Monday 24 June 2019

Seeing through the myths . . .

Next month, Princess Diana would have celebrated her 40th birthday. There have been books and TV programmes to mark the event, showing that Diana is as hot a property in death as she was in life. DAVID ROBBINS sorts out the reality from the hype

Diana, Princess of Wales. Lady Di. The Queen of Hearts. Somehow, images of Diana Spencer have become embedded into our folk memory. The pre-marriage kindergarten worker, with the sun streaming though her dress. The balcony kiss on her wedding day. Seated alone before the Taj Mahal, that monument to unrequited love. The twisted wreckage of a Mercedes in a Paris tunnel. A life - and death - in photo opportunities.

Diana would have been 40 years old next month. This week, a documentary, Diana: Story of a Princess was broadcast on UTV, and the accompanying book was published on Thursday. As the date of her birthday, July 1, approaches, the nostalgia will reach saturation point. Diana is almost as hot a property dead as she was alive.

Yet there is some part of us that still wonders. Sure, we can dismiss Diana and all the theories that surround her life and death as so much soap opera froth, but somehow her uncanny gift for empathy touched many of us, and we still want to know, to have the whole story explained to us.

For some reason an academic will no doubt later explain, many Irish people maintain a fondness for the British royal family. It's an affection that centuries of republican struggle have failed to dim.

Maybe it's because we like a good story, and the tale of Charles and Diana is certainly that. It had everything: love, deceit, betrayal, and all set against a backdrop of the stately homes of England. It had sex and drugs. The only thing missing was rock 'n' roll, unless you count Diana's favourite song, Chris de Burgh's 'Lady in Red'.

It was also a story that polarised public opinion like few others. Just as Buckingham Palace officials were split into rival Charles and Di camps, so the public tended to take one side or another. And as the fairytale marriage started to buckle and warp under the pressure of publicity, so our positions became more polarised. (The third view, that the whole thing was too trivial to be bothered with, was dismissed as precious).

So, two weeks before what would have been her 40th birthday, a month before what might have been her 20th wedding anniversary, and four years after her death at the Pont d'Alma, what questions remain to be answered about Diana?

Well, through the blizzard of newsprint thrown up by this anniversary, some central issues have emerged. Was Diana mentally ill, as several courtiers from the Prince Charles camp have tried to claim? Was she a victim of the various New Age therapists she became involved with? Was she serially unfaithful to her husband? Was she genuinely concerned about the charities she espoused, or did she use them to feed her need for publicity? And was there a dark side to the People's Princess?

Was Diana mad?

Diana was much more complex a person than the smiling, doe-eyed do-gooder adored by the public. There was a steely, determined side to her somewhat at odds with the delicate English rose image she cultivated in the early days of her relationship with Prince Charles.

For instance, two years before her marriage, she told a friend she was "going to marry the Prince of Wales". She was besotted with Charles since the age of 13, keeping a picture of him beside her dormitory bed at boarding school. She may have blushed like a coltish schoolgirl before the photographers, but she knew what she wanted, and how to get it.

New research by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig for their book, Diana: Story of a Princess shows that she was also a consummate liar. She lied to the Palace about her co-operation with Andrew Morton on his explosive biography of her, she lied about her childhood and, some people say, she even lied about her bulimia in an attempt to extract yet more public sympathy.

Diana first drew attention to her bulimia in the briefings and interviews she secretly gave to Morton for his book Diana: Her True Story, published in 1992. Experts since have pointed to the history of eating disorders in Diana's family: her sister Sarah suffered from anorexia for a while. Courtiers sympathetic to Diana suggest her bulimia was brought on by the pressures of life among the royals.

But was Diana actually bulimic? Mary Robertson, an American businesswoman who hired the 19-year-old Diana as nanny to her son Patrick, doesn't think so. She is emphatic that Diana showed no signs of the disease when she shared a bathroom and a fridge with her family. And Jane Filderman, Diana's beautician, doesn't think so either. "I don't think she had bulimia as I know it," she says. "I have clients who have had the disease and there is no comparison. Diana had a super figure, wonderful teeth, good-quality hair, her skin was good. I don't think you can have any of those outward signs if you have bulimia badly."

In the Morton book, Diana made great play of her disturbed childhood. She was 30 at the time of the Morton interviews, and was by then fluent in the language of therapy and counselling. Relatives and friends, and even Diana's nanny, Mary Clarke, maintain that the Spencer children were as happy and "normal" as any children of a divorced couple can expect to be. As authors Clayton and Craig say: "She herself is the sole source of the received impression that her early life and lonely and sad. But Diana didn't tell the story straight: she was exaggerating for effect, casting herself as more unusual and disturbed than she was."

