Style Celebrity

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Diana: Still refusing to go quietly

On the 20th anniversary of her tragic death in Paris, Barry Egan asks why Diana still fascinates us - and suggests one of the greatest tragedies of her life was not so much that she lost Prince Charles, but that she never had him in the first place

Diana and Charles at Buckingham Palace with baby William in 1982
Diana and Charles at Buckingham Palace with baby William in 1982
A family album picture of Lady Diana Spencer in Cadogan Place Gardens, London, in the summer of 1968
CCTV footage showing Diana, Princess of Wales with Dodi Fayed inside the lift at the Ritz Hotel

Princess Diana's acceptance of her destiny was done with equanimity - summed up in four words spoken to Martin Bashir on November 20, 1995: "I won't go quietly."

Twenty-two years since that interview with the BBC, watched by 21 million people - and almost 20 years since her death on August 31, 1997, in Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris - Diana is still not going quietly.

She is the most famous (and the most loved) royal since Queen Victoria. An independent woman, albeit an over-pampered Sloane Ranger and extremely wealthy member of the British upper class, Diana refused to live a lie and make the best of it for the sake of the royal family

Diana's legacy, wrote novelist Joyce Carol Oates, was as "the fairy-tale princess who was cruelly awakened to the world of hurt, betrayal and humiliation - women of all ages found a mirror image of themselves".

It is tempting to believe that the People's Princess, even in death, embodies a new caring, confessional world, the "post-Diana age". Fanciful as this scenario may seem, to many - not all - Diana was indeed a "living simulacrum" of a better society, one that cared about those suffering from Aids, or the innocents who stepped on landmines in former war zones

And all that was, perhaps, to Prince Charles's chagrin. As the onetime queen-of-mean Julie Burchill wrote: "It's worth remembering that the man who has reinvented himself as a caring, sharing 'people's prince' once used to sneer at his young wife 'Diana the martyr' when she visited Aids patients."

In 1985, on a 'secret' (though nothing was ever really secret with Diana) visit to a London hospice, Diana made a telling comment, according to Time magazine: "The biggest disease this world suffers from is people feeling unloved."

Despite Boris Johnson describing the British nation's display of grieving after Diana's death as "like a South American carnival of grief", The Economist magazine in 1997 argued that "the public reaction to Diana's death will eventually be seen as an event of real historical significance, much as some historians now argue that Churchill's death in 1965 marked the final dividing line between imperial and modern Britain."

On the 20th anniversary of her death, her two sons William and Harry - William was 15 and Harry was just 12 when their mother died - talked about Diana publicly for the HBO documentary Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy.

Of Diana's final phone call from Paris, Harry said: "I can't really necessarily remember what I said, but all I do remember is, you know, regretting for the rest of my life how short the phone call was. I have to sort of deal with that for the rest of my life. Not knowing that that was the last time I was going to speak to my mum, and how differently that conversation would have panned out if I'd had even the slightest inkling that her life was going to be taken that night."

William continued: "If I'd known what was going to happen, I wouldn't have been so blasé about it. That phone call sticks in my mind quite heavily."

What sticks in some of our minds quite heavily when thinking of the two princes, and indeed Diana herself, is that Philip Larkin poem, with its keen understanding of the unintended tragedies of parenting: "They f*** you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you."

The youngest daughter of John Spencer, Viscount Althorp, and his first wife Frances, Diana Frances Spencer was born at Park House, Sandringham, on July 1, 1961.

Born into a life of privilege she may have been - along with elder sisters Sarah and Jane, and younger brother Charles - on a aristocratic estate in Norfolk about a mile from the Queen's own estate, but Diana's childhood was mostly unhappy.

In 1969, her parents divorced, following her mother "bolting" with Peter Shand Kydd. Diana's mother took her and younger brother Charles to live in Knightsbridge; when they later visited their father in Norfolk, he refused to allow them to return to Knightsbridge.

At the subsequent court case for custody of the children (at which Diana's maternal grandmother, Lady Ruth Fermoy, testified against her own daughter, Frances), the judge awarded custody of Diana and her brother to their father.

It can only have been traumatic for Diana to have been separated from her mother at such a young age. Diana said subsequently that she and her brother saw their mother in tears almost all the time.

Worse was to come. When Diana was 15, her father married Raine, Countess of Dartmouth. Diana nicknamed her stepmother 'Acid Raine'.

Ingrid Seward, the editor-in-chief of Majesty Magazine, recounted how Diana and her siblings didn't take to their stepmother. "None of them liked her and they were vile to her," Ingrid said. "I think at one point, Diana pushed her down the stairs at Althorp."

Growing up in a broken home had an isolating effect on the future People's Princess, and possibly paved the way for what would happen in her own marriage to Charles.

