When I first heard the premise of Casey McQuiston’s debut novel Red, White & Royal Blue I lost my entire mind. British prince falls for FSOTUS? I decided that she was either a psychic with the ability to extract my subconscious thoughts while I was sleeping, or a government agent tasked with monitoring my entire life’s history and creating a murder board extrapolating how best to take me down. It was the kind of news that multiple friends texted me about to make sure that I’d heard. That’s how much it up my alley I knew that it was going to be.
Upon receiving an advance copy of Red, White & Royal Blue, I teased myself with it for months – peeking at a few lines on a random page and quickly looking away, searching for a certain word or reference and closing the results if it turned up positive – before settling down for the all-consuming experience of actually reading the damn book.
It surpassed every personal expectation that I could have held, in every possible way, and I never wanted it to end. But of course, McQuiston was never writing this book for an audience of one, and what it achieves is instead universally inspiring.
Red, White & Royal Blue is about love, to be sure: glorious and profound love, love that rearranges the world around you – in this case, quite literally. But more so, in my opinion, it’s about dreams – the dreams you allow yourself, the ones that feel out of reach, or the ones you don’t yet know how to dream. It’s about legacies that you’re proud to represent and legacies that you can’t escape, and it’s about those chance meldings of fate and free will, the combination of careful planning and sheer randomness that has always been the root cause of the moments in history that future generations will study in their high school textbooks.
It’s about the world watching as history is made in the name of love.
We know a thing or two about that.
Last weekend, the streets of Manhattan saw the celebration of WorldPride – the largest global LGBTQ+ celebration on the planet – break participation and attendance records as the community commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.
On June 28, 1969, in the early hours of the morning, police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in order to enforce a discriminatory law that made it illegal to serve alcohol to gay people. They attempted to make targeted arrests for crossdressing and other ‘disorderly behavior,’ using harassment tactics intended to suppress, to instill fear and shame.
Raids of this kind were not uncommon, and what happened at Stonewall was not the first act of queer protest in contemporary history, but the defiant shift in the tide that night – rebellion, resistance and fighting for the right to exist in public, rather than the usual game of cover ups or compliance, saw the gay liberation movement in the United States begin in earnest, and its impact was felt worldwide in the battle for civil rights.
Four years ago, I was in New York City myself over this same Pride weekend, and on Friday June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of affirming marriage equality as a fundamental right in all 50 states.
It was the one and only time in my life that I have spontaneously felt a deep, tribal urge to go out and be a part of something, to gather in the streets because of the enormity of the news. So we converged, with thousands of others, on Christopher Street, to watch and listen and feel and be. We didn’t know what was going to be going down, but we knew there would be something, and we knew where to find it.
What we found was a rally in the square outside Stonewall, and we walked up just in time to see Edith Windsor take the stage and speak about her journey as a pioneer for marriage equality and LGBTQ+ rights, her own hard-won Supreme Court cases. It’s an experience I’m immensely grateful for, especially as the difficult circumstances surrounding the passing of marriage equality via public vote in my own country a few years later felt so much less victorious and just.
And it was fun, full of color and light and connection.The atmosphere in every queer space we entered was buzzing that weekend. Have you ever attended a night performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway immediately following that same afternoon’s Pride Parade, on the same weekend that the nation’s LGBTQ+ community was granted its biggest legal validation ever, authorising their love as a basic human right? I have, and let me tell you – that audience was a loud, proud, flag-waving, glitter-shedding cacophony of joy. It was raucous – totally inappropriate for a theater, some might say – and it was a blessing to be a part of.
So I can imagine it, a little: what it would have been like to be amongst it last weekend. It’s only fitting that New York served 2019’s WorldPride host city as we commemorate half a century of progress – not always in a single forward line, but enough to change minds, save lives, and know that we can never, ever go back.
I wish I could have been there, among the hundreds of thousands of people gathered to lift each other up, to feel the spirit of the city and the world, the ghosts of the past and the promises of future. Gratitude. Safety. Family. History. Pride.
And even more so, I wish Alex Claremont-Diaz could have been there, dancing on a float while probably wearing something ridiculous, volunteering with charity organizations, giving impassioned speeches about those who have come before and what we owe to them, charming the pants off of everyone of any gender, soaking it all in and living his life to the fullest, proud to stand up and represent all the incredible things that he represents – the nation’s beloved biracial, bisexual First Son, history in the making.
