Friday Books: New chapters for the fairy-tale

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IT STARTED as a fairy tale, a heartwarming story from a more innocent era, in which a guileless young girl captured the jaded heart of a prince. It seemed to end in tragedy, the marriage exposed as a sham and the princess hunted to her death by photographers in a Paris underpass.

Yet what we are coming to realise, nine months after the accident at the Place de l'Alma, is that the story of Diana Spencer, far from ending, is moving inexorably onto another plane. In death, she has been transported into the immortal realm of myth.

Both these books, in different ways, contribute to that process. They are as unalike in appearance as it is possible to be, Beatrix Campbell's sombre paperback and Julie Burchill's lavishly illustrated hardback. Campbell's approach is historical, commencing with a brief history of the Princes of Wales and their relationship with the principality.

Her purpose is to establish the oppressive nature of the institution, and the family, Prince Charles represents.

Burchill opens with the Spencers, fixing their place in the English aristocracy - their Englishness, compared with the royal family's German origins, is important to her - and setting up the older female members of both families as malign fairy godmothers who would one day deliver an unformed girl into a dynastic match which would bring her nothing but heartbreak.

Diana's grandmother, Lady Fermoy, is skewered in typical Burchill prose. Her "greatest plan was just a twinkle in her grandmotherly eye as she watched the little girl Diana, whom she had made motherless, play".

Campbell's style, by contrast, resembles a social-work case conference, complete with copious references.

Charles's schooldays at Gordonstoun are characterised as incarceration in an institution where he was "terrorised by its coarse, sexist, tyrannical culture", as though Campbell is participating in a debate about a child who is about to be taken into care.

The problem is not that Campbell's analysis is faulty, but that her material, like Burchill's, is so familiar. And while her political analysis is more consistent than Burchill's wayward blend of feminism, class warfare and gross sentimentality, she does not have the linguistic dexterity to persuade the reader that she is offering something new.

The other flaw, which goes to the heart of Campbell's book, is laid bare by her subtitle. The thrust of her argument is that gender is a wild card which periodically threatens to destabilise Britain's monarchical system. From Caroline of Brunswick to Lady Diana Spencer - truth to tell, there are no other examples in 200 years - royal brides are invested by Campbell with the potential to shake an unfeeling institution which does not care whether it destroys them.

In the aftermath of Diana's death, "republican sentiment was palpable in public opinion", a claim she barks up with poll evidence suggesting that 72 per cent of the population believed the Queen to be out of touch.

Campbell's mistake here is to confuse the emergence of feuding royal factions - a Windsor camp and a Spencer camp - with republicanism. Nothing would delight me more than to get rid of the monarchy, but the crowds who turned out for Diana's funeral were demanding a change in royal style rather than a new constitutional settlement.

Burchill appreciates the distinction and concentrates instead on making a case, probably the most cogent that could be constructed from such unpromising material, for Diana as a woman redeemed by suffering.

When she sat on the beds of the sick and dying, says Burchill, "they looked into her sad, sad eyes and suddenly thought `Whatever hurts us, hurts her more' ... She showed herself to them, and they pitied her. And that gave them strength."

In casting the late Princess in this Christ-like role, Burchill is creating a less overtly political iconography than Campbell's.

Yet both writers are deeply in thrall to cultural values that afford a mystical reverence to victims. Neither author is moved to consider the implications of elevating a story of marital misery and self-obsession into a parable for our times, or the personal and political paralysis which is the inevitable outcome.

They have seamlessly internalised the Princess's own version of her life, although Campbell's comparison of Diana with "survivors of harm and horror, from the Holocaust, from world wars and pogroms, from Vietnam and the civil wars of South America and South Africa, from torture and child abuse" is the more obviously ridiculous.

At least Burchill's rambling epilogue, which contains perplexing sentences along the lines of "England, their England - Her in all her Herness, not her HRHness", manages to be batty rather than downright insulting.

What both books confirm is that Diana is dead, but their authors' love affair with her continues. Like bereaved children, they need to tell her story over and over again.

Whether the rest of us are obliged to hear it, or subscribe to the dangerous myth of St Diana, is another matter.