Mary Clarke, who started work as Diana's nanny when she was nine, remembers a very young Diana saying to her: "'I will never marry unless I'm really in love, because if you're not in love, you're going to get divorced - and I never intend to be divorced."

At school, the young Diana, perhaps unsurprisingly given her situation at home, didn't excel.

"She was not very bright, but she had a sweet nature," noted Vanity Fair of Diana's education at prep school Riddlesworth Hall. "At school, her chief academic accolades were the Leggatt Cup for Helpfulness and the Palmer Cup for Pets' Corner (for being kind to her guinea pig, Peanuts)."

Diana went on to private school West Heath, graduating with no O-levels, having failed the exams twice, noted the New Yorker magazine. Her step-grandmother Barbara Cartland said of Diana: "The only books she ever read were mine, and they weren't awfully good for her."

After attending finishing school at the Institut Alpin Videmanette in Switzerland, Diana moved to London, where she began working with children; she became a kindergarten teacher at the Young England School in Knightsbridge. It was here that she was introduced to Charles.

When they were engaged in 1981, the 19-year-old left her job, moved out of her flat-share in Kensington and into Clarence House.

At 6:15pm on February 28, 1996, Diana began 'not going quietly' in earnest. She gazumped the Palace by getting her PR handler Jane Atkinson to release to the world's media the news: she and Charles were divorcing. Atkinson noted importantly that her client had "agreed to Charles's request for a divorce." It provoked furrowed brows in the House of Windsor.

AN Wilson, writing in the New York Times, sounded a warning in Lady Di's direction: "The example of Wallis Simpson and Edward VII should be enough to tell Diana that when it comes to fighting a war, the Establishment can get very nasty indeed, and that for all her undoubted popularity, if she continues to rock the boat in this way, the Establishment will simply get rid of her, as they got rid of Edward and Mrs Simpson."

This scarcely veiled threat had echoes of something Diana said in hindsight of her wedding day: "I was a lamb to the slaughter. I knew it and I couldn't do anything about it.''

In that infamous Panorama interview - a response to Charles' 1994 interview with the BBC's Jonathan Dimbleby, in which he admitted having been unfaithful to Diana, but only once "it became irretrievably broken down, us both having tried" - Diana said she doubted she would ever become queen. "I'd like to be queen of people's hearts, but not of this country... not with the establishment I'm married into," she said. Referring to the open secret of her husband's long-time affair with Camilla, Diana told Bashir: "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded." Diana might also have mentioned a fourth entity in their marriage, one she invited in herself: the media.

Buck House, she told Bashir, made her life intolerable after the split. Never mind the queen, 1992 was Diana's annus horribilis: "Visits abroad were blocked and letters were lost when I became seen as a problem," told Bashir. "The enemy was my husband's department."

Post-interview, Charles's polo-playing chukka chums were wheeled out to attack her. Broderick Munro-Wilson said: "She's talking in therapy jargon. She's been brainwashed by therapists and now she's trying to brainwash us." German TV showed a clip of one of Charles's PR minders saying that Diana was "mentally ill". Others said that she was making it up as she went along.

As the co-operation she gave to Andrew Morton proved (his 1992 book Diana: Her True Story was effectively co-authored by her), Diana was not above the dark arts of spin. Or even making it up.

The tale of Diana once throwing herself down a flight stairs at Sandringham in front of the queen when she was three months pregnant with Prince Harry, only to be ignored by Her Majesty and Charles, who was going out playing polo, turned out to be nothing more than a well-spun fib. "The Queen comes out, absolutely horrified, shaking - she was so frightened. I knew I wasn't going to lose the baby [though I was] quite bruised around the stomach. When he [Charles]came back, you know, it was just dismissal, total dismissal. He just carried on out of the door. ''

But in 2006's Diana by Sarah Bradford, Bradford quotes one of Diana's own letters to prove that the apparent attempted suicide was more of an embarrassing trip, "after which Prince Charles was all husbandly concern".

According to Andrew Morton's book, by the time Harry was born on September 15 1984, the princess was already suffering from bulimia and had allegedly attempted to take her own life five times, because of the emotional abuse Charles had inflicted on her. Or the love he was unable to give her.

During the announcement of their engagement in February 1981, a reporter asked the couple "...and I suppose, in love?" "Of course," the 19-year-old Diana replied. "Whatever 'in love' means," Charles added as Diana laughed, nervously, at what might be ahead of her in marriage to the distant prince.

Tina Brown wrote in her 2007 book The Diana Chronicles that Charles told a friend that his wedding night with Diana was "nothing special"; the future king of England, according to a lover, "likes to be called Arthur when he climaxes."