But here and now, in the summer of 2019, he’s probably lounging in the East Bedroom of the White House, or lurking the halls of the Dirksen Building. He doesn’t yet know why he ached over the SCOTUS decision in 2015, or what swelled in his chest the first time he read about what happened that night at Stonewall.
He doesn’t know what he’s missing. He doesn’t know who he is yet.
Alex is a fictional character, which saves this second-hand retroactive FOMO fantasy from being a genuine tragedy, but the fact that I wish I could have shared this experience with him so much that it hurts a little is a credit to his creation.
Red, White & Royal Blue is a queer enemies-to-lovers romance between two transatlantic national treasures: the aforementioned Alexander Claremont-Diaz, the youngest child of an alternate universe’s Madam President, and Henry Fox-Mountchristen-Windsor, the youngest child of an alternate universe’s Princess of Wales. After their ongoing hostility causes a cake-related international incident at a royal wedding, prince and FSOTUS are forced to show the public a PR-driven friendship, which, once the friction in the air clears, quickly develops into a real one, and then – much to Alex’s surprise – into a romance.
As they fall harder for one another, the challenge then becomes the struggle of keeping their feelings a secret from the world while maintaining a long distance relationship as Alex juggles college and a policy job on his mother’s second term campaign trail, and Henry faces pressure from his family regarding the duty and direction of his future as per his designated birthright.
Through all its delicious complicatiations and joyful triumphs, Casey McQuiston’s evocative real-world AU is so, so much better than the canon. I use these terms because – and I don’t think the author will mind me saying this – in many ways, Red, White & Royal Blue hits all the highs that I, personally, get from reading the very best fanfiction, and it’s kind of interesting to me to think about why.
Great fanfiction features a creative level of worldbuilding that generally relies on a well-researched recreation of an established setting or framework in order to provide immediate context, familiarity and intimacy between the reader and the new story being told. It features deep, introspective character studies – getting inside the head of a figure who we think we know the deal with already in some way, but whose usual medium of appearing to us does not come with the level of internal monologue that the fanfiction is presenting.
It’s ultimately romantic but usually about so much more than that: it’s often a romance that grows from a firm friendship, and the friendship element remains just as valuable. It often features on-page sex, and the sexual experiences of the characters often serve the story as genuinely important character development rather than as erotica for erotica’s sake. And more often than not, the plot points outside of the romantic culmination are not mere window dressing either, but vital elements that affect the lead characters in ways that vastly expand the story’s focus.
Fic often takes risks that its source material couldn’t or wouldn’t, yet for a reader, it is often the safest of spaces. It’s as tropey as it is original. It’s as indulgent as it is crucial. And when it’s right, there’s just a sort of timbre, a cadence to the narrative voice (which should always, always be in close third, never in first) that makes you know immediately that it’s going to be fun, fulfilling, probably painful and just plain perfect for you in that moment.
This little tonal je ne sais quoi, this thing that for lack of a defter description I would call the “oh boy, strap in” aspect, is something that I think that most potential readers of this book would recognize in fanfiction. It’s the delicious anticipation or dread in the moments where you know in your gut what is probably coming – good or bad – and then explode when it does because you already know the world well enough to pick up on the calm-before-the-storm implication and you already love the characters enough for you to be sitting right there with them in the rollercoaster car, for them to have tied their hearts to yours permanently and dragged yours along for the ride.
That quality is sometimes found in the later instalments of a beloved series, which again, I believe, is borne of the familiarity, investment and trust between the reader and the story, but it’s something that I rarely feel powerfully on my first readthrough of a published standalone novel.
The fact that Red, White & Royal Blue has all of these markers – it does every single thing I just mentioned – while relying on the merit and charm of its entirely original voices is just about the highest praise I could offer it. It feels, quite simply, like you have known it forever. Like you have loved these characters forever. They become old friends immediately, and every single thing about them feels fully realized.
There were many times reading it, when we are riding shotgun in Alex’s head, where I observed that in any given scene, McQuiston knew exactly what every single character in the room was thinking or feeling to get them to that point, even if Alex didn’t. It made me understand that had she wanted to, she could have rewritten the entire book from the perspective of any of the other characters.
That sounds simple, it sounds like it should be square one, but the fact of the matter is it’s rare. I can’t tell you the number of times in a book, movie or television series where it leaps out to me that most of the people in a scene have no dimension aside from being what the point of view character needs them to be in that moment.
Not so here. Red, White & Royal Blue leaves space for plenty of questions – questions that Alex never finds out the answer to, or doesn’t, perhaps, even think to ask – but McQuiston knows the answers, and the fact that she knows the answers is the quality that sculpts the book into something realer than real, and therefore – in the best possible way – almost incomplete. It doesn’t feel unfinished as a story arc, by any stretch, but the story itself feels like just a snapshot, a year in the life of a whole world that’s spinning just out of our reach.
