In many ways, the extraordinary events of the past few days beggar belief.
As Britain waits in earnest for the royal wedding in a few hours time – an event destined to whip up a circus at the best of times – a family saga so far-fetched it would not seem out of place if written into a soap opera plot has been playing out.
But for many, the remarkable antics of the extended Markle clan will have come as no surprise.
Over the past few months, while Britain had its back turned on the American gossip columns carrying details of hate-filled open letters from disgruntled relatives, bitter asides on breakfast television and tawdry "kiss-and-tell" publishing deals, a chaotic family feud has been brewing.
By Monday morning, a family saga – the “Markles debacle” – was threatening to shake the foundations of the royal wedding.
It began on Sunday, when it emerged that Meghan Markle’s father, Thomas – whose attendance at his daughter’s side in St George’s Chapel on Saturday had, until this point, been a given – had posed for staged photos with a paparazzi photographer.
He had been caught on CCTV arriving at an internet cafe before being photographed sitting at a computer, scrolling through an article about his daughter Meghan and her husband-to-be.
Undoubtedly embarrassing — especially given Prince Harry’s statement in 2016 about wanting to protect his then girlfriend and her family from the attention that comes with being associated with the Royal family — but not unforgivable, nor unsolvable.
On Monday, Ms Markle’s estranged half-sister, Samantha Grant — who had made something of a name for herself since the relationship went public, commenting regularly on Meghan’s impending nuptials and securing a lucrative book deal — appeared on British television to defend her father’s actions, claiming the unfortunate mishap had, in fact, all been her fault.
“I am entirely the culprit,” she claimed. “As we know, the media can take very unflattering photographs of people on their casual days and blow it way out of proportion. So I said, really, you need to show the world that you’re getting in shape and doing great healthy things. So I suggested it.
“There’s a lot of scrutiny that it was money motivated; it was not. It was my suggestion that, to benefit him and to benefit the Royal family, that everyone looked good and they depict you as you are – in shape and doing healthy things.”
She certainly had no idea her father would be “taken advantage of”, she wrote on Twitter.
Hours after the revelation, TMZ, the online gossip juggernaut, revealed that Mr Markle had decided he could not walk his daughter down the aisle, nor even attend the wedding, for fear of embarrassing the Royal family or his daughter. In any case, Mr Markle was reported as saying, he might not be allowed to attend for medical reasons: he had suffered a heart attack six days earlier, checking himself out of hospital shortly afterwards in his determination to travel to London for the wedding. His doctors, he warned, might not feel the same way.
By Tuesday morning, the story had taken another turn, as Meghan’s half-sister once again appeared on television, telling Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain that her father was struggling with his health, that the stress of the media backlash had been too much for him, and his attendance at the wedding still hung in the balance.
“When you say he had a heart attack,” Morgan probed Ms Grant, “he went to the hospital just for a couple of hours and then checked himself out and drove 100 miles, and was seen the next day eating McDonalds and KFC. This doesn’t seem like normal behaviour for someone who’s had a heart attack.”
By Tuesday evening, Mr Markle, a retired television lighting engineer who lives in Mexico, had given an interview to TMZ (who, at this point, appeared to be taking on the role of Mr Markle’s public mouthpiece), reporting that he had changed his mind and would, of course, attend the wedding — eager not to miss out on this “historic moment”.
“I’d like to be a part of history,” he told TMZ. “I hate the idea of missing one of the greatest moments in history, and walking my daughter down the aisle.”
Mr Markle, who has yet to meet his future son-in-law, explained that his daughter had tried contacting him on the phone on Monday when the backlash began, but he had missed her call. Meghan had then sent him a text, he said, in which she wrote that she loved him and was concerned for his wellbeing. The text also supposedly made it clear that she wasn’t upset with her father for striking a deal with the paparazzi.
Just a few hours later, Mr Markle spoke to TMZ again. He needed urgent heart surgery, he told them, and wouldn’t be able to go to the wedding after all…
On Wednesday night the Markle family offered a further flurry of updates with TMZ reporting that Thomas Markle had been in touch to say his heart surgery had been completed, while Ms Grant accused Kensington Palace of abandoning him.
Then on Thursday, Ms Grant claimed she had been in a car crash and had broken her ankle after being reportedly chased by paparazzi, a claim Florida police later said they had found no evidence of.
So what is behind this remarkable about-turn? Is this simply the tale of a fractured family being manipulated by media companies flashing dollar signs in front of them, and promises of long careers as royal commentators? Is it the lashing-out of estranged family members jealous at not being invited to a once-in-a-lifetime event? And what part has Thomas Markle Sr. truly played in the chaos?
To begin to fathom this week’s baffling scenes, you need first to understand a little about the key players at the centre of this drama.
The Markle family feud had been building for some time. From the moment Meghan’s relationship with Prince Harry was announced in November 2016, her extended family (from many of whom she is said to be estranged) began to take advantage of the media storm.