Arthur's orgasms notwithstanding, Diana's unhappy fate appeared pre-ordained. In an essay in Time magazine weeks after her death, novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote of the shadow of Camilla Parker Bowles falling on Diana's marriage almost from her wedding night: "The princess-to-be was required to be virginal in every sense - to be ignorant of the very conditions of her marriage. With the cruel logic of those fairy-tales that don't end happily, the princess-to-be was intended as a sacrifice to the Establishment. Of Diana at the time of the wedding, it was said by a former classmate that she was 'one of the few virgins of her age around. She was a complete romantic, and she was saving herself for the love of her life, which she knew would come one day'. There is no evidence that Diana would have behaved other than devotedly to her husband and family if she hadn't been forced to acknowledge that her husband wasn't only having a clandestine affair with another man's wife, but had been having this affair for years."

The great irony of Diana's life, perhaps, is that she had so much love to give, but was terribly unlucky in love. Not just with Charles either. Diana had affairs with bounders like James Hewitt (long rumoured to be Harry's father), with married art dealer Oliver Hoare (who called police after receiving 300 silent phone calls to his family home; Diana was blamed, but denied making them) with rugby star Will Carling, and car dealer James Gilbey. The latter co-starred unwittingly with Diana in the Squidygate tapes, which turned up in the tabloids.

James: "I haven't played with myself... for a full 48 hours. Not for a full 48 hours..."

Diana: "I watched EastEnders today..."

The princess, who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 with then-beau Dodi Fayed, had described her previous serious boyfriend, Hasnat Khan, as the love of her life. They dated for two years until the media pressure (and just as likely pressure from Diana herself) caused the fiercely private British Pakistani heart surgeon to end the relationship at a late night meeting in Hyde Park. There was a rumour that Diana was pregnant with Khan's child at the time of her fatal crash with Dodi in the Pont de l'Alma road tunnel.

Vanity Fair noted that Diana was the love object of everyone in the world except her husband - a thumping snob 12 years her senior, who acted older than his age. "My wife made me go to some pop jamboree," he said of the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium in July 1985.

"For the galling truth," according to Vanity Fair, "was that, despite all her beauty and style, she bored him. And she was faced in her mid-20s with something she found chilling to contemplate: a fairy-tale marriage that had cooled into an arrangement."

It had cooled into much worse than that: a loveless marriage controlled by Charles and his frosty cronies. "When we had William, we had to find a date in the diary that suited him and his polo," Diana claimed.

In Andrew Morton's book, Diana claims that it was Charles who pushed her into bulimia only a week after they were engaged, in 1981. "[He] put his hand on my waistline and said: "Oh, a bit chubby here, aren't we?" Then Diana revealed that on the night before the wedding, "I had a very bad fit of bulimia. I ate everything I could possibly find. I was sick as a parrot that night".

"Your face is on the tea towels, so you're too late to chicken out,'' her sisters told Diana when she suggested doing a runner in her Gucci loafers.

Not long before Diana walked up the aisle at St Paul's Cathedral in a dress designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel (who described it as a dress that "had to be something that was going to go down in history"), there was an apocryphal story that she had confided in the Queen Mother that she was suspicious about her soon-to-husband's friendship with a woman called Camilla Parker Bowles.

"Don't be a silly girl," the Queen Mother is supposed to have told her. Diana's "instinct" told her not to believe a word of what she was told that afternoon. Or much thereafter by the House of Windsor.

The breakdown of the marriage of Charles and Diana had been made public when Andrew Morton's book Diana: Her True Story appeared in the summer of 1992. But we learned that the first cracks in the relationship appeared as far back as 1985, when Vanity Fair ran a story, 'The Mouse That Roared'.

"When the Prince and Princess of Wales arrive in Washington next month, they step into intense curiosity about the state of their marriage. Magazines and newspapers in every capital crackle with backstairs backchat about the princess's autocratic ways. She has banished all his old friends. She has made him give up shooting. She throws slippers at him when she can't get his attention. She spends all his money on clothes. She forces him to live on poached eggs and spinach. She keeps sacking his staff. Certainly 40 members of their household have resigned, including his private secretary, Edward Adeane, whose family had served the monarchy since Queen Victoria. The debonair Prince of Wales, His Royal Highness, Duke of Cornwall, heir to the throne, is, it seems, pussy-whipped from here to eternity."

The author of that piece, Tina Brown, told me when in London in 2007 to promote her book, The Diana Chronicles, that the princess married a man who was in love with another woman.

"That was the rawest deal that any woman can have," Tina said."Diana's great grief was not that she lost Charles, but she never had Charles. That's really what made her deeply hurt. How does a 19-year-old girl know what she is getting into? She had huge romantic dreams."

Tina added that she thought Charles did find Diana very beguiling in the beginning, responding to her shy and hesitant charm.

"I don't think it is fair to say he was never in love with her. I think he actually was in love with her. I think it was the kind of thing where he was infatuated with her and with her charm and her beauty, and thought to himself, 'We will grow into something together. She is a lovely young girl and so adorable'."

Diana remains so, even in death.

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