Sparring Spares


Gloria Tessler suggests that Prince Harry could spare a thought for Joseph in his coat of many colours.

Prince Harry’s revelations about sibling rivalry in his sensational book, Spare, will come as nothing new in the sense that they have exposed, as the late Rabbi Sacks has described it, the root of human conflict. Unsurprisingly also, the origin of this eternal battle is biblical. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph – the paternal favourite — was the younger brother despised and hated by his jealous elder siblings who sold him into slavery and who years later when he rose to power in Egypt, failed to recognise him.

So, it seems, Jewish history owns brotherly feuding. Rabbi Sacks took the Joseph analogy further and deeper, by suggesting the concept of Joseph recognising his brothers, though they didn’t recognise him, has become a fact of modern history; developing into the fratricidal wars between Israel and her neighbours.

Rabbi Sacks goes on:

It would be fair to call the relationship between the three Abrahamic monotheisms, one of sibling rivalry. Far from being of mere antiquarian interest, the theme of Bereishit has been the leitmotiv of the better part of the last two thousand years, with the Jewish people cast in the role of Joseph.

But leaving the Middle East aside and bringing the narrative back to William and Harry, how sad that such bitter rivalry never seems to heal. Royal families have had issues with so-called “spares” since the days of Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII who fought a brutal civil war against each other. Closer to home, as Britain hovered on the brink of the Second World War, the spare was actually the elder brother Edward VIII, who reluctantly chose sparedom because he couldn’t marry the love of his life, a divorced woman, Mrs Simpson, without relinquishing the throne. When he abdicated in favour of his younger brother George VI, he arguably saved this country from the Nazis with whom sympathised and would have doubtless accommodated had he been king, a possibility which, whether you are Jewish or not, can only make you shudder. 

In more recent times, the spare with whom I have the most sympathy is Princess Margaret, a mere fourth in line to the throne, who was nonetheless forbidden to marry the love of her life because he was divorced.

Harry chose his wife, another divorcee, Meghan, of his own free will, something forbidden to his European royal forebears who were forced to make “political marriages”.

But what both brothers have in common with the biblical Joseph is the premature death of their mother. Accounts differ as to actual age, but Joseph was estimated at being five or six at the time his mother, Rachel, died either giving birth to Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son or shortly thereafter. Harry was also very young, aged eleven, when his mother, Princess Diana died.

Did Joseph receive counselling on the loss of his mother, Jacob’s second wife, Rachel, who was his father’s favourite wife? Doubtful in those days, of course. To compensate, perhaps, he experienced vivid and strangely pre-cognitive dreams inspired by loss and longing for a positive future, which so maddened his brothers, who felt diminished by them. His brothers were not the sons of Rachel but were the progeny of his three other wives, and watching Joseph flaunt himself in his father’s special gift, that coat of many colours, they clearly couldn’t understand the pain that their sensitive younger brother was enduring. Like Harry, Joseph exhibited signs of neurosis and narcissism: which made his brothers take exception to the offensive things he was hinting to them in his dreams. He would rise to greatness, and they would bow to him.

We will never know whether the brothers’ feelings genuinely softened towards their sibling at their grand reconciliation in Egypt. Or did they just put on a show? Could they ever forget the painful portent those embarrassing dreams brought to them? Why does Harry believe that exposing his feelings of hurt and distance from William will open his brother’s heart and bring them closer again?

For me – despite all the rants and sensational disclosures in Harry’s book – it speaks of one thing and one thing alone: maternal loss. The hatred of the press who pursued his mother down the Paris tunnel under the Seine to her death – as he sees it – the knowledge of the depth of her unhappiness at being an unloved spouse right from the start, while another, the true love of his father, Camilla, stood in waiting – this churning despair lies for me at the heart of everything Harry, and no less eloquently for his silence, William, are experiencing.

Like Joseph, it is the cry of the child calling out for love.

If the monarchy persists, in time, William will become king unlike Joseph, who was Pharoah’s second in command. Already groomed for the role, and understanding its dignity, he says nothing. It is in the upper-class English tradition in the face of controversy, the buttoned lip, the forced smile, the correctness of attitude.

Joseph recognised his brothers after many years of slavery, prison and the final accolade – the pinnacle of royal status. They didn’t recognise him and so invited the petty tricks to make them see what they could never have imagined.

Bitter words may never be totally forgotten, but let’s hope that in time, William and Harry will come to recognise their brotherliness, the love that once united them through that unspoken reality, the enduring quality of maternal nurture.  


Gloria Tessler is a journalist, author, playwright and poet. She is the biographer of Lady Amelie Jakobovits, and her two plays, The Windmill and Unveiling Hagar, both on Jewish themes, have been performed on the London fringe. She is presently obituaries editor at the Jewish Chronicle and art correspondent at AJR Journal. 
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