One Year On: Dry your eyes She was no saint and her death changed nothing, says Yvonne Roberts

Yvonne Roberts
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:15

Imagine this: on 31 August, in the year 2025, your granddaughter reads of the canonisation of Diana. By then, of course, it's common to hear of Princess of Wales dolls in miniature haute couture who occasionally weep blood and have the gift of healing. While strips of her auctioned ballgowns are already treated as saints' relics, the recipients of whispered prayers invariably fulfilled; the power of myth.

Who was Diana, granddaughter asks? Did she do any good? Did she miraculously heal the sick? Feed the hungry? Humble the rich? Abstain from matters of the flesh? What kind of difference did her living make?

Well, you reply, your head a mass of contradictions, she became the most famous woman in the world. She believed in colonic irrigation and private jets. She paid attention to detail, diamond buttons on her hand-embroidered gown; she was a caring mother who had an empathy for those on the margins of life. She was also a very rich woman who donated relatively little but gave generously, if haphazardly, of her copious spare time.

She floundered in the sea of love, but learned to keep her head above water sufficiently well to sock one on her husband and the in-laws from hell. She was the Queen of Hearts who counted republicans among her willing subjects. And then, of course, the independent journey on which she had only just embarked, was cruelly curtailed by an accident of fate (and the lack of a sober chauffeur and a securely fastened seat belt).

"Did you cry at the news of her death?" asks granddaughter. "Yes," I reply. "And at the gates of Kensington Palace. And during her funeral. I cried for the brevity of her life and especially for her sons who lost not only a mother but a place in the warmer world to which the Windsors seem so averse. And I cried for reasons that, like many other people, I couldn't quite fathom at the time."

"So what difference did her living make?" granddaughter persists.

"Not nearly as much as her death," I answer. "She was the Princess of Paradox; the woman applauded by anti-monarchists for revealing the hypocrisy of the House of Windsor. Yet, literally and metaphorically, she gave it new life.

"Diana was portrayed as the People's Princess, New Labour's mistress of modernism; the feminist hero, the broker of a better Britain. But, for me, that was all delusion. How could Diana be anything but the daughter of conservatism?"

"I don't know about that, Grandma, "says granddaughter. "But aren't we lucky to have a king like William, a man with the common touch?"

We Di-hards, a disparate band of heretics, are about to be exiled again from that strange arena "the national mood" as the anniversary of Diana's death approaches. Emotions have bubbled up periodically over the past 12 months, usually triggered by the release of commemorative trinkets and the bizarre cannibalism of her wardrobe (beads from her dresses converted into ear-rings at pounds 625 a pair), and by the opening of Althorp. (At his sister's funeral, Earl Spencer asked that Diana should not be deified but remembered, "as a real person". And then he builds her a shrine and adds to its mystical power by opening it to the public for only eight weeks of the year.) As an outsider, some Dianafications have even been positively funny to observe. She probably would have enjoyed some too.

After her Panorama interview in November 1995, MP and then minister Nicholas Soames announced that Diana was showing "advanced stages of paranoia". After the crash, he demonstrated the zeal of the (hastily) converted. Diana was now "an icon for her generation". The dictionary definition of an icon is "a painting or mosaic of a sacred person, itself regarded as sacred". Diana, sacred? What has she achieved that is so very different from, say, the Duchess of Kent? Another stylish woman who has suffered in her private life, who, quietly and without fuss, has travelled with the sick to Lourdes; visited the disadvantaged; written letters of support; given physical comfort to the distressed.

The answer, of course, is that Diana was a cuckold in the royal nest and a celebrity on the circuit. In truth, when she was alive, she both irritated me (a woman who wants privacy but who volunteers as a cover girl and, for that matter, chooses to dine at the Ritz) and fascinated me (more pictures, please) even as I, like many, was hypocritically appalled by the paparazzi. And, of course, Diana had the capacity to surprise.

The Panorama interview gave Diana a whole new audience. The clothes horse revealed the inner woman. In pulling herself out of the quicksand of self- hate, she moved from one of Them, to one of Us. Why? Not because she was a victim but because, just like us, she'd had to learn to survive. Or that's what we thought then.

