From shy girl to a woman at ease with herself

She beat despair and forged an identity which won the world's respect. Laura Tennant on a modern heroine
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Indy Lifestyle Online
1981. Lady Diana Spencer was a 19-year-old virgin with an 'O' level in domestic science, a deeply square haircut and the kind of accent that only centuries of breeding and a particular kind of girls' boarding school produce. We would have been incredulous if anyone had suggested that she would one day become a kind of living symbol for a generation of women.

And yet, as we grew, so did she. We began to respect the way she struggled so valiantly with the intractable material of her life. She was so ill- equipped, and trying so hard. The part she was expected to play was unpromising. But at that first public appearance in Wales, despite her tired script and that ridiculous hat, it was humour that glinted through. The girl had spirit, and native wit. And when she had her babies, we saw that she was damned if they were going to grow up as unhappy as she had been. She made it right for them, and Houdini-like, escaped from the knots of her family history.

Like us, she wanted to be sexy, purposeful, a good mother and at peace with herself. Sure, she was neurotic. The best people often are. Her unhappiness gave her the great gift of sympathetic imagination. Her talent for empathy amounted to a vocation, and she treated it as such. Charity work, of course, is what rich people do. But it is perfectly plain, now, that something very specific and powerful was happening when she touched a hand or hugged a child. By some kind of human magic, she was able to make them feel better. A kind of warmth was transmitted, across barriers of age, race and language.

Sometimes, she reminded me of the Victorian heroine of one of Wilkie Collins's novels. She was alone and without friends in a household governed by the iron rules of the 19th century. Her Panorama interview wasn't an exercise in paranoia, it was an attempt to describe the intrigue, the menace even, of life at court. Of course, she was adept at self-publicity. But we didn't mind. If you're going to be pursued by the press, you'd better be good at public relations. The flow of information is at the heart of modernity, and it was somehow typical of her informal, intuitive cleverness that she grasped that fact so effortlessly.

Her trips to Angola and Bosnia and her work with the homeless or dying epitomised the best of her. She had no patience with grand theories, constitutional obstacles or realpolitik. She identified a problem and set out to solve it on the ground. She worked by instinct, pragmatically, by talking to people and making them laugh and flirting with them and twisting them around her little finger. When she flashed those sapphire eyes, statesmen melted, crowds swooned and women smiled. We knew she was on our side.