First in line? Samantha Grant who, shortly after the pair’s relationship went public, announced she was writing an autobiography entitled The Diary of Princess Pushy’s Sister. She has since been admonished by members of her own family for allegedly harbouring a long-standing, all-consuming jealousy. “She has dogged on Meghan forever,” Samantha’s mother Roslyn told Mail Online. “She has never liked Meghan, and she’s always been jealous of her.”
Behind a closed Twitter account, Ms Grant has reportedly written of her disgust that she and other family members had not been invited to the wedding; Meghan’s parents are thought to be the only two members of her family to have received invitations.
“Out of respect, tradition and humanitarianism, the #Markles should be invited if 2000 complete strangers are invited,” The Sun alleged she wrote on Twitter. Meanwhile, InTouch, an American gossip site, carried an interview in which she slated her half sister for not helping their father financially. “If you can spend $75,000 on a dress, you can spend $75,000 on your dad,” she is reported to have said.
Late Wednesday, TMZ claimed Ms Grant had suffered a broken ankle and fractured knee in what her boyfriend described as a "paparazzi confrontation" on a road in Florida.
Her half-brother, meanwhile, Thomas Markle Jr., seems to have his own agenda. Last month, an explosive open letter addressed to Prince Harry (truly, you couldn’t make this up if you tried…) appeared to reveal a deep-seated anger at the heart of the Markle clan towards the famous sister who had gone on to lead such a different life – and had left them off the guest list to her wedding.
“It’s not too late,” he wrote. “As more time passed to your Royal Wedding, it became very clear that this is the biggest mistake in Royal Wedding History. Meghan’s attempt to act the part of a princess like a below C average Hollywood actress is getting old.”
It went on: “My father will never recover financially from paying Meghan’s way, nor emotionally from disavowing him. Meg is showing her true colours.”
It was this public attack that triggered Thomas Sr.'s heart attack, Meghan's father told TMZ.
However, anyone with a keen eye glued on the American gossip sites over the past two weeks cannot fail to have observed a bizarre volte-face that Meghan’s half-siblings seem to have completed.
Thomas Markle Jr and Samantha’s assaults on their half-sister and members of her future family have not only dried up, they have turned into outpourings of sentimentality, a yearning to right old wrongs.
Samantha has now gone back on her initial plan for the autobiography, saying it won’t be a “slamming tell-all” after all; her original “Princess Pushy” title was meant to be a mockery of tabloidese, not of her sister. She told the Mirror: “[With the original title], my point [was] that you can’t judge a book by its cover title. I wanted the public to look beyond that, just like I want the public to look beyond social labels because they are injurious. But the opposite occurred, and it backfired on me.”
Then, last Friday, Thomas Markle Jr. penned a second letter, this time to his half-sister Meghan, apologising for his behaviour. “Meg, I know that I’m not perfect, nor is anyone else in our family, as I’m sure you have read by now,” he wrote in the letter published by In Touch.
“But good, bad or perfect, we’re the only family that you have. It does hurt my feelings not getting invited to your wedding, along with the rest of the family. But it’s not too late to send me an invite along with your entire family.”
Astonishingly, the heartfelt letter seems not to have provoked a reaction from Kensington Palace. Yesterday, it was clear the siblings were still yet to receive an invitation.
On Wednesday Thomas Markle Jr appeared in Windsor, declaring his estranged half sister the “perfect modern princess”.
In an interview with TMZ, Samantha said she had a present she would love to give Meghan. “I searched the world for something that I thought was really sentimental, and I’d like to give it to her in person. But if not, I will certainly send it,” she said, smiling broadly. (When pressed to divulge what present she had bought, Samantha Grant replied coyly: “Well, then it wouldn’t be a surprise – right?”)
Could it be that after all this time, the Markle siblings are hoping for a reconciliation?
“Whatever you decide is ok with me,” Thomas Markle Jr. wrote in his letter last week. “Maybe I’ll see you there, with all of us.”
He added: “It can be a royal wedding family reunion.”
What a story that would be. It would certainly be enough to keep the American chat shows and gossip sites in business for months. And the Markles, presumably, wouldn’t do too badly out of it either.
As the wait continues to see whether or not Thomas Markle Sr. will be the one to walk his daughter down the aisle, some among the extended Markle clan have taken matters into their own hands. On Tuesday, Thomas Markle Jr’s ex-wife, Tracy Dooley, accompanied by her sons Tyler and TJ, arrived at Heathrow, telling their growing followers on social media they would be in the UK to cover the wedding for American television networks. Ms Dooley said she would be “in the front row cheering them on”, delighted to be part of the festivities in any way they could.
After an initial gripe about not being invited to the wedding (after all, she said, Meghan used to babysit her sons), Ms Dooley posted on Facebook: “Just glad to have landed safely and hoping for Tom senior to be well, healthy and happy.
“I wish the same for Meghan, Prince Harry, my children, friends, family and those who need our prayers and love. Peace, love and good works.”
And at this moment, as Meghan walks down the aisle today, some peace and love certainly wouldn’t go amiss.