Bookplanet: at last, a good book about Princess Di
The Naked and the Dead The very public life of Princess Diana.
by John Lanchester/The New Yorker
Book reviewed: “The Diana Chronicles” by Tina Brown.
At the time of her death, on August 31, 1997, Princess Diana had come to have no privacy whatsoever. Take this recording of a private phone conversation with James Gilbey. The lovers’ chat featured the following exchange:
GILBEY: I haven’t played with myself . . . for a full forty-eight hours. ( musingly ) Not for a full forty-eight hours. . . .
DIANA ( sounding vague ): I watched “East Enders” today.
The tape in question seems to have been rebroadcast on a cellular frequency, where amateur scanners could encounter it, and several copies were handed to the newspapers. It has been argued that the recording must have been made by members of the British security services, as part of a P.R. battle shaping up between Diana and her husband, Prince Charles. Its release may even have been occasioned by the fact that Charles, too, had had an embarrassing recording made of him—the famous conversation with his mistress Camilla Parker Bowles, in which he spoke of his wish to be reincarnated as a tampon. And all this was in the early nineties, when the “war of the Waleses,” as it came to be called, was just heating up.
That P.R. battle and the lack of privacy were partly Diana’s fault; much of what is in the public domain was put there by her. Before her death, she invaded her own privacy with a book (“Diana: Her True Story,” written by Andrew Morton with her coöperation) and a television interview (the “Panorama” conversation with Martin Bashir, in which she uttered the line about wanting to be “the Queen of people’s hearts”). The revelations—about the Windsors’ coldness, Charles’s love for Camilla Parker Bowles, and Diana’s bulimia—were explosive for the Royal Family, and disastrous for Diana, too, since they did nothing to discourage the hacks on the royal beat, who range from the merely avid through the unscrupulous to the outright criminal. (A former royal editor of the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid, was jailed this year for conspiring to hack into telephone messages.)
By now, there have been dozens of books, by everyone from her butler and her housekeeper to her private secretary, as well as the release of tapes she made when talking about intimate matters with her speech coach, and tapes she made when she was helping Morton with his book (help she later vehemently denied having given). Ten years after her death, it seems, we know everything about Diana.
With other modern icons who died young—Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, J.F.K.—the posthumous accumulation of data has led to a broader and more complex sense of who they were. Not so with Diana. Although we now have Total Information Awareness about her, the gist of what we know hasn’t changed since she first went public with her story. Both the Morton book and the Bashir interview allowed a full view of Diana’s faults—a much fuller one than she realized. Diana was clearly a mythomaniac, a fantasist, a fibber, a manipulator, and a world-class actress, with a particular talent for delivering well-rehearsed, weapons-grade zingers with an air of absolute innocence. (“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”) But the nub of what she said had the feeling of truth, and has it still: Diana married too young, her husband never loved her, and the Royal Family gave her no support. We now know all sorts of details: that, by the second day of the honeymoon, Charles was calling Camilla, and wrote her a tormented three-page letter; that, later on the honeymoon, Diana found him wearing cufflinks that Camilla had given him; that, soon into their marriage, Diana caught Charles telling Camilla over the phone, “Whatever happens, I will always love you.” Yet the basic portrait has not changed.
It’s hard to imagine any revelation that would alter the shape of this sad narrative, which has been told overexcitedly (by, for one, Paul Burrell, Diana’s butler, in “The Way We Were”—emetic book, emetic title) and soberly (by Sarah Bradford, in her serious and balanced 2006 biography, “Diana”). But the best book on Diana is the newest, “The Diana Chronicles” (Doubleday; $27.50), by Tina Brown. She is well qualified to tell this story, since it was Brown who wrote the Vanity Fair piece that first exposed the trouble in the Waleses’ marriage, back in 1985. It was called “The Mouse That Roared” and caused a furor in the British press, in the course of painting a picture that is still vivid: Diana, she wrote, “spends hours cut off in her Sony Walkman, dancing on her own to Dire Straits and Wham!” while her husband turned to various gurus and mediums, one of whom had encouraged him to contact his “Uncle Dickie”—Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was murdered in 1979—on a Ouija board. The British tabloids whipped up a storm of denunciation against Brown’s piece—“a rat bag of gossip,” according to the Daily Mirror —which, of course, allowed them to report, extensively, every detail of it.
