The princess myth: Hilary Mantel on Diana
The Wolf Hall novelist on the 20th anniversary of the death of the Princess of Wales, an icon ‘only loosely based on the young woman born Diana Spencer’
Saturday 26 August 2017 06.00 BST
Royal time should move slowly and by its own laws: creeping, like the flow of chrism from a jar. But 20 ordinary years have jog-trotted by, and it’s possible to have a grownup conversation with someone who wasn’t born when Diana died. Her widower is long remarried. Her eldest son, once so like her, shows signs of developing the ponderous looks of Philip, his grand-father. Diana should be as passe as ostrich plumes: one of those royal or quasi-royal women, like May of Teck or Wallis Simpson or the last tsarina, whose images fade to sepia and whose bones are white as pearls. Instead, we gossip about her as if she had just left the room. We still debate how in 1981 a sweet-faced, puppy-eyed 20-year-old came to marry into the royal house. Was it a setup from the start? Did she know her fiance loved another woman? Was she complicit, or was she an innocent, garlanded for the slab and the knife?
For some people, being dead is only a relative condition; they wreak more than the living do. After their first rigor, they reshape themselves, taking on a flexibility in public discourse. For the anniversary of her death, the princess’s sons remember her for the TV cameras, and we learn that she was “fun” and “very caring” and “a breath of fresh air”. They speak sincerely, but they have no news. Yet there is no bar on saying what you like about her, in defiance of the evidence. Private tapes she made with her voice coach have been shown in a TV documentary, Diana: In Her Own Words. They were trailed as revealing a princess who is “candid” and “uninhibited”. Yet never has she appeared so self-conscious and recalcitrant. Squirming, twitching, avoiding the camera’s eye, she describes herself hopefully as “a rebel”, on the grounds that she liked to do the opposite of everyone else. You want to veil the lens and explain: that is reaction, not rebellion. Throwing a tantrum when thwarted doesn’t make you a free spirit. Rolling your eyes and shrugging doesn’t prove you are brave. And because people say “trust me”, it doesn’t means they’ll keep your secrets.
Yet royal people exist in a place beyond fact-correction, in a mystical realm with rules that, as individuals, they may not see; Diana consulted psychics to work out what was going on. The perennial demand for them to cut costs and be more “down to earth” is futile. They are not people like us, but with better hats. They exist apart from utility, and by virtue of our unexamined and irrational needs. You can’t write or speak about the princess without explicating and embellishing her myth. She no longer exists as herself, only as what we made of her. Her story is archaic and transpersonal. “It is as if,” said the psychotherapist Warren Colman, “Diana broadcast on an archetypal frequency.”
Though she was not born royal, her ancestors were ancient power-brokers, dug more deeply into these islands than the Windsors. She arrived on the scene in an era of gross self-interest, to distract the nation from the hardness of its own character. As she correctly discerned, “The British people needed someone to give affection.” A soft-eyed, fertile blond, she represented conjugal and maternal love, and what other source did we have? Until Tony Blair took office as a fresh-faced Prince Charming we had female leaders, but they were old and their cupboards were bare of food and love: a queen who, even at Diana’s death, was reluctant to descend from the cold north, and a prime minister formerly known as Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.
The princess we invented to fill a vacancy had little to do with any actual person. Even at the beginning she was only loosely based on the young woman born Diana Spencer, and once she was engaged to the Prince of Wales she cut adrift from her modest CV. In the recent documentary Diana, Our Mother, her son Harry spoke of her as “an ordinary 20-year-old”; then checked himself, remembering she was an aristocrat. But in some ways his first thought was right. Like a farmer’s daughter, Diana married the boy across the hedge – she grew up near the queen’s estate at Sandringham. As the third daughter born to Viscount Althorp, she was perhaps a disappointment. The family’s previous child, a son, had died within hours of birth, and Spencer and his wife Frances had to try again for an heir. The Jungian analyst Marion Woodman posits that unwanted or superfluous children have difficulty in becoming embodied; they remain airy, available to fate, as if no one has signed them out of the soul store. By Diana’s cradle – where the witches and good fairies do battle – stood a friend of the Queen Mother, her maternal grandmother Ruth Fermoy. When Diana was six, Frances left her young family. Fermoy took sides against her daughter and helped Spencer get custody of his four desolate children. Later, promoted to his earldom, he remarried without telling them. Diana is said to have expressed her views by pushing her stepmother downstairs.