Like all good happily ever afters, the place where we leave Alex and Henry is really just the beginning of the rest of their lives, but the care that McQuiston has taken in actualizing these characters and the world they inhabit means that certain readers will be envisioning their future together forever. This book will be their touchstone. They’ll always be coming back, looking for some feel-good freedom or medicine for the soul, they’ll always be asking questions, always puzzling it out, always be framing world events through the lens of Alex and Henry and their families.
Perhaps McQuiston will choose to revisit them, and explore what that future looks like – if the couple marry, Alex will be a member of the royal family for far longer than he was ever a member of the First Family – or set further novels with different protagonists in the Red, White & Royal Blue Extended Universe, so we hear of them in passing via, say, another character’s television set. Perhaps she won’t. Either way, the book – down to its very last line, which is an action line, a starting line, heavy with meaning and metaphor – leaves you wanting more, but it has also thoroughly equipped you with all the tools you need to dwell within that world for as long as you can imagine.
Of course, part of the reason the book’s worldbuilding feels so powerful, part of the reason you might want to live inside it forever is because – well. You know why.
If you skip to the novel’s acknowledgements, you’ll learn how McQuiston felt in 2016, when her efforts to write a cute, ironic parallel universe featuring the children of America’s first female president were crushed by the reality of the US election. Struggling to come to terms with it, she reframed her approach, and in doing so, honed her book into something deeply healing and hopeful, lifelinelike amid the horrible circumstances the world finds itself in.
I’m not American, as I mentioned. But how powerless the planet often seems in the wake of America’s careless choices cannot be downplayed. It truly affects us all – more than I think that Americans realize, and I get so frustrated with the insular center of the universe attitude that I see from even the most well-meaning US citizens sometimes. And then sometimes I’ll be in an Uber in Washington DC and the driver will be apologizing to me, a tourist, on behalf of the nation, for all of this, and then I’m just sad.
I remember sitting frozen at my place of work back in 2012 and praying that Obama wouldn’t be ousted by Mitt Romney, fearing what the world would look like in the wake of that election. (Mitt Romney! Remember when Mitt Romney was the biggest of our issues?). And I remember, in 2016, sitting at a different place of work, a university in Sydney, Australia, forced to witness students in MAGA hats feed each other in their fervor, shamelessly chanting threats and obscenities during a live stream party as the Clinton vs Trump results came in. These were Australian citizens. This wasn’t even our election. And yet.
The brazen permissiveness of it, how it empowers certain types of people to feel legitimized and how it strips others of rights and dignities that we were naive enough to think were set in stone… Trying to wrap my head around all that America is, all that its people are forced to endure, all that’s been normalized and is becoming more terrifying by the day. It’s insane. The psychology of it (and by ‘it’ I mean everything) is incomprehensible, shocking, and completely terrifying. It’s beneath anything I expected was possible, and it just keeps getting worse.
In the UK, Brexit is causing a similar psychology and permissiveness and these two states of chaos are amplifying one another. We are on the cusp of societal breakdown. These two global superpowers are wreaking havoc on humanity as we know it, the consequences are global, and I have very little confidence that the world will recover from the negative impact of these past few years within my lifetime.
So when I say that the most unexpected and most powerful part of Red, White & Royal Blue was the flicker of anticipation for a better tomorrow that it sparked in me, understand that I’m not saying that lightly. When I say that this book was the first thing that made me feel anything akin to actual hope for the future since 2016, understand that I know that sounds insane, but I’ll swear by it.
Because romance aside, the backbone of Red, White & Royal Blue is actually the 2020 campaign trail, and the fascinating political subplots that hinge on the people in power actually being good are almost as heartening – if not more so – as the love story. I mean, the novel is bright pink with coy-looking cartoon figures on the cover – I was prepared for this unlikely pair of household names, fighting in public for their right to love in private, to get their rom com happy ending, no matter how implausible it may seem.
And the love story was always going to depend on a kinder, more accepting administration, but the book’s structure around the election was certainly more unexpected, which is perhaps what makes its political peaks so impactful and climactic. I wasn’t particularly expecting to be tensely speed-reading with bated breath, furiously sickened and betrayed by the endorsement choices of the Senate’s independants, or hoping against hope for Texas to go blue.
