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Tina Brown’s royal revelations spare no one, especially Meghan Markle

Prince Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, at the Invictus Games on April 17. (Peter Dejong/AP)
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The British royal family’s Great Meghan Markle Experiment lasted all of 20 months, from her May 2018 marriage to Prince Harry until January 2020, when the couple gave up their royal duties before decamping to Montecito.

What happened between depends on which history you believe. Fans of Meghan, now the Duchess of Sussex, blame the palace — more specifically, Harry’s older brother, William, and his wife, Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, for the Sussexes’ defection. In their telling, the royal family had no idea how to handle Meghan, a beautiful, biracial American actress whose popularity dangerously eclipsed theirs.

To Cambridge partisans, Markle was a wrecking ball masquerading as a smiley face emoji, impatient to bend one of history’s fustiest institutions to her iron will.

In her new book, “The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — the Truth and the Turmoil,” Tina Brown, former editor of the New Yorker and the British magazine Tatler, and the author of the indispensable 2007 Princess Diana history, “The Diana Chronicles,” places herself squarely on the side of House Cambridge.

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“The Palace Papers,” which focuses primarily on the Windsor women, is an episodic examination of the royal family’s difficulties since the death of Diana in 1997. Featuring a combination of preexisting press accounts and Brown’s own reporting, it’s high-minded and gossipy, and addictively readable, despite a slow first half spent revisiting the well-trod history of the Diana Years. Much like the royal family itself, it gets more interesting when Meghan comes along.

When Meghan met Harry, she was a co-star on the USA Network show “Suits.” At 34, she was aging out of leading parts, and her often-transparent ambitions had thus far exceeded her grasp. “Meghan was always so close,” Brown writes, “but never quite there.”

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She and Harry, set up by a mutual friend, had much in common, according to Brown; troubled childhoods, a fondness for nourishing grievances and what a palace staffer described to Brown as “a mutual ‘addiction to drama.’ ” Markle was sixth on the call sheet of a basic cable show, something Harry, who was bumped further down the line of succession with each new Cambridge baby, could sympathize with, Brown writes: He was sixth on the call sheet, too.

In Brown’s telling, Prince Harry was mentally fragile, still traumatized by the death of his mother, and prone to angry, childlike outbursts. His growing obsession with Meghan alarmed and puzzled William, once Harry’s closest ally, and their father, the Prince of Wales.

The couple began to feel increasingly under siege, beset by a merciless press corps and equally unsympathetic palace courtiers. Some of the divide was cultural. You “had in Meghan someone who had no context through which to comprehend the institution,” a former palace insider tells Brown. “And in the palace, you had an institution that had no context for understanding Meghan.”

The couple, who made up in charisma what they lacked in self-awareness, brought out the worst in each other, Brown writes. “The Sussexes fueled each other’s distrust of everybody else,” she observes, “and Harry’s wife was as temperamentally combative as he was.”

In “The Palace Papers” as in life, Markle was constantly measured against her sister-in-law. The future queen, whom Brown dubs “Kate the Relatable,” has impossibly glossy hair and a Mona Lisa countenance, though her cheery public blankness does not necessarily suggest untold depths.

Middleton, raised in the picturesque village of Bucklebury, springs from what Brown delicately terms “unexalted origins,” which basically means her mother Carole was an air hostess. Kate met William at university, married him 10 years later and spent the decade between in limbo under the watchful eye of Carole, the Kris Jenner of Bucklebury.

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The life of a Windsor is one of such drab constraint — endlessly tedious public appearances, gloomy holidays spent in drafty castles — even Brown can’t figure out why Kate would want it. After years together, William, humiliatingly, once broke up with her on the phone before eventually realizing her quiet forbearance and devotion to duty made her a natural for a life spent opening Tescos in Wales. They married in 2011.

Meghan had greater ambitions: She longed to be the Windsors’ answer to Angelina Jolie. She wanted to give speeches at the United Nations, and to beam warmly at refugee children in photo ops. “The Palace Papers” portrays her as dramatic and actressy, so brusque with employees that several of them accuse her of bullying, while Kate is serene and kind to staffers. Meghan is fond of expensive clothing, Brown argues in one of the book’s more dubious moments, while cost-conscious Kate recycles outfits.

“The Palace Papers” is as much a forensic autopsy as it is a history. Brown spares no one: The Queen is depicted as conflict-avoidant and increasingly remote. Prince Andrew, still her favorite child despite his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, and numerous allegations of financial and sexual impropriety, is described as fat-fingered, imperious and mean to his ex-wife, Fergie, possibly the only person who still likes him.

The hapless Prince Charles is “the male version of Calamity Jane,” his every press cycle upstaged by his more glamorous children. Only Charles’s second wife, Camilla, whom Brown depicts as horse-y and unflappable, escapes royal vivisection.

Brown applies a scalpel to most of the royals but takes a sledgehammer to Meghan, whose irony-free enthusiasm (she was known to spontaneously hug the guards outside Kensington Palace, Brown reports) is seen as un-British. It takes the public a while to sour on her, but by the first Christmas at Sandringham, it becomes clear that Brown has had it with Meghan.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact Markle’s race had on her treatment by the British press (“Harry’s Girl Is (Almost) Straight Outta Compton,” was one early headline), and by the royal family, hidebound colonialists with few people of color on staff. Any battle, even an imagined one, between English rose Kate and biracial divorcée Meghan was never going to be a fair fight, but Brown’s near-beatification of the Cambridges can seem a little much. Even Meghan’s father, who has a thriving side business betraying his daughter in the tabloids, comes off better than she does.

Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, spoke with Oprah Winfrey about turning away from life as senior royals in a wide-ranging interview that aired on March 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

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Yet: “The Palace Papers” is still the most essential book of the Markle interregnum, although it’s admittedly not a distinguished group. Brown’s powers of royal observation remain exquisite. Her recounting of the first Sussex/Cambridge couples’ event is one of the book’s greatest joys, and an explanation in miniature of everything that subsequently went wrong.

At a Royal Foundation event spearheaded by her more awkward sister-in-law, Meghan, an assured public speaker, “hogg[ed]” the spotlight, Brown writes. She even went off-script with a passionate, attention-grabbing speech about female empowerment “as Harry looked on with awe and his brother and Kate stood by with expressionless irritation.”

The Fab Four, the royal family’s version of a supergroup, arrived with the palace’s highest hopes, but it “was an awkward dynamic,” Brown writes. “It was later decided the Fab Four would not play onstage together as a band again.”

Allison Stewart writes about pop culture, music and politics for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. She is working on a book about the history of the space program.

The Palace Papers

Inside the House of Windsor — the Truth and the Turmoil

By Tina Brown

Crown. 592 pp. $35

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