Diana’s private education implanted few cultural interests and no sense of their lack. She passed no public exams. But she could write a civil letter in her rounded hand, and since she didn’t have to earn a living, did it matter? In Diana: In Her Own Words, she speaks of her sense of destiny. “I knew … something profound was coming my way … I knew I was different from my friends …” Like Cinderella in the kitchen, she served an apprenticeship in humility, working as an upper-class cleaner, and in a nursery mopping up after other people’s babies. Then the prince came calling: a mature man, with a history of his own.
By her own account, Diana was not clever. Nor was she especially good, in the sense of having a dependable inclination to virtue; she was quixotically loving, not steadily charitable: mutable, not dependable: given to infatuation, prey to impulse. This is not a criticism. Myth does not reject any material. It only asks for a heart of wax. Then it works subtly to shape its subject, mould her to be fit for fate. When people described Diana as a “fairytale princess”, were they thinking of the cleaned-up versions? Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification. They are about child murder, cannibalism, starvation, deformity, desperate human creatures cast into the form of beasts, or chained by spells, or immured alive in thorns. The caged child is milk-fed, finger felt for plumpness by the witch, and if there is a happy-ever-after, it is usually written on someone’s skin.
In a TV interview before the marriage – the “ghastly interview,” as Diana called it – Charles wondered quizzically, “whatever ‘in love’ means”. He has been blamed ever since for destroying the simple faith of a simple maid. But off-camera, Diana was preparing. Her choice of hymn makes the marriage a patriotic duty, like signing up for a war:
By Diana’s later account, the wedding day was “the worst day of my life”. But at the time – July 1981 – she looked dazed with happiness. Even for republicans there was much to enjoy. A great city en fête. The oily reverence of the commentators with their peculiar word order: “For the first time through the centre gateway of Admiralty Arch arrives Lady Diana …” Best of all, the outfits: Princess Anne dressed as an Easter egg, wearing a furious scowl. Diana’s entrance into legend prompted a national gasp, as she tumbled from her coach like a bride in a bag. Her gown unfolded perfectly, like a paper flower. But some palace lackey had erred; the vehicle was too cramped for a tall flouncing lassie and her frock.
It takes a lot a lot of know-how and behind-the-scenes sweat to transform Cinderella from dust-maid to belle. Fairytales do not describe the day after the wedding, when the young wife lost in the corridors of the palace sees her reflection splinter, and turns in panicked circles looking for a mirror that recognises her. Prince Charles’s attitude of anxious perplexity seems to have concealed an obtuseness about what the marriage meant to his bride. The usual young woman of the era had a job, sexual experience, friends who stayed within her circle – her wedding was simply a big party, and she probably didn’t even move house. But Diana’s experience as daughter of a landed family did not prepare her for Buckingham Palace, any more than Schönbrunn prepared the teenage Marie Antoinette for Versailles. It was Diana’s complaint that no one helped her or saw her need. Fermoy had expressed doubts before the marriage. “Darling, you must understand that their sense of humour and their lifestyle are different …” The bathos is superb. “Mind how you go,” say the elders, as they tip off the dragon and chain the virgin to the mossy rock.
What would have happened to Diana if she had made the sort of marriage her friends made? You can picture her stabled in the shires with a husband untroubled by brains: furnishing a cold house with good pieces, skiing annually, hosting shoots, stuffing the children off to board: spending more on replenishing the ancestral linen cupboard than on her own back. With not too much face-paint, jacket sleeves too short for her long arms, vital organs shielded by a stout bag bought at a country show, she would have ossified into convention; no one would have suspected her of being a beauty. Like many women in mid-life, she would have lived in a mist of discontent, struggling to define something owing, something that had eluded her. But in her case the “something” would have been the throne.
Even in childhood photos Diana seems to pose, as if watching her own show. Her gaze flits sideways, as if to check everyone is looking at her. One “friend” told a TV crew that as a teenager, “whenever you saw her alone she would have picked up some trashy romantic novel”. Leave aside the casual denigration of women’s taste: if Diana imagined herself – the least and youngest daughter – as magnificent, all-conquering, a queen, she had a means of turning her daydream into fact. Diana claimed that she and the prince met only 13 times before their wedding. Did she keep a note? She lacked self-awareness, but had strong instincts. It must have been child’s play – because she was anxious to please, or because she was crafty – to seem to share his visions and concerns. An earnest look, a shy silence, job done. Chaste maids were not too plentiful in the 1980s. The prince took advice: snap her up, sir.
