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What does Diana mean to us 20 years on?

20 years after her death, Diana remains a mystery. Andrew Marr introduces Tina Brown's The Diana Chronicles, and explores what the late Princess of Wales means to us today

The death of Diana, Princess of Wales undoubtedly shook the British in a way no other royal event in modern times has done. Equally certainly, she was the first genuine royal celebrity. Her divorce and then her violent death were among the worst events the House of Windsor has ever faced. So twenty years on, what does she mean?

Diana’s Britain already seems a lost, different country. Tony Blair was only a few months into his first premiership – young, brightly smiling, charismatic and relatively untarnished. The country was getting used to unfamiliar politicians such as Gordon Brown and David Blunkett. Enthusiasm for the EU was widespread across most of the political spectrum; New Labour cabinet ministers would tell anyone prepared to listen that Britain would shortly join the euro.

The first generation of the iPhone was still a decade in the future. Victoria Adams had just been dubbed ‘Posh Spice’ and her group were at their zenith; she would not marry a certain well-known footballer for another two years. Two Californian geeks were about to register a strange name for their proposed search engine – Google. But Internet use was still relatively uncommon in Britain – just 7.5% of people were merrily clicking away, compared to more than 90% now.

By contrast, the newspapers were much more powerful – well before the forced closure of the News of the World and rising public worries about entrapment and eavesdropping, this was the last roar of tabloid Britain.  If anything epitomised this last hurrah it was Diana’s tumultuous love affair with the camera and the tabloids. Briefly a victim, she was drawn into a vortex of exploitation before blossoming from puppet into puppeteer.

One of Tina Brown’s advantages as a biographer is that she also inhabited this fame-hungry, fast-moving world of 1980s and 1990s journalism that Diana basked in. If we want to relive that strange era at the end of the twentieth century, when hair was big and shoulders were padded, and the celebrity stories were gigantic and multicoloured, then we need a guide who was there at the time and remembers it clearly. Tina’s status in New York also turns out to be useful; had Diana lived, then it’s a reasonable assumption that she would have ended up living in the United States, a place where she found rather more air to breathe than in class-bound, tabloid-stalked London.

Still, twenty years on we are such different people. I think we were more innocent, naive then, like oddly youthful family members in old video footage. We had bought into the Diana story in ways that wouldn’t be repeated by any other figure later on. The shock of Diana’s death was so sharp because so many of us had lived our lives by proxy through her. We had talked about class and Peter York’s ‘Sloane Rangers’ because of that demure, embarrassed, gawky young aristo first pursued by snappers through West London. Royalists celebrated her marriage as a great moment of rejuvenation for the Windsors: Republicans scurried off abroad and bristled with despair about the state of the national debate. The ups and downs of Diana’s marriage, its miseries and triumphs, were discussed and refracted back in our own relationships. We learned about bulimia because of her. Our jaws dropped at those salacious tape revelations. We sat at home transfixed by the Panorama interview and for days talked about nothing else. We debated the propriety or otherwise of her later boyfriends and we divided across dinner tables about Prince Charles’s behaviour.

So by the time she died, Diana had become truly nestled inside the imaginations of most of us. We felt she represented something we British were becoming in general – more open about our emotions, more liberal, perhaps even kinder. She hugged and kissed her sons in public. She took up righteous if unpopular causes, from Aids to landmines, an unapologetically political (small p) campaigner we hadn’t seen in royal circles before. Her death was felt not just as the shocking death of a young mother in a motor accident, but as a punch to the solar plexus of tens of millions of people she had never met – something meaningful in the national story.

This was why, no doubt, so many people were desperate to believe that there was a sinister conspiracy behind her death, with senior members of the royal family and/or the security services pulling the strings to prevent an embarrassing second marriage. This was why, also, there was that strange mutinous mood in central London when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh declined to hurry straight down from Balmoral and join the exhibition of public grief, leaving only the sinister sound of the wind rustling through the plastic wrapping of thousands of bundles of decaying flowers at the gates of the palace.

Back in the present, it seems so long ago, and so hysterical. Because of the royal connection and her own high-wattage charisma, Diana came to mean something to millions of people that was – to be blunt – silly and unreasonable. No fallible human being should ever have been the glossy receptacle of so much panting expectation. Any real person subjected to the hot adoration of tens of millions, and the frantic insistence that ‘you understand me’ would melt into a puddle of exhaustion or a cloud of hysterical laughter. Some of what happened was the fault of the public. We treated her as a Botticelli heroine, as a painted representative of ideal womanhood – mocked, rejected, damaged and yet rising from the waves to forgive us. Or even, perhaps, like a secular Virgin Mary, eternally loving and innocent, walking through the evil and corruption of everyday life. The midsummer hysteria of 1997 had very little to do with the woman who loved and lost, who became a cunning user of others, who learned to be an excellent mother, and who was then killed in a random, meaningless accident in a Paris underpass. We had projected onto her our hopes and our anger, so that when she died we felt properly bereaved. How childish we were.