But the thing is, there’s something about Red, White & Royal Blue that makes everything within its pages feel, well, not that implausible. This is a book of dreams, but the dreams it holds feel possible. People out there, like President Ellen Claremont, like Senator Rafael Luna (oh, Luna – if the book contains a secondary ‘love story,’ it’s the relationship between Alex and his mentor slash muse, which will rip your heart out and blow it up like a balloon), like Nora Holleran, like Percy Okonjo, like Princess Catherine – they exist. I know they do. What they want for the world is possible. What they could do with their power is possible.
What Red, White & Blue says to me – what it should say to every reader – is “You deserve this. You can have this. Do not settle for anything less than this.” Novels are guidebooks to the human condition, after all, and McQuiston is charting us a map of a better world.
While the events of the past few years have completely obliterated my faith in humanity as a whole, what they have taught me is how little facts alone hold up and how powerful the rhetoric that makes you feel seen and supported can be.
The proof is in those who got us into this mess – the people who are currently feeling seen and supported by the permission to discriminate that those in power are offering, not to mention the damage being done to and by the groups of people who think they’re being seen and supported but are in fact being used. We’ve seen the causality of rhetoric when used to lie and fearmonger.
But rhetoric in and of itself is not a dirty word. It is merely the art of persuasion, and if those capable of harnessing it for good can tap into the same power grid and spin not lies and fear, but truth and dreams; if they can grant us permission to hope again, put the feeling of it in our hands, our mouths, our hearts – well, with the right people telling the right stories, together we might be able to rewrite history. The first step is believing that we deserve it, that we can have it, that we can make a future where we don’t have to settle for anything less.
London’s Pride Parade took place this weekend, and in the summer of another world’s 2019, Henry Fox-Mountchristen-Windsor knows exactly who he is and exactly what he’s missing. Also commemorating 50 years of the gay rights movement, the Pride in London theme this year is ‘Jubilee,’ the ancient Biblical word now best known as a quintessentially British term to describe the special anniversaries of a monarch’s reign.
How cruel that must feel, how it must burn him, trapped in a closet the size of Windsor Castle. At Buckingham, where the parade passes by a stone’s throw away, or at home in Kensington a couple of miles across Hyde Park, his palaces are prisons. His life has never been his own for reasons that don’t begin or end with his sexuality, and that is where my bond with this book really begins.
I’ve always been moved by stories that deconstruct the private trauma of those who have to live in the public eye. And I think a lot of people are, it’s a story we tell a lot, quite sensitively, in many forms of fiction. Red, White & Royal Blue is one of these. The suffering that can accompany extreme privilege is a lot more complex than just #champagneproblems, although it’s easy to dismiss on the grand scale of poverty and oppression.
But it’s isolating and dehumanizing and the darkness of it becomes even harder to bear when your life in the public eye is not something you signed up for: if, rather than being borne of a personal career choice, it is instead something that was forced upon you, or became unavoidably tangential to your life, or, worst of all, if it is something that you were born into.
Empathy for “famous people” is something I have in spades – more than the average consumer of media, I’ve been told. My pity and protectiveness for their right to privacy and personal freedom is sometimes warranted and justified, and sometimes, I admit, it’s probably projecting a little too far. But I know the origin of this mindset which has, for as long as I can remember, been a core truth of my own moral code – and it’s the two British royals who it’s difficult to read Red, White & Royal Blue without thinking of.
When you look at Alexander Claremont-Diaz, he doesn’t invoke reminders of other specific First Offspring, necessarily. But the presidency is, by nature, transient, and the monarchy is, by nature, eternal, and so while Prince Henry is his own sweet self in so many wonderful ways, it’s impossible for me to put his position into perspective without thinking about who he’s ‘replacing’ in his alternate Red, White & Royal Blue universe – the younger son of our current Prince of Wales, who shares not only Henry’s status, while growing up, as the ‘spare’ to his older brother’s role as heir, but also his actual first name.
And my relationship (for lack of a better word) with those two young men is one of the most formative experiences of my young life – it has shaped my perspective on personhood in a great many ways.
Since I was a child, less than ten years of age, I would have dreams (the literal kind, not as in “hopes and”) about the sort of stress that the public eye created for the young Prince Harry and Prince William, who are 2 and 4 years older than me respectively.
There was never a crush at work, no fantasizing about becoming a princess via marriage one day. No, these dreams were the most mundane trips into my subconscious that you can imagine. I would dream that they were my friends, that it had been organized for us to have what I guess you’d refer to as playdates at my humble family home, and that the purpose of these was to give the boys a chance to have some level of normalcy, anonymously messing around in an average suburban backyard.