Brown was the editor of Tatler, “the house magazine for the upper classes,” as she calls it, from 1979 to 1983, when Diana burst onto the scene and married Charles; she was the editor of Vanity Fair from 1984 to 1992, when Diana was busy becoming the most famous woman in the world; she was the editor of this magazine at the time of Diana’s death. The world of the British upper classes is very different from the world of international celebrity, but Brown knows both milieus well. She spent time with Diana and has met Charles, and her book is, among other things, a miracle of access (from the first page: “It was gracious of Prime Minister Tony Blair to see me and share his reflections on Diana”). She tells the story fluently, with engrossing detail on every page, and with the mastery of tone which made her Tatler famous for being popular with the people it was laughing at.
The story is, not surprisingly, all about class, which is to say, tribe and caste. When Diana Spencer first appeared in public, she looked like a pretty but essentially generic Sloane Ranger, a member of the affluent upper-middle classes whose mores were a favorite journalistic staple in Britain during the early nineteen-eighties. This view was accurate as far as it went—no one came off as more of a Sloane than Diana—but it didn’t go nearly far enough, since the point about Diana was that she was authentically upper-class, a member of a family who had been aristocrats far longer than the family that currently occupies the throne. Indeed, the Spencers had helped smooth the ascension to the throne of George I, in 1714, founding the Hanoverian dynasty whose descendants are the current royals. (In private, the staff of Murdoch’s tabloid the Sun refer to the Royal Family as “the Germans”; taking photographs of them is called “whacking the Germans.”) Brown stresses that the Spencers “were servants of the monarchy they chose .”
This aspect of the Spencers, and the family’s overwhelming sense of pride, didn’t become central to the public perception of them until Diana’s funeral, when her younger brother, Charles, who by then had inherited the title of Earl Spencer and the family estate of Althorp, made a speech that was filled with implicit rebuke. He observed that Diana “needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic”—an acid riposte to a family who had stripped her of her royal status by refusing her the right to call herself Her Royal Highness. The most forceful thing about the speech was its subtext: who do these Windsors think they are?
Two areas where the question of class manifested itself were to be highly problematic for Diana. The first was her outlandish lack of education. These days, the upper classes educate their daughters assiduously, not out of any sense of the inherent value of education but because they know that these young women will be stranded in later life without it. But Diana was born in 1961, before that change had fully caught on, and she left her prep school, Riddlesworth Hall, with an award for the best-kept guinea pig and the Leggat prize for helpfulness, to go to an undemanding private school called West Heath (its only entry requirement was “neat handwriting”). She graduated with no O levels, having failed the exams, twice. O levels were the exams that British children took at sixteen, and for someone in a private school to fail all of them twice is, in its way, a remarkable achievement, rarer and more difficult than passing one or two, or, indeed, than getting twelve A’s. To fail on that scale was either to be astoundingly stupid—which Diana clearly wasn’t—or to have some other plan.
Diana did have a plan: she knew from early on that she wanted to marry Prince Charles. She grew up on the Queen’s private estate at Sandringham, in Norfolk, where her family let a house, and she was, after all, a Spencer, so this wasn’t such an odd or implausible ambition, though it did have a component of fantasy. As her step-grandmother Barbara Cartland (her daughter married Diana’s father) said, with devastating trenchancy, “The only books she ever read were mine, and they weren’t awfully good for her.” The absence of intellectual resources was to be a real problem for Diana later, all the more so because she did not acknowledge it; she had other ways of filling her time and making her own entertainment, many of them damaging. Katharine Graham, who met her in 1994, asked her whether, now that she was alone, she’d had any thoughts of going to college. “She found my question hard to believe,” Graham recalled, “and commented with irony, ‘I’ve already had an education.’ ” In retrospect, it’s clear, Diana would have been better off with a mug of cocoa and an art-history book than with jetting around Europe with Dodi Al Fayed.
But education—this seems to have been her youthful calculation—might have put a royal suitor off. So would having what was known as a “past”; i.e., ever having had sex. Diana referred to her virginity as keeping herself “tidy,” and she seems to have been much more aware than anyone else that this was an indispensable qualification for a future royal bride. Many potential rivals disqualified themselves by having boyfriends, but she hung in to be the last woman standing. This may have had unfortunate consequences. Her inexperience, the Waleses’ sexual incompatibility, and Charles’s feelings for Camilla were a combination that no marriage could have survived.
Class was, again, a big part of this. Men of the British upper class seem to regard sexual fidelity as being somehow middle-class. They certainly don’t go in for it much, not once the wife has produced, in the classic formula, “an heir and a spare.” Before his marriage, Charles had an extensive sex life with married women. The husbands seem—creepily, to the middle-class reader—not to have minded. “The reflected honor of royalty’s trust outweighed such déclassé emotions as jealousy, humiliation, and a sense of proprietorship,” Brown writes. This may be hard to credit, but Brown addresses the subject with a level of detail that is likely to lead to a temporary pause in the flow of invitations to St. James’s Palace. Charles, who, according to one lover, “likes to be called Arthur when he climaxes,” told a friend that his wedding night with Diana was “nothing special” and used to have sex with her only once every three weeks—oh, and the reason he gets on so well with Camilla in bed is that she told him to treat her like “a rocking horse.” Diana said that the sexual problems were “geographical,” which is cryptic, and, as Brown points out, “in fairness to Charles, her throwing up all the time didn’t help sexual relations.” Once again, the most blistering insight comes from Barbara Cartland: “Of course, you know where it all went wrong. She wouldn’t do oral sex.”
