Book review: 'William and Harry' by Katie Nicholl

Once upon a time, there were two brother princes. Their beautiful mother had died when the boys were young, and after their aloof father took up with a selfish stepmother …


That's how the spin whirled, for a time, around the young sons of Diana and Charles. Now, Prince William of Wales, "Wills," is closing in on 30, with his father's early-receding hairline to prove it, and Prince Henry of Wales, "Harry," is a decorated army veteran whose experience of combat has advanced beyond warring with paparazzi outside nightclubs.

Royal reporter Katie Nicholl's book "William and Harry" sets out to bring us the grown-up Real Princes of Windsor Castle, the elder the heir to the British throne after his father, Prince Charles, and the younger bro trying to cut himself a role of his own.

Small-r republicans of the Christopher Hitchens stripe can turn the page now: This book is written for the fascinated masses who, as Hitchens has noted, once may have looked up to but nowadays more often just look at the royal family — but who cannot, in any case, look away.

Royals are always the perfect clay for the British to adore and to reproach. Look, Alf, they're just like us: How wonderful! Or how awful! Ada, look at how they live high on the public hog! Or ain't they luverly and worth every farthing?

In some ways, the Wales princes, as reported in Nicholl's book and elsewhere over the years, are more of the same, two sons of that family of titled acrobats performing an awkward royal high-wire act of grand living and good deeds, of youthful missteps and mature service.

For these 21st century princes, it has also meant balancing the legacy of a legendary mother, Diana, who — whether she also tipped off the press in advance or not — took her sons to homeless shelters and hospitals, with the stated goal of giving them a look at life beyond the red carpets and also imparting on them the knowledge that just by being who they are, they can, as William said, "bring a spotlight to bear on wonderful initiatives created by other people to help others in need."

If it's juicy dish you're after, even occasionally reheated, this book doesn't stint on it. We get a detailed reprise of the "Booze Brothers": Harry taking a swing at a photographer and landing in a gutter outside a London club, and reports of William, the heir presumptive and his presumptive fiancée, Kate Middleton, discreetly cohabiting at college. There are fewer discreet stories about both boys drinking themselves silly and a rumor of William and a friend getting wasted and licking chocolate ice cream off a girl.

Military service wrought changes in both princes. The book reports that William is resigned that he won't be doing front-line soldiering but is now flying domestic rescue missions. (Last month, and to the delight of tabloids, he plucked a heart-attack victim from an offshore gas rig.) Harry, after the worst of his tabloid period, spent 11 weeks roughing it with fellow soldiers in a combat zone in Afghanistan.

Some of the dynamic of Nicholl's book is what Hollywood's story artisans would craft as a second-act breach between the brothers, over Harry always getting the bad publicity stick, and the brothers' inevitable reconciliation in the third act. A similar story line about the princes' relationship with Camilla, their father's second wife, makes you wonder — and far from the first time — how often these "crises" are media-manufactured and magnified, like the maguffin in a Hitchcock movie, to set the stage for reconciliation and resolution.

This book is published at a moment when traditional lines of privacy are being blurred by social networking, perhaps for the royals as for the rest of us. However protective the young royals' friends are — and they come mostly from the same upper crust that has encrusted around the monarchy for centuries — everyone has a video camera in his phone, everyone can tweet. Even Harry, according to Nicholl, posted messages for his girlfriend on Facebook under a fake name during his Afghan sojourn.

I do get weary of the tabloid tropes. Couples never just take a vacation; it's always a "romantic holiday." Events don't just happen, they occur "ironically" (usually meaning coincidentally) or "tragically." And some bits just didn't ring true, like Nicholl's report that at a palace planning group, William refuses to talk about the queen's funeral because it's "impertinent." Upsetting, maybe, but impertinent? Royals have a hand in planning their own funerals. It goes with the job.

I kept remembering a line from an infinitely better piece of writing, James Goldman's exquisite play-turned-screenplay, "The Lion in Winter." England's formidable queen Eleanor of Aquitaine is reflecting on her 12th century family — treacherous princes for sons, an adulterous king for a husband — and sighs, "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs?"

Exactly. In the end, nothing in these pages is news to any modestly ordinary large family, except for those outsized words, "prince" and "royal."