By the time of the split, writes Virginia Ironside, we had all become extraordinarily emotionally involved with her
Last week I described Diana in this paper as an unhappy, confused woman, but "mad, bad and dangerous to know". On Sunday night I was in floods of tears, shambling miserably down to Kensington Palace with a geranium in my hand. My experience is not unique. Diana was the girl we all liked to gossip about over the garden wall, we all liked to whisper about behind her back - and whose qualities we never really acknowledged until she was gone.

What was it about her that made me cry, that made huge hard-bitten middle- aged men weep uncontrollably in Kensington Gardens?

She was, indeed, a woman of our times. Like Diana nearly everyone under 40 has become pre-occupied with the injustices of our age. Animal welfare, saving the whales, stopping wars, improving the environment - these are issues that we are all concerned with in a way that we never had time to be in the Fifties and Sixties. But it wasn't just hand-holding with Aids people, her good works at Great Ormond Street, her anti-land-mine campaigns, and her cuddling of black babies that touched us. If that were the case, were Princess Anne to die tomorrow, there would be same reaction as to Diana's death. But good and saintly as Princess Anne undoubtedly is, her death would never spark off such huge national mourning.

First, Diana had come at exactly the right time. The Royal Family was losing popularity and becoming a joke. Peter Cook and Co had started it all off with irreverent references to them in Beyond the Fringe. Everyone went round using the mocking phrase "My husband and I". Spitting Image later portrayed the Royal Family as a bunch of buffoons - from the big- eared Prince Charles to the Liverpudlian Queen Mum. They were dingy and grey, commanded no respect, and "charisma" was no longer their middle name. Then Diana came along, and when she split with the Royal Family, it was as if, along with her half of the wedding presents, she took all the glamour due the Royal Family with her. She became a one-woman Royal Family of her own.

By then we had become extraordinarily emotionally involved with her. I was told about her death by a friend on the phone who said: "Have you heard the latest?" and I assumed she was going to tell me some scurrilous piece of news about a mutual friend. When she told me of Diana's death I was shocked at my emotional reaction until I realised that she had indeed told me a piece of news about a "mutual friend". Diana was the archetype of everyone's friend in the Nineties. She was a living Cosmo woman, troubled, as so many women are, about her self-image, struggling out of a loveless marriage in which her husband, among other things, had trouble showing his feelings (a classic Nineties dilemma) and revealing herself to have eating problems and suicidal thoughts. She went on television using phrases like "low esteem" and "denial".

The whole of England took sides. Were we a "Di" person or a "Charles" person? Women took Diana's side; men, on the whole, took his. Every woman in the country either felt like, or knew someone, who felt like Diana, trying to combine a fulfilling life with bringing up children, trying to become her own woman. Her affairs were forgivable - what woman, after a separation, has not had affairs with unsuitable men?

Then there were her looks. She wasn't classically beautiful. She had a huge nose and a tiny mouth, but somehow because of her shy body language, her figure and her staggeringly stylish clothes, she managed to look beautiful. She had an immensely feminine and sexual look, possessed by no other member of the Royal Family. And those little problems like a tiny bit of a tum and slightly lumpy thighs (revealed, ironically, by the paparazzi) only endeared her to us more. If she could look beautiful, maybe we, too, could look beautiful.

And corny as it may sound, we loved her because she was such a wonderful mum. We loved her because she took the boys rollerblading; because she didn't just take the boys to Alton Towers, she went on the Log Flume with them and screamed with laughter as she got splashed; because she took them for coffee in ordinary caffs in the high street; because she wanted to protect them from the press; because, like all foolishly loving mums, she wangled for Harry to get in to see a film in Kensington for which he was too young.

And, of course, we feel upset because she was in the prime of her life, as if she had, after years of sadness and struggling, got her act together, found her niche and, best of all, had found a man who appreciated her; a man who didn't tell her to "pull herself together" but a man who loved her, courted her, who took her for dinner in the Ritz in Paris.

In almost every way she pressed our buttons, and we all wanted it to work for her, because we want life to work out for ourselves. The tragedy of it all is that even days before her death she probably had absolutely no idea of how much she was loved; an even bigger tragedy is that we never realised how much we loved her.