In the early days of their marriage, Charles spent hours "haplessly trying to soothe her back to cheerfulness" and dealing with her "unfathomable" and "aberrant" behaviour. His version of events appears in Jonathan Dimbleby's book The Prince of Wales, published in November, 1994.

Just three months into the marriage, friends of the Prince suggested that Diana might be suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). People with BPD are fitfully needy and aggressive, frequently retreating into paranoia. It covers everything from feelings of panic to binge-eating and self-harm. Confidantes of the prince mentioned the condition, and the possibility that Diana suffered from it, to both Penny Junor and Dimbleby as they researched their respective biographies of Charles. Dimbleby even went so far as to draft a chapter on Diana and BPD, but, after discussions with Charles, decided to leave it out.

The new evidence suggests that Diana played up her victim status by exaggerating the extent of her bulimia and the hardship of her upbringing. There is also evidence that she experienced severe mood swings and bouts of jealousy. If that were enough to condemn her as insane, then most of English womanhood would be joining her. The BPD theory beloved of the Prince Charles camp falls because the definition of BPD is so wide, and the "disorder" itself is a sort of catch-all syndrome, that half the population could no doubt be diagnosed with it.

Was Diana a victim of her advisors?

James Colthurst was an old friend of Diana's family. They had raced on sleds together when they were children. When the met again in the late 1980s, they were both changed people. Diana was Princess of Wales and Colthurst had turned his back on his privileged upbringing and was a qualified surgeon and homeopath. They became very close.

Diana told Colthurst every detail of her troubled marriage, and he came to believe, as Diana herself seemed to, that her popularity were perceived as threats to Charles's position. It was Colthurst who defined the lines of battle, the war of photo-opportunities that defined the British royal family in the 1990s. If Charles was photographed in a flattering context one day, Diana made sure she went one better the next. It was life through a tele-photo lens, a conflict in which Diana's weapons were hemlines, necklines and hairstyles.

In the early 1990s, Diana was also advised by her new senior aide Patrick Jephson, and her financial advisor Joseph Sanders. They were both drawn into Diana's plans following an incident in June 1990 which marked a turning-point in the princess's attitude to her marriage.

On June 28, Prince Charles broke his arm playing polo. In severe pain, he was brought to Cirencester Hospital, where doctors decided to re-set the fracture without pinning it. On leaving hospital, he posed for pictures with Diana, who drove him back to their home in Highgrove. Diana then left for Kensington Palace. Almost as Diana's car pulled out of the driveway, Camilla Parker-Bowles arrived to install herself as nurse-maid.

"I saw a change in Diana," recalls her beautician Janet Filderman. "I don't think she was prepared to work at the marriage any more." Jephson recalls a conversation around this time in which Diana told him: "I'd like to make a break from the royal family. I'd like to set up a life on my own. I might move abroad. I could get married later on. I could have a couple more children." She then consulted Sanders with a view to establishing her financial independence from what she called "The Firm".

Colthurst, meanwhile, had taken to playing squash with a freelance royal reporter called Andrew Morton. Colthurst told Morton Diana's side of the royal story. He said it could be told with the direct help of the princess and the on-the-record endorsement of her closest allies.

Morton took the idea to publisher Michael O'Mara, who was nervous of proceeding without definitive proof of Diana's willingness. When this was relayed to Diana, she began to get cold feet. Colthurst suggested that she consult an astrologer. Diana, who was an avid reader of magazine horoscopes, agreed to visit Felix Lyle.

"She asked me what the auguries were for publishing the book," recalls Lyle. "I said 'there's scandal here.' There was Neptune playing quite a devious part in her chart, and also Pluto was playing a strong role, so there was a transformation coming. She had serious worries about the book. I explained that Pluto in the transformation takes a long time, so as it unravels, you unravel with it. And she said 'Well, it this is what's happening anyhow, I might as well facilitate it, you know, make it easier."'

So Diana decided to co-operate with Morton on the book that would fatally damage her marriage and do irreparable harm to the British monarchy. A naturopath and an astrologer eased her way to the decision.

It is not so much that the people Diana surrounded herself with acted out of self-interest. In fact, most were motivated by a deep wish to help the princess. Becoming her friend often involved fielding phone calls at all hours (one friend, art dealer Oliver Hoare, received thousands of calls, prompting his wife to call the police), engaging in long, counselling-style conversations, and being drawn in to every part of her life.

In those circumstances, it is all to easy to lose all sense of perspective. When one takes into account Diana's notoriously prickly reaction to criticism, it is easy to see how her closest advisors gave her the advice she wanted to hear.

Was Diana a serial adulterer?

Captain James Hewitt was pretty typical of the English officer class. He had a certain chinless charm. He could ride a horse, had a "good seat", as they say. He looked good in the uniform of the Life Guards. He played polo. It is doubtful if his conversation ranged wider than his narrow world of parade drill and exercising horses. Nonetheless, Diana contrived to notice him when they met at Buckingham Palace entrance in the summer of 1986.

