Diana the fairytale feminist

Books published this week by Julie Burchill and Beatrix Campbell cast the Princess of Wales in a radical new light. By Glenda Cooper

Glenda Cooper
Wednesday 10 June 1998 23:02

`From now on, I am going to own myself and be true to myself," the Princess of Wales told her biographer Andrew Morton. "I no longer want to live someone else's idea of what and who I should be. I am going to be me."

If Diana stood little chance of realising her dream in life, there is even less that she can achieve it in death. We are all now preoccupied with who is Diana, what is she? We have had Diana the champion of the lonely, Diana the patron of Versace, Diana the divorcee and now we have Diana the feminist icon.

This week sees two new Diana books published, both by feminists and republicans who seek to rehabilitate the princess as a strong force in both arenas. "I am the cynic of the world. The cynic's cynic," says Julie Burchill, author of Diana (Weidenfeld & Nicholson pounds 20). "But in this aristocratic young woman two years and two days younger than me, I saw something I could not sneer away."

Neither can Beatrix Campbell. Her book, Diana Princess of Wales: How Sexual Politics Shook the Monarchy (The Women's Press pounds 7.99), is also out today: "It was Diana's treatment as a woman and her sense that she was sustained by the strength of women that made her dangerous," she writes.

Burchill's book is a racy read with plenty of pictures, Campbell's a more sober attack on patriarchy. Neither writer comes from the royal-watching stable. Burchill has long made clear her republican sympathies and Beatrix Campbell is a journalist who has worked for among, others Marxism Today, and is visiting professor of Women's Studies at Newcastle University. Yet both of them venerate Diana. Tonight, Campbell will speak with Andrew Morton, the tabloid reporter turned biographer, about how the princess brought sexual politics into the Royal Family. Ten years ago that would have been unthinkable.

But then that was BM and BP (Before Morton and Before Panorama), when all we knew about Diana was that she loved shopping. For much of the Eighties she seemed an irrelevance, and at moments her life was frankly bonkers. The feminists had shouted "Don't Do It Di" and she had. What more was there to say?

There was a great deal more. The marriage had been rotten for years. But we only found out with Diana's decision to co-operate with her biography, which both Campbell and Burchill pinpoint as the turning point for our views of Diana herself and the Royal Family.

For Burchill, Diana's actions are seen as the struggle of Everywoman to achieve what she wants, the personal fight to transcend not only her restrictive upbringing - "upper class girls are treated like dogs. She had such a miserable, crap life, almost Dickensian" - as well as vanquishing her husband, who was no more than a "bogus intellectual...with angst in his pants". Diana's decision to go public on the hurt she had endured by a faithless husband was speaking out on behalf of other women who had been slapped down by heartless men, but who did not have the media eager to lap up stories about them. Her truthfulness about her eating disorders, depression and suicide threats linked her with women outside her social sphere. Her True Story was a triumphant smack in the eye for the male chauvinist Windsors.

For Campbell, the result is more overtly political. Diana's decision to attack the Prince of Wales for "his bad behaviour as a man" detonated the magic and myths of the royal family. She sees Diana's act of inviting the media into her life as a political act which "ignited a wave of Republican feeling", an act far more important than her involvement in radical causes such as landmines and Aids. "Her revolt against her arranged marriage, the deceit and duplicity of her husband and the complicity of his relatives exposed them as an atavisitic family, a family manque," Campbell writes. Her argument is that by exposing the Royal Family's facade of respectable behaviour, Diana inspired people to think about republicanism.

"She did something that no woman in the royal family has done in the twentieth century; she called the monarch to account," she writes. "By telling her story, Diana did not create republican sentiment but she did transform the space in which the public could contemplate their feelings about royalty."

"I think she did a lot for republicanism," adds Burchill. "She was the first to come from inside and could do so much damage, and it was so exciting to find someone inside the Royal Family like that."

So what are we to make of all this? Yes, Diana's speaking out did a lot for women who suffered from eating disorders. Her achievements were considerable - the simple act of shaking hands with an Aids sufferer did more to break down prejudice than anything else. Her work to ban landmines changed the international agenda. But Diana the feminist? Diana the republican?

What Diana wanted was Charles out of the picture and William on the throne, with her as a powerful Queen Mother who would put our present hard-as- nails matriarch to shame. She made this clear in the tapes released by Andrew Morton, when she tells him "If I was able to write my own script I'd say that I would hope my husband would go off with his lady...and leave me and the children to carry the Wales name through." Bringing down the monarchy would do herself out of a job. As Burchill admits "She'd have grabbed the throne with both hands."

Besides, she didn't always practice what she preached. She did charity work, but she holidayed on a playboy's paradise with the Al Fayeds. She spoke to downtrodden women but chose men who did nothing for her. She spoke of strength while putting faith in clairvoyants and crystal gazers.

"Don't we all have a problem with Diana? She has been a problem for feminists," agrees Campbell. "But she did an important thing in bringing the future king to account and so it doesn't matter to me if she spent a million pounds on frocks."

Diana Spencer did indeed have a dog's life. Her strength was the fact that she tapped into women's suffering rather than women's achievement. What we liked was that she showed how a princess in a palace could still have a dreadful life. But what she really wanted was the status quo twisted to her advantage.

So don't let's try to make the most famous blonde in the world into something she wasn't - that's what she complained about all her life. The female role model Diana would have empathised with today is that other photogenic blonde - Ally McBeal. And nobody's calling her a feminist icon.

Julie Burchill

on Diana the Rebel

"THE HYSTERICAL mutilation and Ophelia-like staircase-flingings were long gone; no more throwing up or falling down for this victim turned vamp turned champ.

"She fought back like a woman with stealth and stubbornness and sarcasm. She became a scenery eater of the coolest kind; this is the part of the Joan Crawford film when the heroine finally realises that her man done her wrong and her fresh, ingenue face turns into a hard-smiled, glittery- eyed mask for a moment before she snaps back to normal or at least what passes for it.

"From now on it's just me and the kids. And I'll do anything for those kids. D'you hear me? Anything!"

Beatrix Campbell

on Diana the Rebel

"IF ANYONE had been in any doubt about the fury of the palace towards truculent women Diana revealed that old royal habits die hard; an institution that had put women in the Tower ... still worked on the assumption that an unwanted princess could simply be put away. In comments which connected her to contemporary feminism she counted herself amongst the "strong women" ... It faced the Establishment with an alarming, unnerving prospect - she had a social base beyond their comprehension and control ... Diana ... transformed the space in which the public could contemplate their feelings about royalty and republicanism."

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