You don’t have to be a monarchist to enjoy this delicious read

Review: Vivien Horler

The Palace Papers, by Tina Brown (Penguin)

On May 6 I invited a few friends to lunch to watch King Charles’s coronation. I had acquired some Union Jack bunting and napkins, thanks to a nephew visiting from London, and we had a spectacular cake with a picture of Charles on it.

We weren’t in any way respectful. We looked out for sartorial disasters – you could usually count on either princess Beatrix or Eugenie to oblige, but disappointingly this time they didn’t. We cringed when Charles had to take off his shirt. We drank gin and ate roast lamb and had a great time.

(So did the dog who, sensing her opportunity while we had all turned our backs on the lunch table to see the royal family emerge on the Buckingham Palace balcony, climbed up and seized the half-eaten leg of lamb.)

You don’t have to be a monarchist to enjoy royal spectacle, and the drama around the British royal family in the past few years has been compelling. Similarly, you don’t need to be a monarchist to enjoy this latest book by Tina Brown, the British-born, New York based-journalist, writer and commentator.

Brown was editor in chief of the British society magazine Tatler, the US Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker. And she knows everyone, which is handy when researching a book like this. She has written two other books, The Diana Chronicles and The Vanity Fair Diaries.

The Palace Papers was first published last year, but updated and republished this year to include references to Queen Elizabeth’s death and the accession of King Charles.

Having read and enjoyed The Vanity Fair Diaries, I was pretty sure I would enjoy this one too, and I did. Brown has sources everywhere, and so the book is hugely well-informed, but she is also a light, witty writer who draws the reader in. And she is fair to her subject but not sycophantic.

The Times, in naming The Palace Papers the royal book of the year, described it as: “Clever, well-informed and disgustingly entertaining”. As the Daily Mail put it: “The devil is in the delicious detail.”

It focuses on the years since World War II, and on the leading royal characters of the time: Elizabeth, Philip, Margaret, Charles, Diana, Camilla, Andrew, William and Catherine, and of course on Harry and Meghan.

Here’s a tiny sample, referring to the famous Oprah Winfrey interview with the Sussexes: “The Duchess wore smoky tragedy eye make-up, first deployed by Diana, Princess of Wales, in her notorious interview with Martin Bashir, and her hair was in a low bun for confessional gravitas… Royal code-breakers noted that on Meghan’s left wrist was her late mother-in-law’s Cartier diamond tennis bracelet, signifying that the mantle of wronged royal woman was now hers.”

Brown says she was fascinated by Meghan’s comment in the interview that she had not known what to expect of royal life. “I didn’t fully understand what the job was,” she told Oprah. “…I grew up in LA, you see celebrities all time time.”

Brown comments: “Uh, yes. The notion that the country-side rooted, duty obsessed, tradition-bound senior members of the British Royal family bear any resemblance at all to Hollywood celebrities is head-explodingly off track. Celebrities flare and burn out. The monarchy plays the long game.”

As she points out, the British monarch is a more than1 000-year-old institution which at the time of the interview had a 96-year-old CEO and a septuagenarian waiting in the wings. “It cannot be expected to be nimble. It builds its social capital with steady, incremental acts of unexciting duty. Every so often the glacier moves, usually after a resounding shock to the system.”

Think Edward VIII’s abdication, the death of Diana, the departure of Harry and Meghan. The monarchy will change, says Brown, because its prime goal is to survive.

Somewhat surprisingly for an actress who was known while in the TV series Suits for doing her homework, Meghan told Winfrey: “I didn’t do any research.”

Well, Brown did. She spent two years, in person and over Zoom, talking to more than 120 people who were and are close to the royal family, and the result , she says, is a book she wishes Meghan had been able to read before she packed up her house in Toronto to move to London and Harry.

“She would have learned that no one is a bigger brand than the Firm.”

Serious thoughts on the nature and future of the British monarchy in The Palace Papers are interwoven with hilarious anecdotes about the family’s goings-on, all of which make this a scandalously entertaining read. I loved it.



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