I am pretty sure these are not the normal and average dreams of a well balanced child still in single digits. But such is life, and as I got older and began engaging in a variety of fan-related ways, with a number of people in the public eye, I learned just how deeply this stance was embedded in me and how strongly and naturally it was a part of how I view the world.
I grew up with William and Harry, as many of my generation did. I’m also Australian, and our perception of the royal family, for better or worse, is a bit closer to the British sense of loyalty and tradition than the external American celebrity goggling. We are a constitutional monarchy – unlike the rebellious Yanks, we remain part of Her Majesty’s commonwealth, a fact that I have always been proud of.
This pride is, I admit, a strange thing. The actual history of the British monarchy, the effects of imperialism and classism on its conquered subjects, and the effects of repression, in the name of duty and tradition, of those chafing souls unlucky enough to be born into it, is pretty horrific. Yet my affection for the family has never wavered. During my childhood, Australia had a national referendum for republicanism, and I begged my parents to vote to stay with the monarchy, panicked at the idea of losing those ties.
I love our royal family. I just do. It’s weird and it’s overly patriotic and it’s one of the things that surprises people about me the most when they meet me and learn my politics, but I do and I am not ashamed of it. And while I have always romanticized the medieval fantasy notion of kingship and nobility – knights and fealty and battlefield speeches – it’s a separate thing to entirely. I have come to realize that I love them not because of what they represent about what has come before, but because of what they strive to stand for now, in spite of roles they never got a chance to choose.
This applies to all the living generations in a way – a lifetime of selfless duty and public service cannot be sniffed at – but most of all to William and Harry, in how incredibly hard they have worked to take what they’ve been given and use it to make the world a better place – not just superficially, but with true determination, leading by example. As the world changes, they have changed the monarchy with it, and while they can’t change being born royal, they can use their platform to serve their country and make a difference in the most extraordinary ways.
These two princes have spent their adult lives both giving as much as themselves as they possibly can – perhaps more than any generation of royals has given, certainly more boldly and more tangibly than ever before – and also reclaiming more personhood and privacy than was previously deemed acceptable by the British people and certainly more than the British press, who consider the royals to be public property.
In a way, they sort of are (especially if we start talking about taxpayer pounds) but the fact that they never had a say in that is a horrible rock and a hard place dichotomy. On top of that, William and Harry were the victims of extraordinary tragedy at a very young age, and the fact that intrusive media obsession quite literally killed their mother Princess Diana is acknowledged as a huge factor in how the public has responded to the boys, and in both what they’ve chosen to do with their lives and the amount of ownership they’ve been granted over them.
It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this: a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.
She would want us today to pledge ourselves to protecting her beloved boys William and Harry from a similar fate and I do this here, Diana, on your behalf. We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair.
And beyond that, on behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men, so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition, but can sing openly as you planned.
We fully respect the heritage into which they have both been born, and will always respect and encourage them in their royal role. But we, like you, recognise the need for them to experience as many different aspects of life as possible to arm them spiritually and emotionally for the years ahead. I know you would have expected nothing less from us.
— Excerpt from Diana’s eulogy, by her brother Charles, Earl Spencer
In Red, White & Royal Blue, Henry has also lost his non-Windsor parent, in this case his father, a famous actor who had once played James Bond. However, Arthur Fox’s death did not disrupt royal protocol in the way that Diana Spencer’s did. It was not a result of the intrusion on his personhood – he was not killed by a paparazzi frenzy, but instead by that old adversary cancer – no less tragic for his family, and still their very worst thing they could possibly imagine, but a loss that did not create for Henry those very specific circumstances, the sense of injustice and fury that has safeguarded our princes and fostered their freedom to change the status quo.
Where the Red, White & Royal Blue White House Administration is far preferable than the non-fiction version, the royal house of Windsor in the novel is actually a colder thing – less progressive, more restrictive – than the present reality. But it’s not outside the scope of memory or recent history to understand why the institution is presented thusly, and to trace how the different paths history has wound in the book have resulted in this monarchy retaining a stiffer upper lip than our real one has these days.
Narratively, it needed to be this way – Henry needed to start this story in a cage – and so I was thrilled to see the way that McQuiston drew Henry’s mindset out in the way that she did, all the things that incense and depress him about his own legacy making perfect sense for a woke 21st century prince who happens to secretly be a member of a marginalized group.
