Ten years ago in August, I and a whole lot of other people stayed up most of the night listening to news reports of Princess Diana’s accident. What started out as unbelievable turned into a night that became tragic, as TV reporters announced she had not been saved after all; she was dead
The next day at our daily news meeting, the then-editor of the paper, a devout Southern Baptist who led Sunday school class, pronounced that Princess Diana would not be going to heaven. Mother Teresa yes. (That he himself would be there was the unvoiced assumption.) But Princess Diana with all her sins, well she would not. I remember being filled with the most awful (also unvoiced) rage at his smug presumption, as if he knew all about her.
Of course, thanks to their tell-all dueling television appearances and other leaks to the press, even then we knew more about her and Prince Charles than we’d ever known about anyone in modern day royalty. And in the years since, we’ve gotten to know even more. A multitude of books have been written and investigations done. Conspiracy theories on the events leading up to her death abound among people unwilling to accept the fact it was a drunk driver going too fast that gave her no chance to add another chapter to her life. Their lives together have been dissected from all sorts of perspectives.
On August 31 it will be ten years to the day since Princess Diana died in the Paris tunnel. Some see her as a saint for all her good causes, others – like my former editor -- as someone spoiled and ill-equipped for life, a loon who found a way to shine the spotlight on herself.
Just out, The Diana Chronicles is among the best of the Diana books. It borrows from others, breaking little new ground, but still stands apart – helped in no small part by being written neither by a former confidant or ex-lover. Tina Brown, former editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and, before both of those, Tatler, a well known English gossip magazine, comes at her subject with first-hand knowledge, enormous entry to important people in England and a compelling narrative. There are so many crucial turning points, places of could-have-beens, would-have-beens, where if any of the main characters had behaved a bit better, had listened a little more, the events leading up to her death might never have happened.
The book begins with Diana’s final car ride and then backs up to her beginnings. She was a Spencer, a family with a tradition in England many years longer than the Windsors, who after all had been imported from Germany. Born in 1961, she was the product of an exceedingly poor upper class education which ended when she was 16. She failed the final exams in all her classes twice. For years, she was self-deprecating, referring to herself as “thick as a plank,” but Brown makes the case that it was the lack of a decent education she received rather than an innate stupidity that limited her.
Her older sister Sarah dated Prince Charles first, but was shut out after she blabbed about personal details to the press. Diana’s home life had never been great; her parents divorced and her father got custody and like most rich girls in England she was sent away to boarding school. There she received an award for “best kept guinea-pig.” She read romances, especially ones written by her step-grandmother, Barbara Cartland and she fell in love with the idea of a Prince Charming swooping into her life. She thought Prince Charles was that man.
All of which pretty much didn’t work out. He was dialing Camilla Parker-Bowles on the second day of his honeymoon and didn’t wait all that long before getting back in bed with her. Although being a virgin had been a high-on-the-list qualifier for Diana to even be considered as marriage material, it didn’t help her at all in actuality with the vastly more sexually experienced Charles (who spent most of his 20s and into his 30s having sex with married women, often the wives of friends, according to Brown).
She hoped that in the Royal Family she would find the love and security that she’d missed growing up but that was a non-starter. Yes, they did not support her, but it wasn’t all one sided. As Brown makes clear, the Royal Family didn’t know quite what to do with her. They thought for instance, that because of her family’s background she knew how to entertain. She didn’t; her family didn’t really do that. She sold Charles a bill of goods before their marriage that she liked horseback riding, hunting and long walks in the country. Actually she was afraid of horses, disliked hunting and the country bored her to tears. And the tears, there were so many tears on top of the bulimia that the family didn’t know what to do. One of the saddest, funniest moments in the book is when Brown reports Charles, through a closed bedroom door with Diana, uttering the words: “What have I done wrong now?” So much for the glamour of royalty.
Diana, of course, brought in a new sort of glamour, that of celebrity. She learned how to use the media to paint her in a positive light. As time went on she dressed better, she learned how to speak in public better, and she learned how to battle the royal family more successfully. She was far more popular than her husband, which became another irritant in their marriage.
Like most people, she became better than herself when acting for a cause. She was one of the first people to take up the cause of AIDs patients, to actually touch them. She walked across an uncleared minefield not once but twice to bring that issue home to the British, showing an immense amount of personal courage. She taught her sons to take on humanitarian causes.
Brown’s book is at its best by the way it refuses to oversimplify things. Charles was actually a good father all along. His father, Prince Phillip, was not exactly the rigid, unthinking automaton he is often made out to be. Camilla was not just a home breaker.
Like Elvis, Diana is still a money maker. People can still buy coins bearing her likeness. Even after her death, she’s raising money for charity as in the concert put on by sons William and Harry in early July.
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And yes, the greatest irony was that Diana, who loved publicity and the press, was unable to control it and many feel it consumed her at the end with an almost complete lack of privacy in every part of her life.
But in her death she did change the way the royal family connected to its British public. And she captured the imagination of a nation to go out and do great things for others. As my former editor and ardent student of the Bible should have been the first to admit, even flawed vessels can achieve great things.
Tina Brown has written a sobering, entertaining and poignant book that is almost impossible to put down once you’ve started. It doesn’t matter that you already know how it ends. It’s the getting there that matters. – Margaret Downing
The Diana Chronicles, by Tina Brown, Doubleday, $27.50