DAILY TELEGRAPH – 18th June 2011
With the approach of what would have been Princess Diana’s 50th birthday we can expect a flurry of those “what if she had lived” articles. Entertaining perhaps, but hardly useful. The first Mrs Wales might by now be solving conflicts, banishing poverty, feeding the world’s hungry or even breeding spaniels in happy rural obscurity. Alas, we will never know.
Instead we have an even greater enigma. Why is it that fourteen years after her death she continues to figure so large in popular imagination? The emphasis here is on “popular.” It’s no secret that until Prince William brought his mother’s engagement ring back onto the front pages, many in the royal establishment would have been content to draw a veil over the Diana episode. But for all their efforts, in most of the world it is still Diana who provides the prism through which our royal family is viewed. It is alongside Diana that Kate is measured as a princess and it is his mother’s likeness that royalty fans from Colchester to Calgary search for in the future king.
The Diana story continues to strike a chord, and not just with those who can remember when, once upon a time, a shy and idealistic 19-year-old was presented as our next queen. What happened next won’t be quickly forgotten either.
The tale of an innocent woman cruelly wronged loses none of its grip in these post-feminist times. Diana may have had her faults but she also had guts and could fight dirty if she felt sufficiently aggrieved. In narrative terms, the combination of beauty, pluck and compassion is hard to beat. Add a strong dash of injustice and you have the stuff of mythology.
All the best myths have a solid kernel of truth and in Diana’s case we don’t need to look far to find it. As things currently stand, our next queen-figure is likely to be the woman who spent her own 50th birthday partying at Diana’s marital home while the princess sought false refuge on a billionaire’s yacht.
If we had to take a guess why William’s mother persists in attracting public interest and – overwhelmingly – public affection, that poignant contrast between the triumphant mistress in Gloucestershire and the distressed single mum lost in the South of France offers a pretty good clue. Just as our current seasonal crop of traditional royal images – Trooping the Colour, the Garter, Ascot – reassure us about the symbolic strengths of our monarchy, the absence of Diana from the national scene reminds us what we have lost.
We have not lost a great intellect (as she would have been the first to admit), a gifted artist or a visionary genius. Diana was not short of wit or dignity or a sense of duty. But she had an extra quality that frustrated her critics during her lifetime and has done little to soften their disdain since her death.
It’s a quality that can’t easily be defined in words. However, for any who saw her with the discarded casualties of life, among whom she found her own purpose, it was easy to recognise. Lepers, AIDS orphans, rough-sleepers, drug addicts, criminals and the generally-unloved found in her the human face of a remote institution.
Monarchy, like a household brand, exists first in the mind and heart of the beholder. Clever packaging can only achieve so much: ultimately, the relationship is an emotional experience and in Diana the Windsor brand was blessed with a powerful symbol of compassion. At a time when so much public life seemed inexorably dehumanising, she was a welcome figure of glamorous concern – and one prone to the same human frailties as the humblest of her future subjects. Without getting too pop-psychological, it’s hard not to agree with Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Of course, when your primary duty is to embody unchanging national values, how you make people feel must sometimes seem very much a secondary consideration. This may explain why Diana’s touchy-feely style of royalty didn’t always get a good press. It is sometimes alleged that she pioneered a fashion for public emoting that demeaned her royal office and sapped the moral fibre of the nation. Yet to accompany her to a children’s hospice or the bedside of a dying refugee was to witness a woman who never let her emotions take charge – but who never entirely masked them either.
If a culprit is needed for any national emotional incontinence it’s too easy to point the finger at the girl from a broken home who grew up to be the most famous woman in the world. Even at her most melodramatic she can hardly be accused of bewitching a whole generation into misplacing its stiff upper lip. More likely the emotional restraint which had been both our guide and our jailer was ready to evolve into a new and arguably healthier reflex in which feelings could be given a voice. It just needed somebody brave or naïve enough to broaden the Windsors’ emotional repertoire and Diana qualified on both counts.
The result didn’t suit every taste but, as we saw at William and Kate’s wedding, the public appetite for genuine emotion is best satisfied when there’s a royal hand on the spoon.
Here’s the pitfall: if Diana was the most obvious means by which emotion has energised our ruling family, she also set a trap for those who followed. Any royal emotion is analysed and judged with relentless scrutiny. Good and bad alike are exaggerated while perceived insincerity is judged most harshly of all. Diana herself was at her most vulnerable when reality parted company from her image. Towards the end of her life, as she struggled with the after-effects of a toxic marriage, emotional confusion did little to reassure her anxious public. No wonder some feel nostalgic for an era when royal faces wore an appropriate expression or none at all.
Special caution should be exercised, therefore, by those courtiers who are given (or who take) responsibility for disclosing to us their employers’ emotions. From organising where royal people go, whom they meet and which ribbons they’ll cut to telling us their feelings is a perilously short step. It’s a tempting one too, especially when royal emotion can be recruited to spice up an agenda that might otherwise be allowed respectful obscurity. In particular, royal displeasure – against government policy, an individual subject’s shortcomings or even an unwelcome TV documentary – is a currency whose value must be scrupulously guarded.
Far better, in these sceptical times, to let royal deeds speak for themselves. With her knack for reading the public mood, unencumbered by spin doctors and impatient of the men in suits, Diana let her actions do the talking. And if the results were sometimes uncomfortable, at least they were perceived as genuine. If we were to choose the princess a 50th birthday gift, we could do worse than wish her sons a measure of their mother’s emotional courage – and the wisdom to reconcile it with their grandmother’s sense of duty.