What if di had lived?
Monica Ali, best-selling author of 'Brick Lane', explains why her new novel imagines what might have become of Princess Diana
Published 29/01/2011 | 05:00
'Why did you decide to write a book based on Diana?" Since my forthcoming novel was announced, everyone I meet has been asking the same question.
Given that I'd chosen the world's most famous woman as my subject matter, I'd known there would be some interest, but I didn't know how much. Over the years, there have been scores of books published about Diana, Princess of Wales, and while a few, such as Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story, have become best-sellers, most were instantly consigned to the bin.
There have been fictional representations too, both in film and in novels, so while writing I was aware that I'd be adding yet one more book to an already crowded shelf. When I delivered the first draft to my publisher last July, Diana hadn't been front-page news for a few years. But then Prince William and Kate Middleton got engaged, and she displayed Diana's ring on her finger, and Diana was suddenly back.
My novel, Untold Story, takes Diana's life as a point of departure. Since her untimely death in a car crash in Paris, I had found myself wondering what would have happened if she had lived. When she died she was, on the one hand, trying to cement her public role through her pioneering campaign on landmines. She was also going through personal upheaval and behaving erratically. The pressure on her was immense. How would she have emerged from that period in which she seemed to be at some kind of crossroads? How would she have matured into her forties and beyond?
Although I did my research on Diana and she is very much the inspiration for my protagonist, my princess is fictional. She only exists in my imagination. But it seems to be this aspect that actually engages people the most. As one commentator wrote: "Monica Ali is not alone in imagining the twists and turns Diana's life may have taken had she lived."
He goes on to create some "what ifs" of his own. "What if she had married Simon Cowell or Russell Brand?" Diana's troubled relationships with men were often the lens through which she was perceived, so that is an interesting question. If she had married someone "unsuitable", would she have forfeited national affection and her iconic status? Or would she have been deterred by public opinion from marrying whomever she pleased?
I'm inclined to think not. One of the things I always admired about Diana was her determination not to be bound by the rules. She did things her own way, she "wouldn't go quietly", she was headstrong and sometimes reckless. Never more so than when it came to love. In the summer of 1997, she was desperately in love with a Pakistani doctor, Hasnat Khan, and determined to marry him, even landing a surprise visit on his family in Lahore in the hope of charming them into accepting her as a future daughter-in-law. They were charmed, but Khan's mother withheld her blessing. When Diana realised that the "love of her life" would never marry her, she was driven into the arms of Dodi Fayed and that final, doomed relationship.
My fictional princess marries neither Simon Cowell nor Russell Brand, but like Diana she has endured a loveless marriage to an older man and longs to establish a meaningful relationship. It's a familiar theme for me as a writer. My first novel, Brick Lane, was set in the Bangladeshi community in London's Tower Hamlets. The protagonist, Nazneen, has an arranged marriage to an older man, and she transgresses against the rules of that society by having an affair. Of course, that comparison is only superficial. Nazneen and my princess are, on most counts, a world away from each other. And according to The New York Times, Untold Story is a "curious marriage of author and subject matter". Why? What's the implication behind that adjective?
My second book, Alentejo Blue, was set in a Portuguese village, and my third, In The Kitchen, was about an English chef. Perhaps they are curious choices too. I am simply following my interests. But all my books have one thing in common that is not superficial. They are about identity -- what makes a person who they are.
Perhaps the implication behind the adjective is an essentially American view that you have to be a particular kind of Brit (unquestionably English) to be interested in Diana. But, like everyone else in Britain, I grew up with the royal family in the background and watched the Diana fairy tale/nightmare unfold, and ultimately explode. Diana had her detractors, but she was someone who fascinated people of all backgrounds. That was something that marked her out. You could see it reflected in the diversity of the crowds outside Kensington Palace when she died -- male and female, young and old, gay and straight, every class, every colour, every creed.
Choosing to base a novel on a real person, of course, brings its challenges, but it's hardly a curiosity -- the combination of fiction writer and "what if" story is nothing new. Philip Roth penned The Plot Against America, imagining what might have happened if aviator Charles Lindbergh had become president of the United States. Icons have long been a staple diet for creative minds: Joyce Carol Oates wrote Blonde, a novel about Marilyn Monroe, and Andrew O'Hagan went one better by writing about Monroe's dog.
'I thought you were more serious than that," a friend said. I knew what he meant. Diana was tabloid fodder. Acres of newsprint were devoted to her dresses, her therapies, her bulimia, her lovers, her tantrums, her holidays, whether she had cellulite on her thighs.
But it's nonsense to pretend that "serious" people aren't interested in Diana. The feminist writer, Beatrix Campbell, wrote an excellent and perceptive book about her, as did Tina Brown. I wouldn't describe either as intellectual lightweights.
And though the tabloids sometimes effectively dehumanised her through their portrayals, beneath all the glitz and glamour, away from the spotlight, alone -- as she often was -- in Kensington Palace, Diana was no less human than the rest of us.
Her life is no less worthy of serious consideration than any other, perhaps more so because of what it reflects back about us and the values by which we live. "Does she get to live happily ever after?" That's the other question people have been asking, aptly enough about a novel that is, in part, a fairy tale. I'm keeping the answer to myself for now.