Diana’s legacy rests on a fairytale that does not reflect reality


Prince William, prince Harry and prince Charles at Balmoral Castle 20 years ago. Chris Bacon / AFP

Some call it a fairytale, others an industry. Few want to describe it as a cult, with all the negative connotations of a hidden, delusional devotion that that entails. Still, the renewed fascination with Diana, princess of Wales, 20 years after her death has reached extraordinary levels .

There is a clutch of new TV documentaries, some of them salacious. A shelf’s worth of new books offer either frank admiration or a forlorn “what if” look-ahead had Diana survived the August 31, 1997, car crash in Paris. Collectible magazine editions are there to be had by fans. There are even fashion showsinspired by some of Diana’s signature looks, which include, we are told, heritage checks, mom jeans, gingham, white shoes, oversized coats and activewear.

In the royal palace in which Lady Diana lived, there is a specially planted “white garden”, which claims to be “inspired by memories of the Princess’s life, image and style” and which will only last this one fleeting summer. In it, there is a variety of pink Japanese anemone, named years ago as Pretty Lady Diana.

The pathos is intense. Around the global village , there is an aching sense of loss — for the death of beauty, of charity and of the mother of two royal princes. But how did this maudlin reliving of the Diana legend come to pass 20 years on? More to the point, should it be happening?

The answer is: not like this. There is a manifest unhealthiness about what one British writer recently called the “princess myth”. Hillary Mantel, who won the Booker Prize twice over for her historical fiction about the storied Tudor period of English history, has described Diana as being akin to that other great national treasure, the English Romantic poet John Keats, only “more photogenic”. The princess is, Ms Mantel added, “a collective creation…(and) also a collective possession”.

She has a point. Britain exported a manufactured reality that defies all evidence about Diana’s actual personality and predilections long before Donald Trump’s administration offered “alternative facts” for a post-truth world. Some might say that such myth-making is not unlike the nativism espoused by president Trump and his core support base. It rests on a fairytale about the past when humans with God-like traits and immortal virtues walked the Earth. Some suggest that Brexit Britain’s nostalgia for an imagined golden age somehow ties in to “England’s rose”, in the words of the song Elton John sang for Diana’s funeral.

Even so, why is Diana-mania happening now? It’s not just because her death has become a “where were you when…” globally shared moment, like 9/11, and, for an earlier generation, John F Kennedy’s assassination. And it’s not only because a 20th anniversary moment is a good one — neither too close up nor too far off — to look back on a significant event.

There is much evidence to suggest that Diana’s sons set off the extravagant memorializing by announcing their participation in two television documentaries. William and Harry’s intention may have been worthy and understandable — to take control of the story told about their mother and, in their words, “to remember all the good things”. But the dredging up of the past and their uncritical reverence for the dead parent while refusing even to mention their father in one documentary appeared to encourage a partisan alternate reality. One in which Charles might ascend the throne one day but Britain would forever be the kingdom of Diana.

By helping return their mother to national (and international) television, Diana’s sons may have unwittingly given permission to all the other sensationalised commemorative fare. Anyone with a tape of Diana’s voice, or a memory of her, no matter if true or false, merrily added to the elements of the myth.

The sense of “unreality” about the Diana legend has only heightened by the persistent contradictions of her life and death. She used the media to her own ends, letting favourite tabloid photographers know her whereabouts, giving secret interviews to be turned into bestselling books and becoming a global celebrity on account of the exposure. And yet, she complained about the media and its relentless pursuit of her life. Her sons rail at the media for hounding their mother to her death and yet, they turned to television, the medium of the masses, to ensure she is remembered and mourned and sighed over all over again.

If only they hadn’t done it this time either. Britain should be preparing for the future, not obsessing over the past.