I read a lot of alternate contemporary royal stories – like, a lot – and while Red, White & Royal Blue doesn’t always quite nail the exacting details of royal terminology and protocol in the pedantic way that some others do, McQuiston’s sensitivity and consciousness when creating a revolutionary royal on the right side of history is far more important.
Henry’s sense of social justice, particularly his frank horror at what his ancestors have wrought in the past, is one of the first things that impresses Alex about him, and he literally puts his money where his mouth is, doing everything that he can with his wretched position to help people in need, and refusing to touch the monarchy’s money – as he calls it, the spoils of centuries of genocide – for his own personal expenses. Henry’s ultimate victory lies in challenging the crown and fighting for his right to love out loud and share his true self with his people. It’s a magnificent fight, but thankfully, it’s one that it looks like no future royal will ever be forced to have again.
During a recent Pride Month visit to the Albert Kennedy Trust, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge and future King of England, affirmed that he would be fine with the idea of any of his young heirs eventually coming out as LGBTQ+.
William spoke very openly about the prospect being something that he and Catherine had discussed and that he would be personally comfortable with it as a parent, but admitted to nerves over the added pressure and difficulties that a gay royal family member would undoubtedly face from traditionalist detractors, acknowledging fear for his child if they faced persecution from the press or the public on a world scale.
But the prince’s job is to be hyper-aware of the way his family is perceived as upholders of the nation’s values, and he was firm in his stance regarding what those values actually look like, saying that this sort of institutionalized discrimination must end. “That’s for all of us to try and help correct, to make sure we can put that in the past and not come back to that sort of stuff.”
The royal family is able to control the content released to the world on their own terms, when they do something like a public visit to a charity. They also make many secret visits, and are known to maintain personal relationships and conduct private correspondence with the people they meet at these organizations, so this statement could have easily been kept on the downlow, had the palace had any interest in doing so.
He answers the question vulnerably and thoughtfully yet casually, like it’s obvious, like it’s a given. And of course it is, or it should be. But it’s also explosive. As offhand and normal as this sounds, Prince William, who has appeared on the cover of gay lifestyle magazine Attitude in the past, knew what this statement had the power to do, and that is why he did it.
The trust’s chief executive Tim Sigsworth said that William’s words will make a massive difference. “The idea that the future monarch is saying they would support their children if they came out as LGBT is a message to the whole of society really, a message that we need to support and we need to empower LGBT people.”
This is what they do, you see.
If you’ve never learned about these boys (and their wonderful wives) further than the pages of a gossip magazine – I implore you to look – to really look at them. Look at what their day jobs as full-time philanthropists actually entail. Look at the choice of independent charities they patronize, the official duties they’ve been chosen perform on behalf of the Queen, and the organizations (including, to name a few Senteble, United For Wildlife, the Invictus Games, the Endeavour Fund, and Heads Together) that they’ve created and funded from the ground up. Look the actual physical work they do in maintaining those roles in a hands-on way and upholding those values. Look at – quite frankly – all the rules they’ve broken, the protocol they’ve bucked, particularly since exiting their father’s household and taking on their own press secretary.
While these royals are literally not allowed to be ‘political,’ they are anything other than impartial, and they are extremely publicly progressive. If anything, their political neutrality affords them the freedom to speak out about social, humanitarian, ethical and environmental causes, reminding the world that these are transcendental issues that we should all be working together on, without personal agenda.
Like the fictional Henry, they are genuinely good people, standing on the right side of history, and they know that they hold the power to alter public perception of both the causes that they champion and what the monarchy should stand for in the 21st century. When they go somewhere, people pay attention. When they say something, it draws a line in the sand about what is acceptable. When they get their hands dirty, no one can say that anyone else has the right to do anything less. They learned how to do that from their mother.
Diana has always reminded me of my own mother. They didn’t look alike, exactly, but they didn’t look unalike, and they were of the same era – the same sort of fashion, and hairstyles. And my mother loved her, like most women of that generation loved her. Diana was, to all accounts, a very difficult woman in private, but to the world she stood for what is right, and she broke rules, and she got her hands dirty, and she forced people to pay attention, and both in life and in death, her legacy is a line drawn in the sand about what is acceptable.
When she died, I went a little crazy. I stockpiled every newspaper and tribute magazine behind the couch in our formal lounge room. I bought the Elton John single. I called up on the phone to place a tribute in the local newspaper, and I still remember the tremble in my voice when reading out the allotted 25 words for the classified. I will never forget the image of her funeral cortege as long as I live.