Diana was no doubt really shy, and certainly unused and unformed: a hollow vessel, able to carry not just heirs but the projections of others. After marriage she had power that she had not sought or imagined. She had expected adulation, but of a private kind: to be adored by her prince, respected and revered by her subjects. She could not have imagined how insatiable the public would be, once demand for her had been ramped up by the media and her own tactics. In her circle there were no solid witnesses to the nature of reality – only those who, by virtue of their vocation, were fantasists, exalting sentiment, exploiting the nation’s infantile needs, equating history with the history of a few titled families. She had a sense of her own fitness to be princess, and unfitness for any other role. But she had no sense of the true history in which she was now embedded, or the strength of the forces she would constellate. At first, she said, she was afraid of the crowds who gathered to adore her. Then she began to feed on them.
When Diana became the most famous woman in the world, it is not surprising that less popular members of the Firm were miffed. The queen herself had been a beauty, but may have thought it vulgar to be too interested in one’s looks. Diana was allowed to interest herself in little else. Her dealings with the press and photographers were not innocent. The images had to be carefully curated – her good side, so to speak. There were unacceptable angles. And when an image is created by the lens it can fuzz and slip and blur. Unsure of her boundaries, the princess starved herself, as if her healthy frame could pare away to the elfin proportions of the models and dancers who fascinated her. She threw up her food, hacked at herself with a blade. In Diana: In Her Own Words she sneers at her young self – her tone contemptuous, punitive. She cannot forgive that girl, naive heroine of a gothic novel – whose fate is to be locked in a keep by a man of dubious intentions, and to be practised upon by older women who have secrets she needs to know.
In 1992 Charles and Diana separated. In 1996 the dead marriage was buried. This was not what had been negotiated, in the 13 encounters. The prince resumed his old narrative, with the woman he should have married in the first place. Another story had begun to tell Diana. Cut loose, she opened the doors of her identity and all the dead princesses floated in, those deposed and exiled, beheaded and shot. With them came the screen idols and the spoiled glamour girls – Monroe naked and dead, Garbo who wanted to be alone. As we grow up, we aim to be “self-possessed”, not taken over by others. But as the novelist Ivy Compton Burnett says, “People have no chance to grow up. A lifetime is not long enough.”
Isolated by the pique and indifference of the other royals, neglected, crossed in love and bested by Mrs Parker Bowles, she found “affinity”, she said, with the rejected. To her credit, she had begun to work actively to lessen the amount of pain in the world. She visited the sick, and stopped just short of claiming the healing touch that custom bestows on the divinely anointed; had she become queen, she would surely have gone about raising the dead. Legend insists she showed the world that it was safe to shake hands with a person with Aids. Even in the unenlightened days of 1987, only the bigoted and ignorant thought casual contact would infect them, but any gesture from Diana was worth years of public education and millions in funding. She hung around with Mother Teresa, and did it while wearing couture; she moved towards suffering, rather than swerving from it. “When people are dying,” she said, “they’re much more open, more vulnerable, much more real than other people, and I appreciate that.” Among the weak she recovered her strength – transformed from peely-wally puking maid to an Amazon heading to battle. She knew dread diseases would not kill her. Like Joan of Arc, protected by her own magic, she walked unscathed. Campaigning against landmines, she passed through explosive terrain. Her armoured vest was inscribed, “the HALO Trust”. Her blond head gleamed like a fell invitation, inviting a bolt from the blue.
The divorce was a sour one. It is difficult to extract sober truth from the bitching of the sycophants on either side. Diana won the War of the Waleses because she was ruthless, and had better legs. Her withdrawal from publiclife, dramatically announced, suggested that she would emerge as a new model. Possibly this transformation was under way, but it failed to complete, till death completed it. Instead she behaved like a daffy celebrity, and her fans began to laugh at her attempts to hoover up a hero. What kind of mate fits the bill, if your first has been a future king? The chance of an ordinary life of trial and error was what she had rejected long ago – when, as her sisters put it, they printed her face on the souvenir tea towels. But though her sheen was smudged a little by her failures in love, the marks could be polished away. It was possible for the public to hold two views of her simultaneously, and perhaps they were not contradictory: goddesses are not known for propriety. It’s no use saying to a super-being, “Keep your hands off my husband.” She takes and consumes, and spits out the tough bits.
By the time of her Panorama interview, late in 1995, Diana had developed a habit of speaking of herself in the third person. Sphinx-like, unsmiling and with mater dolorosa makeup, she presented herself as both a victim and a person of great power, and though she spoke plainly enough, it was with the mysterious air of one forced to communicate in riddles.
When she referred to herself as a 'queen of hearts', the blood chilled. She seemed to be reading from her own obituary.
She was too much for the royal family, she said: wasted on them. She saw nothing good for Charles. “Who knows what fate will produce?” It was not a question. In her polite duchessy way, she was cursing him.