For the royal family, her death was a crisis, yes – but they got through it quickly and relatively easily in contrast to the public. After making her public acknowledgement of Diana’s power, the Queen herself became more popular than ever. So far as the royal establishment is concerned, individuals learned to be Diana-like – to express their emotions and to smile more, and to play the newspaper game bravely – but beyond that, nothing really changed. In fact, soon that sunlit, naively enthusiastically pro-European and leftish Britain of 1997 would be buried itself – by the Iraq War, by the 2008 financial crash, and because of its own ageing and exhaustion.

 

Perhaps the legacy that Diana has given us is that we as a nation have become, since her life and death, a little less hysterical

After Diana’s death, memorialists came up with books – this one being the best – as well as walks, fountains, playgrounds, statues and innumerable domestic objects. The clever, damaged, haunted young woman behind the photographs emerged and became truly immortalised in the people’s hearts. Ten years later, her sons raised money with a huge pop concert, and Diana’s name and face continue to be used by many charities, hospitals and other public concerns.

Yet her most potent and impressive memorial is the behaviour of her two sons, then the teenagers Wills and Harry, now the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Henry of Wales. When we saw them, aged fifteen and twelve, walking white-faced and shocked behind their mother’s coffin, they looked like ultimate victims. The offspring of a ruined marriage, surrounded and snapped at by a piously intrusive media, and without their devoted mother – how could they possibly grow up to be happy and useful people?

But they did. Both sons, growing up, put the occasional foot wrong and fell foul of censorious newspaper editors. But each of them seemed to emerge as emotionally mature, serious-minded and attractive men in whose hands the Windsor dynasty seems, for the moment, pretty safe. 

Much of the credit must go to the warm way that Diana brought them up, but much must also go to the much less popular figure of Prince Charles. He was seen in the aftermath of his divorce as chilly to the point of cruelty. Having been sent unhappily away to school himself, detesting much of his own upbringing, how could he learn the modern empathetic parenting skills we are taught to admire? Well, his evident success as a parent suggests that the public view of him was wide of the mark; for he is a father adored by his children – and there can be no greater happiness than that.

In the end, the life and death of Diana was a family story – the story of the Windsor family – and  families (most of them, not all) are remarkably resilient. Again and again, despite the pessimism of Philip Larkin, one generation learns from the mistakes of the previous one. Feuds are forgotten; hatchets are buried. Parents leave you with the strengths they had. Again and again, the damaged and the angry discover for themselves the necessity of forgiveness and love. Every day, individuals die, and every day their families go on; and this is also the Windsor story.

But perhaps the legacy that Diana has given us is that we as a nation have become, since her life and death, a little less hysterical. When Kate Middleton married Diana’s older son, there seemed a danger that she would suffer just the same intolerable burden of projection. Indeed, she’s popular. People talk about what she wears, and seem to like pictures of her toddlers too. She takes her charity work admirably seriously.

Yet she isn’t Diana. Partly, of course, she isn’t tortured by the experience of becoming a leading member of the royal household, as Diana was. She is calmer and more level-headed. And while the younger royals still face a self-righteous and aggressive media – Prince Harry above all at the moment – things aren’t quite as overheated as they used to be. Could it be that, back in the strange summer of 1997, we exhausted some of our frantic over-enthusiasm and projected emotion? That we, as it were, were bled out?

If so, then the legacy of that extraordinary year is unexpectedly positive: the royal family survived and became more popular, and the rest of us – well, we grew up.

 

Andrew Marr

March 2017

More about the author

The Diana Chronicles

Tina Brown

The 20th Anniversary Edition of Tina Brown's definitive behind-the-scenes insight into the life of Diana Princess of Wales with a brand new introduction by Andrew Marr.

Twenty years after her death, Princess Diana remains a mystery. Was she "the people's princess," who electrified the world with her beauty and humanitarian missions? Or was she a manipulative, media-savvy neurotic who nearly brought down the monarchy?

In this new 20th anniversary commemorative edition, which includes a new introduction by Andrew Marr, The Diana Chronicles parts the curtains on Diana's troubled time in the mysterious world of the Windsors, as she breaks out of her royal cage into celebrity culture, where she found her own power and used it to devastating effect.

Knowing Diana personally, Tina Brown understands her world, understands its players and has-reaching insight into the royals and the Queen herself. Meet the formidable female cast and get to know the society they inhabit, as you never have before.

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