Shortly afterwards, he received an invitation from one of Diana's ladies in waiting to a drinks party at which Diana suggested that Capt Hewitt might like to give her riding lessons. They met two or three times a week. As they got to know each other, she began to ask his advice: "'What do you think I should wear to this or that engagement. Did you see me on television the other day? Did you think I looked all right?' That sort of thing," says Hewitt.

After one of the lessons, they took coffee in the ante-room of the officers' mess at Combermere Barracks in Windsor. Diana poured out her heart to Hewitt. She told him of her bulimia and of her strained marriage. Soon they were hugging. That evening, he was invited to Kensington Palace for dinner, and stayed the night.

The pair embarked on a sickly sweet love affair, complete with the sort of pet names only the English upper classes could invent. Imaginatively, Diana referred to Highgrove as "Low Wood" in her secret lover's argot. They pored over estate agents' brochures and imagined a future life together. When Hewitt was posted to the Gulf War, she sent him copies of Playboy. Hewitt maintains "there was a tacit understanding between Diana and Charles that I was part of her life in the same way that Mrs Parker Bowles was part of Prince Charles's life." But as press speculation about the pair increased, Diana came to view Hewitt as a loose canon. Soon the relationships, and his Army career, were both over.

In September 1995, Diana met Dr Hasnet Khan, a heart specialist at London's Royal Brompton Hospital. He was the sort of stable, decent man Diana needed in her life, and she clung to him like a drowning woman. She would slip into the hospital almost daily to see him, under the pretext of visiting patients there. She would dress up in wigs and scarves in order to spend time with him, and was drawn by his calm, his devotion to the sick, and to his large, warm family.

Diana fantasised about sharing her life with him. She became passionately interested in everything Pakistani, living her life to the smell of incense and the soundtrack of Bollywood movies. But his family was opposed to any marriage, and Dr Khan was outraged when Diana visited his mother in Pakistan without his knowledge. He ended the affair.

Diana was a needy, clinging woman. It seems obvious looking back at her life that she felt incomplete on her own, and needed a close relationship in order to function. If Prince Charles had been able to fulfil that role for her, then their marriage might have worked. Her personality was definitely prone to serial monogamy, and there was no shortage of men willing to help her out.

Did Diana use charities for her own ends?

As far back as her days as a boarder in West Heath school in Kent, Diana was an enthusiastic volunteer for all sorts of charity work. "I know I can give love for a minute, for half an hour, for a day, for a month, and I want to do that," said Diana in that fateful interview with the BBC's Panorama two years before her death. Her ability to empathise with people is obvious, and her high-profile association with campaigns like Aids awareness and land mine clearance did immeasurable good.

But there remains a suspicion that she was too aware of the cameras, too prone to picking the photogenic victim, too knowing to be really sincere about the charities she became involved with. Her ability to connect with people was in stark contrast to the 'Oh what lovely flowers' style of Queen Elizabeth. "Diana would bend down and talk to children, and make sure they weren't being crushed. She was just so different, so much closer to the people," says royal reporter Judy Wade.

She went further than any royal before her. At a home for the blind in Surrey, and old man said: "I'm sorry I can't see you." She placed his fingertips on her face. To some, this was moving testimony of her ability to respond to people's needs; to others, it displayed a cloying desire to be needed.

Her senior aide Patrick Jephson detected a certain cynicism in the way Diana went among her people, "cherry-picking" the most appealing photo-opportunities. And often there was an ulterior motive to her patronage of some charities. A visit to Pakistan was undertaken, not to visit the impoverished, but to visit the mother of Dr Hasnat Khan. Many of her visits to the Royal Brompton Hospital were really to see Dr Khan too. And when she publicly endorsed a cerebral palsy charity in New York, it was in response to a request from press baron Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers she was glad to have on her side.

Was there a dark side to Diana?

Ask her dresser Evelyn Dagley, who was regularly subjected to tirades and tantrums. Ask royal nanny Tiggy Legge-Burke, who was on the receiving end of some hateful behaviour from Diana. Ask Victoria Mendham a junior secretary at Kensington Palace. The answer would be a resounding yes.

"Look at this f***king shirt, Evelyn. Look at it, you idiot. It's rubbish, rubbish, rubbish. What is it, Evelyn? Rubbish! Get out of my sight," she would shout at her dresser.

Towards the end of her marriage, Diana became jealous of the role of Tiggy Legge-Burke, nanny to Princes William and Harry when they were in Charles's care. Diana became convinced that Tiggy was having an affair with Charles.

She also believed that Tiggy had recently had an abortion, and that the child was Charles's. Neither was true, but that didn't stop Diana coming up behind Tiggy at a palace drinks party and whispering into her ear: "So sorry about the baby."

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section