; by Charles, made passive by his own accession and his need for things to stay the same; and by the unchecked sexism, classism and racism of British tabloids.
"I gave up my entire life for this family," Meghan is quoted, tearfully telling a friend. But the tabloids, the cool indifference of other royals and the Palace leaks, proved too much. To Scobie, after her final engagement at Buckingham Palace, she said: "It didn't have to be this way." She hugged him and that was the end of that.
Agree or disagree with this sympathetic narrative, the book lit a fuse and blew things up. I mean, we could smell the cordite from here.
"What did the pair want or expect? Top billing, it seems," raged Daily Mail star columnist Jan Moir. The self-inflated couple were, "as portrayed by sympathetic journalists in this laughable book, cavilling at every lackey or brother or newspaper who failed to deliver due deference or give them the esteem and status they feel they deserved".
Dan Wootton, expat Kiwi and executive editor at The Sun, was even more furious. "Finding Freedom is the most preposterous royal tell-all in history," he tweeted, in a swipe at Scobie. "Harry and Meghan allow a former tabloid journalist to confirm a whole load of stories broken by tabloid journalists over the past four years but spun with their own, often false version of events."
"I definitely didn't expect it to get so personal so quickly," Scobie told me over Zoom this month, from his glamorous London apartment. (Of course I rang him – given the chance, wouldn't you?) "I've been called a cheerleader, a mouthpiece, a spokesperson, not a journalist, and I think a lot of that comes from, call it 'an extension of feelings' towards the couple."
Scobie considers Finding Freedom legitimate journalism, asking hard questions of the Palace and its mutually beneficial relationship with the press. It's won him no friends on the royal beat.
"What I've done here is look into how an institution didn't manage to make it work for a couple who clearly wanted to make it work. That, to me, is a very important area to look into. I think there has perhaps been some taboo in pulling the curtain a bit ... we start talking about how the households conduct their own PR and it's often a case of rivalling one another and sometimes briefing the press against each other.
"These are areas that are sometimes off-limits for royal correspondents to talk about; they want to hold on to the sources or contacts they have at the Palace. Many royal correspondents solely exist because they are spoon-fed certain narratives from the Palace and their journalistic efforts go no further than that."
Morton was likewise belittled back in 1992 – described as "a tabloid vulgarian from Leeds" and "unfit to play a piano in a bordello". As well as inflaming the press, his book insisted on cultural change within the monarchy. Is that Durand and Scobie's aim? Scobie – who identifies as mixed-race – indicates it is.
"In terms of it having a lasting impact on the monarchy, I think there is a bigger conversation that this book will be part of and that is, as a progressive society that is waiting for the monarchy to catch up, in many ways, when they had the opportunity to do so with someone that represented diversity and inclusion – to be presented with a golden opportunity and for it to be wasted away like that … that is something many people will be hopefully reflecting on in the coming months."
The Sussexes' departure was, Scobie says, "one of probably the most seismic moments that we've had in the royal family in the past two and a half decades." The public is hungry to understand what the dang happened – evidenced, he says, by the book's Amazon rankings as a category bestseller, weeks before its release.
So, is Scobie the new Morton and Finding Freedom that once-in-a-generation royal book to hit the monarchy where it hurts? It certainly feels disruptive that in an online world dominated by social media channels, it's taken a book – an unfashionable genre of book, come to that – to give a platform to the world's most famous couple and incense the Windsors.
Scobie denies receiving smuggled royal testimony by way of a go-between, as Morton did.
"But in terms of the book being the book of that moment – that really summed up an era for the royal family and is still spoken about today – I can see how Finding Freedom will have that same impact. Because it does perfectly encapsulate a moment in time that really defines how many feel about the royal family today, or introduce people to a side of the family they may have not seen.
"For that reason, I think we will talk about this book for many years to come."
Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family, (Harlequin,$28) is out now.