I don’t know if it was the right decision, to make them walk behind that coffin. They say that they’re glad they did it, but they’ve also admitted that the burden of locking away their grief in order to ‘do their bit,’ shouldering that level of duty in the public eye, has haunted them for life. Harry was twelve, I was ten, and I was already having those dreams when it happened.
Two years later, when I was twelve, my own mother died, and I wrote a letter to put in her coffin the same way that Harry so famously did. I didn’t know anyone else my age who had lost a parent. I don’t know if I would have done it if he hadn’t. But I couldn’t manage to go to her funeral. I wasn’t brave enough, I suppose, in the way that he was brave, in the way that no twelve year old should have to be brave.
Looking back, Harry tends to agree. “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances. I don’t think it would happen today,” he told Newsweek in a profile just before the 20th anniversary of his mother’s death. His bravery looks very different now, and I feel so proud and empowered by what he has achieved.
Today, Prince Harry is one of the world’s most prominent voices in the fight to destigmatize mental health, and not long after launching the initiative Heads Together alongside his brother and sister-in-law, which aims to destigmatize the conversation around mental health in the famously emotionally reticent United Kingdom, Harry stunned the world when he sat down for a podcast called Mad World in an effort to promote the organization.
Because instead of formally and objectively addressing the wider issue that he’s witnessed when meeting those who have experienced hard times, he bared his soul and explained the depths of his own grief, and how avoiding it for 20 years caused him to act out and very nearly break down. The candid way in which he has shared his repressed trauma with the public is like nothing we have seen from a royal before.
I implore you to listen to the 30 minute conversation, to sit with it and think about the context of how cosmically huge it is. I promise you that you have never heard anything like it. The host, Bryony Gordon, certainly hadn’t – she had no idea that this was going to happen, and handled it admirably, and her column after the fact is certainly worth a read as well.
I think this interview is special not because it’s a scoop or an exclusive. I don’t think this interview is special because I happened to do it. I think it is special because in Britain, we don’t talk about our feelings. We have bitten our lips, slapped on rictus grins, kept buggering on.
It has always been a sign of strength and dignity to keep it all inside, and our Royal family have always been the embodiment of that, God bless them. But Prince Harry just redefined strength and dignity for a new generation.
He has shown the world that talking about your problems is nothing to be ashamed of – that actually, it is something to be positively encouraged. And I can think of no more fitting tribute to his mother than that.
— Excerpt from ‘The day Prince Harry showed the world how to talk about our problems’ by Bryony Gordon for The Telegraph
Hidden within the final chapters of Red, White & Royal Blue is a life-changing, perspective-shifting, explanation of grief and childhood trauma and the lifelong mental illness it can cause – a struggle that Alex can spot, but can’t quite understand, in Henry. It’s the most important passage of the whole book.
It’s twenty years this month since my mother died, and there are things I did not understand about myself until I read the way that McQuiston, via Henry’s sister Beatrice, lays it out for Alex. Without any hyperbole: this novel will probably save lives specifically because of these couple of pages.
I am aware that I don’t have great mental fitness. However, I never particularly related my fragile stability, my capacity for pain, my volatility about any sort of trauma or stress, even those that had absolutely nothing to do with it, to that initial loss. It’s a bit difficult to differentiate, because my mother died of suicide, so my mental illness could also be a hereditary streak rearing its head.
But as soon as I read this small but important part of Red, White & Royal Blue, I understood the obvious correlation between the damage caused by first big worst thing and the way it affects all the other things in a way that I have never even thought of before. And having that blueprint for my brain entirely changes the lens through which I am able to tackle the job of, you know, working to stop it from ruining me.
It feels eerily full circle to posit these two very different Prince Henrys of Wales – one real, one imaginary – next to one another at this moment in time and think about how they have both played such an instrumental role in my own personal experience with grief, mental health and the loss of a parent. But here they are, twin pillars of experience propping me up, standing side by side and twenty years apart through the layers of parallel worlds, and it feels right. It feels foundational.
Harry has continued to advocate tirelessly for mental health destigmatization, particularly among young people and veterans. He’s currently executive producing a television series with Oprah Winfrey on the matter, and when he gives speeches – about mental health, about climate change, about marginalization, about duty – not the duty of a royal, but the duty of a human being, of what we owe to each other – he wields the kind of rhetoric I mentioned earlier, the relatable, lyrical, determined belief in a better world.