But the end of royal status had stripped away Diana’s protection, both practically and mystically. After the Panorama broadcast there was a buzz in the air: a doomy feeling, as if her options were running out. She still played games with the press, but they knew a dirtier game. They spat at her, insulted her to try to draw a reaction. She teased them, and they chased her down, not killing her yet. She is supposed to have feared sinister forces, anticipated that her end was prepared. As every fortune-teller knows, such hints assume precision in retrospect.
A deathbed, once, was a location dense with meaning, a room packed with the invisible presences of angels, devils, ancestors. But now, as many of us don’t believe in an afterlife, we envisage no final justice, no ultimate meaning, and have no support for our sense of loss when “positivity” falters. Perhaps we are baffled by the process of extinction. In recent years, death narratives have attained a popularity they have not held for centuries. Those with a terminal illness scope it out in blogs. This summer the last days of baby Charlie Gard riveted worldwide attention. But what is the point of all this introspection? Even before the funeral, survivors are supposed to flip back to normal. “Keeping busy” is the secret, Prince William has advised.
Grief is exhausting, as we all know. The bereaved are muddled and tense, they need allowances made. But who knows you are mourning, if there is nothing but a long face to set you apart? No one wants to go back to the elaborate conventions of the Victorians, but they had the merit of tagging the bereaved, marking them out for tenderness. And if your secret was that you felt no sorrow, your clothes did the right thing on your behalf. Now funeral notices specify “colourful clothing”. The grief-stricken are described as “depressed”, as if sorrow were a pathology. We pour every effort into cheering ourselves up and releasing balloons. When someone dies, “he wouldn’t have wanted to see long faces”, we assure ourselves – but we cross our fingers as we say it. What if he did? What if the dead person hoped for us to rend our garments and wail?
When Diana died, a crack appeared in a vial of grief, and released a salt ocean. A nation took to the boats. Vast crowds gathered to pool their dismay and sense of shock. As Diana was a collective creation, she was also a collective possession. The mass-mourning offended the taste police. It was gaudy, it was kitsch – the rotting flowers in their shrouds, the padded hearts of crimson plastic, the teddy bears and dolls and broken-backed verses. But all these testified to the struggle for self-expression of individuals who were spiritually and imaginatively deprived, who released their own suppressed sorrow in grieving for a woman they did not know. The term “mass hysteria” was a facile denigration of a phenomenon that eluded the commentators and their framework of analysis. They did not see the active work the crowds were doing. Mourning is work. It is not simply being sad. It is naming your pain. It is witnessing the sorrow of others, drawing out the shape of loss. It is natural and necessary and there is no healing without it.
Princess Diana during a visit to The Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, Australia.
Princess Diana during a visit to The Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images
It is irrelevant to object that Diana alive bore no resemblance to Diana dead. The crowds were not deluded about what they had lost. They were not mourning something perfect, but something that was unfinished. There was speculation that Diana might have been pregnant when she died. Was something of startling interest evolving beneath her skin – another way of living? The question was left hanging. Her death released subterranean doubtsand fear. Even those who scorn conspiracy theories asked, what exactly is an accident? Why, on the last night of her life, did Diana go below ground to reach her destination? She need not have gone that way. But she didn’t choose – she was driven. Her gods wanted her: she had been out too late.
From her first emergence in public, sun shining through her skirt, Diana was exploited, for money, for thrills, for laughs. She was not a saint, or a rebel who needs our posthumous assistance – she was a young woman of scant personal resources who believed she was basking with dolphins when she was foundering among sharks. But as a phenomenon, she was bigger than all of us: self-renewing as the seasons, always desired and never possessed. She was the White Goddess evoked by Robert Graves, the slender being with the hook nose and startling blue eyes; the being he describes as a shape-shifter, a virgin but also a vixen, a hag, mermaid, weasel. She was Thomas Wyatt’s white deer, fleeing into the forest darkness. She was the creature “painted and damned and young and fair”, whom the poet Stevie Smith described:
I wonder why I fear so much What surely has no modern touch?
In the TV broadcast last month, Prince William said, “We won’t be doing this again. We won’t speak openly or publicly about her again …” When her broken body was laid to rest on a private island, it was a conscious and perhaps superfluous attempt to embed her in national myth. No commemorative scheme has proved equal or, you might think, necessary. She is like John Keats, but more photogenic: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” If Diana is present now, it is in what flows and is mutable, what waxes and wanes, what cannot be fixed, measured, confined, is not time-bound and so renders anniversaries obsolete: and therefore, possibly, not dead at all, but slid into the Alma tunnel to re-emerge in the autumn of 1997, collar turned up, long feet like blades carving through the rain.