Eva Peron wanted to be queen of her people's hearts, and the parallels don't stop there. By John Carlin
They called her the Lady of Hope. She mixed with kings but never lost the common touch. A wealthy fashion queen who favoured the finest jewellery, she was the champion of the poor, the sick and the afflicted. When she died her compatriots were desolate. The queues of mourners that filed past her coffin stretched at times two miles long.

To her people she became a martyr and a saint. Sincerely, they strove to persuade the Vatican to canonise her. They failed - yet 45 years after her death she has become a myth whose memory burns bright in her own country and all around the world.

Argentina, in crying for Diana last week, remembered Eva Peron. For while the differences between the two women are great, the parallels are amazing. Towards the end of her life, addressing her devotees from the balcony of the Casa Rosada (the Pink House where the president works), Evita declared: "I want to be the queen of your hearts". The scenes in the Argentinian capital following her death aged 33, the extravagant claims about her beauty and goodness, eerily evoke, if in a more melodramatic style, the scenes in London this past week.

That is in part why the Argentinian public, especially the women, have responded with an extraordinary intensity of grief to the news of Diana's passing.

"People have been talking about Eva all the time here this week, the newspapers have been making comparisons between the two of them," said Silvia Falcone, a doctor and mother of five in Buenos Aires, who said she had been "destroyed" by the news of Diana's death. "It was as if I had lost a sister. The women here, we're devastated. And I'm not talking just about the women who read the glossy magazines, because my friends and I don't. But lots of people I know have been bursting out crying all the time. I feel it's a terrible tragedy that it seemed at last she was going to be happy and then suddenly she dies. She's going to become a saint."

Never mind the Falklands War - a spokesman at the British Embassy in Buenos Aires described the outpourings of grief as "staggering". "The press coverage has been almost blanket all week," he said. "The quality press have been running eight, nine, 10 pages of features on Diana a day. The TV and radio coverage has been enormous. And the queues outside the ambassador's residence to sign the condolences book have been constant between nine in the morning and six at night every day of the week. People of all ages, of all walks of life. It's been phenomenal."

Echoes of Evita's death. For three days after she succumbed to cancer, Buenos Aires came to a complete standstill. The shops, restaurants, cinemas, public transport all closed down. Football matches were suspended. Only the florists remained open, allowing mourners to construct a mountain of flowers outside the government building where Evita worked. After a while the flowers ran out and fresh batches had to be shipped over from neighbouring Chile. Two million Argentinians filed past her open coffin, and in the crush 16 died.

On the day of the funeral it took three hours for the cortege to negotiate a mile-long route.

The panegyrics overflowed. One senator said Evita had combined the virtues of Catherine the Great of Russia, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Joan of Arc. A member of the Supreme Court said Evita had possessed "the unbreakable faith of the missionary, the unbending courage of the fanatical soldier, the overwhelming passion of the politician, and the suave tenderness of the woman in love". Another politician raged that "all the honours sought by mankind have shrivelled beside the marvellous greatness of Eva Peron ... I cannot accept that she be compared with any woman, any heroine of our time".

Less than a month after she died, Argentina's food workers' union cabled Pope Pius XII requesting "in the name of 160,000 members that Your Holiness initiate the process of canonisation of Eva Peron". The cable added that Evita had cured many sick people and performed other miracles.

The Vatican replied sternly in the negative: "While in the case of Mrs Peron the civic virtues were practiced in an evident way, nothing is known about her religious virtues, and at first sight there seems not to have been any of the heroism required by the church in such matters."

In the unlikely event that someone should be possessed to make a similar request on behalf of Diana, the Vatican's response might be less gruff, but equally unbending. The requirement of chastity is one Mother Theresa could meet but it would elude Diana, as it did Evita.

More than their lovers, the quality that will bind the two women in an eternal embrace is an unusual one: their common devotion to glamour and to the unfortunate of the earth. "I would say at least half the Argentinian people have been deeply affected by story of the princess and her tragic death," said Ricrado Migliorelli, a Buenos Aires psychiatrist. "I went past the British Embassy and people were carrying flowers. They were genuinely moved, in part I think because of her action against anti-personnel mines and her struggle against Aids.

"There's been no mention of the fact we had a war and the British government refuses to negotiate over sovereignty," he continued. "No one's mentioned the subject at all.

"I think the question that's sparked people's distress is the one of the stupor we feel in the face of death, the absurdity of death."

That, perhaps, is the emotional bond that has united the Argentinian people's response to Evita's death 45 years ago to their response today - and the response of the British people and tens of millions the world over - to the death of Diana. As Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan novelist, observed, the reason more than any other that the whole world is so shattered is that the death of the beautiful young princess "brings home unavoidably to all of us the fact of our own fearfully fragile existences".

For Diana, like Evita, was a larger than life figure. But if even they could not cheat the banality of death, what hope for the rest of us?

As if unable to cope with the overpowering awareness of life's awful brevity, Evita's brother, Juan Duarte, committed suicide nine months after she died. He put a bullet into his head. But since there is no reason to doubt that Charles Spencer will live to a ripe old age, there the parallels surely end.

Though, perhaps, there is just one more. After Evita's death, her husband, President Juan Peron, began to lose political support. Three years passed, and in 1955, he was overthrown in a military coup. Could it be that here is contained a historical lesson, and a warning, for the British Royal Family?