Sibling Rivalry

At the opening of his novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy writes, ‘All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. As Prince Harry continues to lob ‘truth bombs’ at his nearest and dearest, I would suggest that there are universal lessons to be learned from reflecting upon this distressing outpouring of personal angst. On one level, the broken necklace and complaints about having to shop at IKEA can appear  trivial or even tone deaf. So too can Harry’s complaints about  the size of his bedroom at Balmoral or his irritation with the bodyguard who insisted on parking outside his window at Kensington Palace. However, collectively, these personal slights amount to something which is both much more troubling and yet  much more relatable. Strip back the royal trappings and the added aggravation/cruelty of primogeniture, and Harry is simply voicing what most of us have felt at some point in time. 

It is alarming that the word fratricide even exists but since time immemorial brothers have argued. From Cain and Abel to Liam and Noel, brothers have often struggled to get along. Few can forget the 2010 leadership election when Ed and David Miliband both challenged for the leadership of the Labour Party. With the support of the unions, the less talented and eminently less electable brother won the contest – seemingly content to swipe the crown from his brother’s grasp. Of course, it is not just brothers who squabble; the Boleyn sisters had precious little time for each other and the Hollywood stars Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine famously tended to squabble over everything including men, film roles and childhood recollections. Indeed, it is said that they could not stand to be in the same room as one another. I am told by people who know about such things that Kim and Rob Kardashian have also had their issues! 

As Shakespeare, Ibsen and Tolstoy all realised, familial tension and sibling rivalry happens within a claustrophobic paradigm that is exquisitely rich in dramatic tension and tragic overtones. There is something excruciatingly uncomfortable about Harry’s desire to air the Windsors’ dirty linen in public. Perhaps his therapist felt that it would be cathartic or perhaps his head was turned by the magnificent riches offered by Netflix, Spotify and Penguin Random House. 

Whilst there are reasons to feel immense sympathy for Harry, his brother and father are not in a position to publicly respond to his troubling assertions. They must continue to cower behind their regal sofas until Harry’s sense of hurt subsides or the world’s media has exhausted its appetite for fresh revelations. There is no denying that Harry feels incredibly hurt. The trauma of having to walk behind his mother’s coffin at the age of twelve evidently had a lasting impact upon the prince. I know from personal experience, that the loss of a parent at such a young age serves to define the person that you become. In a flash, your life changes and the certainties of childhood are swept away. The connection between siblings is doubtless intensified by shared trauma and yet the potential fault lines within such relationships are inevitably deepened by the catastrophic change to the dynamics of the family unit. 

It is within our families that we learn to cope with feelings of jealousy and insecurity. We learn much about conflict resolution and the need to compromise. We learn about forgiveness and empathy. Arguing over possession of a toy or learning to share might seem like banal rites of childhood but the skills that we acquire in the process are vital for our future development. All families are flawed and it is my experience that even the happiest of families possess hidden tensions. As parents, we know that despite working desperately hard to treat our children fairly, for we love them equally,  there will be times when we will be accused of favouritism. We know that our parental love is unconditional but the competitiveness that exists between siblings often brings that fact into doubt. If we search our souls, then we may recognise that we are all insecure in terms of our neediness and longing for affirmation. Hereditary monarchism favours the oldest and the ‘spare’ as Harry refers to himself has often struggled to find a meaningful role within an institution that serves to diminish the spare’s importance as his or her place in the line of succession gradually falls away. Princess Margaret’s life was a social whirl of cocktail parties, ballet premiers and extended breaks on Mustique. On the one hand, it seemed a rather charmed existence but she often reflected upon the ‘emptiness’ of her role and the sense that, fundamentally, she was expendable. 

We should not be surprised that Harry and William have had their squabbles over the years. In fairness, the pressures on them have been legion. The context might be foreign to us but the themes and dynamics underpinning their reported outbursts are instantly recognisable to the vast majority of us. Conflict is an inevitable part of life and we do not develop resilience through passivity and acquiescence. It is most likely that the eloquent and persuasive CEO first became a persuasive interlocutor when wrestling with his four year old brother over a favourite teddy. Insecurity, competitiveness, possessiveness and jealousy are all aspects of what it is to be human, but so too is our capacity for love, forgiveness and compassion. We grow through conflict and the family provides a safe and loving context within which children can learn to regulate their emotions and develop empathy for others. 

We had our moments!

I am pretty confident that my brother has not kept a diary cataloguing my failings from my infancy in the late seventies. If he has, then I do not doubt that it would be an excruciatingly dull read  – not due to any deficiency in his literary talents but for the simple truth that  there was nothing unique about our relationship. However, there would doubtless be incidents and moments that would be instantly recognisable for all siblings  (William and Harry included) though none involve dog food bowls, necklaces or tiaras…so far as I am aware!

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School