Ironically, the left doesn’t historically do too well with rhetoric, because, as actor Jamie Parker explains, in this brilliant essay about the powerful alchemy of Henry V and its application to the current British political climate, many rhetorical tools traditionally make use of the ideas of sovereignty, chivalry, the right to wield power – and they cannot tolerate speaking in this language of kings because, as Parker writes, it seems to contradict that basic dogma that all men are created equal. Rhetoric taps into something primal, and that is seen as a bad and dangerous thing, a mob mentality. And in the wrong hands, it is.
But just watch Harry speak, like this address to the youth audience at WE Day, or this one at the Closing Ceremony of the 2018 Invictus Games, and you’ll see natural and genuine passion, the honest force for good that make his messaging so powerful and inspirational. This is primal, too. The way that tells the crowd how he sees the best of them, sets expectations for them to live up to, and places the onus on them to follow, follow, take action, take up arms and fight not for king and country, but for themselves? It’s like watching a millennial version of his ancestor on the present day fields of Agincourt. And it works.
One of the best things ever is – you know, I think it’s what my mother believed in – is the fact that if you are in a position of privilege or a position of responsibility, and if you can put your name to something that you genuinely believe in, and that other people believe in, and if you get that support and that belief and that encouragement, then you can smash any stigma you want, and you can encourage anybody to do anything.
— Excerpt from ‘Bryony Gordon’s Mad World’ podcast by HRH Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex
It is perhaps worth reflecting on what it means that today, some of the most influential people out there using this rhetoric, using their platforms without agenda to beg for liberty and justice for all are, in fact, royalty. It is perhaps worth reflecting on what it means that many of our elected officials cannot make us believe that their leadership is grounded in the same sense of genuine and selfless compassion about our wellbeing, which should be their only priority.
Alexander Claremont-Diaz wants, one day, to be the kind of leader who can. While the Henry of it all will mean that his career trajectory changes, his endgame never does. He has, his family quips, a fire under his ass for no good reason, which is an obvious fallacy – he wants to do the work for all the right reasons, and he understands the power of rhetoric, of the narrative that will get him there. He knows what he stands for and he’s willing to use every scrap of it. He knows that you cannot make history without a good story.
Throughout Red, White & Royal Blue, Alex and Henry are never in denial about the reality of their predicament. They’re not pretending to be like everyone else – how could they? They’re constantly reflecting on their unique circumstances, conscious of the way they’ll fit into history one day. Exchanging emails while apart, quoting anyone from Alexander Hamilton to Allen Ginsberg, Eleanor Roosevelt to Vita Sackville-West, they profess their feelings for one another via the great love letters that history has recorded, and they know that history will remember them, too, separately or together.
When the couple’s sacrosanct correspondence is splashed around in the tabloids as a scandal, the chance to share their love on their own terms is taken from them, but the flip side of that crisis is the outpouring of public empathy over this kind of intrusion. The grass-roots uprising that follows their getting outed propels them into instant icons.
The Pride Parade’s worth of Henry supporters gathered on the Mall outside Buckingham to protest the palace’s silence, the street art, the handmade t-shirts (which you can buy your own version of, with all proceeds going to RAICES) the heartfelt address that Alex is both proud and forced to give to the American people as an official confirmation, and the rally in the streets outside his home as he did so – these things are what history will remember about them.
There’s a line from Alex’s emails that became the slogan of a movement. It was written for Henry and Henry alone, but it’s easy to see why it’s the catchphrase the world clung to when poring over the words of their hearts. It read “History, huh? Bet we could make some.”
This statement exemplifies the power of rhetoric at its finest. It’s a dare, a challenge, a promise all in one, whether it comes on a personal level from a lover or a policy level from a legislator. It’s the proof of concept that will allow Alex and Henry, as role models for their respective nations, to point at their populations and incite them to smash stigmas and say “See? You did that. You were there for us, we are here for you. You told us we matter, that we are loved and accepted and worth fighting for, and therefore so are you. We’re in this together and we can do anything.”
This form of leadership is a constant act of mutual support, an open and honest give and take, and that’s why they’re going to win, and keep winning. It’s why Prince Harry keeps winning. And that’s what we all need to turn to, in order to win and keep winning. We need leadership that encourages us to believe in our own relevance, in our own capacity, that credits us with the ability to turn the stories we tell ourselves to survive in into the history we want to remember.
Those stories are out there, waiting for you rally behind – or become – their heroes. And remember, your dreams are not smoke – they are flammable. Find a legend to live up to and use it as a firelighter. Maybe a big fat queer pink romcom of a novel isn’t the most normal form of kindling, but all fuel is good fuel when it’s in the right place at the right time. Put a match to it in your mind and see what happens.
History, huh? Bet you could make some.