Everyone misread Diana’s lack of education and lack of sexual experience as signs of a quiet, dim, low-key posh girl. In fact, they were indicators of her strength of will. She was an extraordinarily quick learner, and her complicated childhood—her mother walked out on her father, and then lost custody of her children when her own mother testified against her—left Diana with an ability to see and to empathize with pain. When she felt shy on social and public occasions (which, at the start, was always), she made a beeline for the most ill-at-ease person in the room, and tried to make him or her feel comfortable, which made her feel more comfortable, too. The Windsors are stiff and awkward, and are quick to pull rank. Diana was none of these things, and many other royals resented her popularity with the public and her ability to outshine her husband. Her astuteness was apparent in her charity work. Diana may have described her charities (to Martin Bashir) as involving “battered this, battered that,” but her choice of good causes was brilliant: she visited an AIDS ward and shook hands with a patient at a time, 1987, when the stigma of the illness was so great that only one of the people she was visiting would have his photograph taken—and he did so with his back to the camera. That visit had a big impact, as did her work on the previously under-publicized cause of banning land mines. There was a marked contrast with the Windsors, who plug away at their favorite causes in a manner that sometimes implies that attracting too much attention to them would be vulgar.
And then there was her beauty, which was something she grew into as her marriage became more difficult. Her fashion sense and knowledge of how to look in front of a camera developed, and so did her instinctive sense of how publicity worked. As Brown observes, “Diana would have always been a beautiful, warm, and empathetic woman, but her tribulations gave her the incentive to become extraordinary. Pain made her luminous. And what made her so riveting to the British people is the way they saw this transformation happening before their eyes.”
The consequences of all this were tragic. As Brown says, “Diana herself had accelerated the climate change that ended up making her life literally impossible.” Of all the people who hungrily read every word written about her, Diana was the hungriest. She pored over photos of herself, and loved the publicity that, by the end, had her entirely trapped. One of the many ironies about her death is that part of what attracted her to Dodi Al Fayed was the retinue of security guards and minders with which he moved. She didn’t just want to be protected; she needed to be, and she no longer trusted the police details that were hers for the asking. In winning the publicity war with Charles, she created for herself a way of life and a degree of celebrity which became untenable.
Perhaps, had Diana lived, she might have found safety in a rich husband and a Jackie Onassis-type second act; she and Charles might have grown closer, as two such devoted parents were not unlikely to do. Camilla Parker Bowles might have played a role here. Brown, who carefully does not take sides between Charles and Diana, isn’t Parker Bowles’s biggest fan, and her book could have the unofficial subtitle “What Camilla Wants, Camilla Gets.” If Diana had lived, Camilla would have had reason to want a postmarital rapprochement between Charles and Diana, because it would have made her less unpopular. But that isn’t what fate had in mind for Diana Frances Spencer.
As for what it has in mind for her former in-laws, the partly Diana-induced change of climate—which has seen the Royal Family become celebrities—may, in time, be their undoing, too. Deference? Stone dead. Courtier’s discretion? Even deader, as the amount of detail in all these royal books attests. Is it possible to inhabit Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral, and Sandringham without being able to rely on the silence of the people who work for you? We’re going to find out.
There are two risks, in particular, for the Royal Family. The first is that the British public will grow tired of them, as one does of celebrities, so that the institution becomes unviably unpopular. The royals are sometimes compared to a sitcom and often compared to a soap opera, but they most closely resemble a reality-TV series, one in which we know too much about the contestants but can’t vote them off. The other, an even greater risk, is that the younger royals will decide that they simply don’t want the job. As Brown observes, “Much of what Royals do for their considerable perks is either desperately dull or supremely depressing. For most people, it would be like thinking of the worst aspects of your job and only doing the bits that bore you the most—sucking up to clients, say, or attending soul-destroying sales dinners—with no prospect, ever, of retirement.”
Combine this outlook with the complete absence of any privacy, and that might be a recipe for an unlivable life, one that a new generation might choose not to take up. The Spencers helped ease the Windsors onto the British throne. A time may yet come when their most famous daughter helps nudge them off it.
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