On the tenth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, I wandered down to London’s Hyde Park to talk to people at a memorial fountain that bore her name. I say “wandered” but only in the sense that Roald Amundsen “wandered” to the South Pole. The memorial fountain – sneeringly dubbed “the ditch” – was nearly impossible to find, barely signposted and tucked away in a forgotten corner of the park. Almost as if the powers that be wanted to forget Diana had existed at all.
Indeed, it seemed that the royals had triumphed over their most troublesome ghost. Not only was Diana nowhere to be found in the city, but also almost nowhere in pop culture. Occasionally she’d make a fleeting appearance, whether as a spirit tormenting a couple of psychics in Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black, or portrayed as a lovesick neurotic by Naomi Watts onscreen in the film Diana. Not exactly the destiny that the princess had yearned for, as Queen of people’s hearts.
The dimness of her memory in 2007 was partly due, I think, to the collective embarrassment over the frenzy that had gripped Britain upon her death. Ms. Mantel later wrote, “Her funeral was a pagan outpouring, a lawless fiesta of grief. … we all remembered our secret pain and unleashed it in one huge carnival of mass mourning.” When I interviewed Peter Morgan, who wrote a movie about that moment (The Queen) and later an entire series about the family that ruined Diana’s life (The Crown), he put it more succinctly: “The British people acted like lunatics that week.”
The people I found at the fountain were all, unequivocally, Team Diana. They had recovered from her death but not forgotten it, nor the slights delivered to her by the royal family. Where were the regal monuments that should have been erected in her name, the hospitals and refugee centres? I mentioned the magnificent Princess Diana playground, where my kids liked to climb and swing, but they snorted. The royal family were trying to sweep her memory under the carpet, and succeeding. “I’m not sure it matters anyway,” one Diana fan told me. “The royal family’s time is nigh.”
Well, not nigh as it turned out, but perhaps nigh-ish. It does feel as if Diana’s ghost is engineering a particularly brutal revenge on the family that once mocked and misunderstood her. The much-loved Queen is 95, trailed by a ho-hum heir. Prince Andrew is running around the country shooting birds, while avoiding allegations of underage sexual abuse directed at him. Meanwhile Diana’s younger son, the one most like her in temperament, has done the thing she couldn’t: He escaped the palace to find peace in the arms of a nice American, and a hippy-dippy haven in California.
Prince Harry is about to publish a memoir that tells his truth, even if it causes blue blood to run cold across the land. She did the same thing in 1992, when she collaborated with Andrew Morton on Diana: Her True Story. Of course, Diana had to do it in secret, worried about her children and even about her life. There’s a certain damn-the-torpedoes bravery in that gene pool.
Today, the world has moved on from Germaine Greer’s un-sisterly characterization of Diana as a “devious moron” to something more nuanced and complex – and utterly hypnotizing. On the page, stage and screen, from the most recent season of The Crown to the feature film Spencer, Diana is being reappraised for new audiences. It’s as if the exasperation she expressed in 1995 is finally being addressed: “I was so fed up with being seen as someone who is a basket case, when I am a very strong person.”
I wouldn’t recommend starting this reappraisal with Diana: the Musical, a Netflix festival of camp mainly notable for the sad princess leaning over a cradle and warbling, “Harry, my ginger-haired son/You’ll always be second to none.” I didn’t say all of the new art devoted to Princess Diana was good, and indeed given that her taste ran to Pet Shop Boys and Barbara Cartland novels, there would be something troublingly inauthentic about that.
Authenticity – tricky concept though it is – was one of her hallmark qualities, or at least it was perceived to be. In my years in London, whenever I talked to anyone about Diana, I’d hear variations on a theme: She was real. She felt and understood pain. There was no shield between her and the people. She was one of them. Considering that she was the daughter of an earl, and the wife and mother of princes, this was a feat of world-straddling worthy of Cirque de Soleil.
There will be any number of explanations for this renewal of interest in Diana’s story: It’s a feminist reclamation, a cautionary tale about the cost of celebrity, a story of human failing in age of desperate perfectibility. But I think Kristen Stewart, who plays Diana in the film Spencer, has the wisest insight into a singular person operating under dual imperatives: “The idea of somebody being so desperate for connection – and somebody who’s able to make other people feel so good, feeling so bad on the inside, and being so generous with her energy – I just think we haven’t had many of those people throughout history. She really sticks out as a sparkly house on fire.”
I’m not sure how many of those Diana fans at the fountain would describe her as a sparkly house on fire – such a shocking Americanism – but they would be happy that she’s in the spotlight again, this time on her own.
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