We heard of the death on a beach in Sitges, northern Spain. Pablo, the man who rents out sunbeds, had been waiting to tell us the news. Everyone wants to be part of the making of history. "Diana, muerte," he said. "Does that mean she's having a baby?" someone asked, their Spanish even ropier than mine. "She can't be," we replied. By which we meant, "That's not how the plot was supposed to enfold."

It was because she'd been deprived of the chance of a happy-ever-after that, at first, the scale of the sorrow didn't disturb me unduly. The writer Julian Barnes referred to "look-at-me grief". Newsweek, described, "The catharsis of emotional exhibitionism". Others objected to "emotional correctness" in which if you didn't shed a tear for Di, you were somehow less of a human being. Say what they like; most of us who cried, did because we couldn't help ourselves.

Commentators oscillated. If this was "the feminisation of society", then look at the consequences - self-indulgent, irrational, just like women. In contrast, Martin Jacques in the Observer was all in favour of "the Floral Revolution" with its "modern values ... honesty, informality, humour, meritocracy, the personal ... vulnerability, the casual, the female ... "

And that, for me, was when mourning was broken. It was, and remains, all too much. The media had been caught short. It was surprised by the scale of the response, and not for the first time when it came to what is viewed as female terrain. In 1990, for instance, Mary Robinson spent seven months travelling up and down Ireland. Newsdesks didn't want to know. Women are to do with touchy-feely stuff, not the business of real politics. Robinson was, of course, the liberal candidate for the Irish presidency with odds of 100 to one against. She won - on the votes of women.

What writer Christopher Hitchens calls Diana's "cult-in-formation" was also a land of mystery to many male editors, except for the fact that her pictures sold papers. Last September, suddenly forced more intimately into the territory, however, they suspended all sense of proportion and wallowed in hyperbole, and there was plenty at hand to help.

Beatrix Campbell, Elaine Showalter and Julie Burchill promoted Diana into a feminist hero, saint, martyr. The Observer proclaimed, "a New Britain", Will Hutton announced we were "freeing ourselves from the reins of the past". Darcus Howe wrote, "We lived by the myths of how British people were conservative, gradualistic, instinctively right wing ... Royalists ... we were monumentally wrong ... " (Actually, 12 months on, we were monumentally right.) The New Statesman told us this was "the end of the age of deference ... "

Two years before Diana's death, the Windsors' popularity was at an all- time low. They suffered further in the week of the funeral. But now what do we see? Charles accepted as a merry widow, a single parent, a man pictured showing affection to his sons. Camilla out of the closet. The "feminisation" of society (which is taking place not because of one woman but because of the influence of many) continues - only gradually.

But what has been most depressing of all is the revelation that we understand so little about the power the throne holds over us. Diana, far from orchestrating the Windsors' swan song, pumped new blood into their veins. The "people", by which we mean the female people, have been used - just as they have often been in the recent past - to keep the status quo firmly in place.

Read Linda Colley's fine book Britons and the "unprecedented", "modern" response to Diana begins to look uncannily like conservative tradition.

In 1820, a contemporary ballad declaimed,

Attend ye virtuous British wives

Support your injured Queen,

Assert her rights; they are your own,

As plainly may be seen

The Queen then was Caroline, wife of George, Prince of Wales. Married in 1795, they had one child and separated, Caroline leaving to live abroad. When her husband became King George IV in 1820, Caroline returned, interested in her throne. He attempted to put her on trial for adultery and women across the land organised a petition, "For it was a woman's cause" to protect a wife's position. And the monarch was forced to concede.

Queen Charlotte preceded Caroline. She was married to the periodically mad George III (whose vulnerability boosted his popularity enormously) and had 15 children. Her granddaughter, another Charlotte, refused the husband selected for her, married for love and died in childbirth at 21. The "people" raised pounds 12,000 for her monument. "In death," writes Linda Colley, "she had become a female hero."

Women identified with the Charlottes and Caroline. "The feminisation of the British monarchy, occurring as it did at a time when the press and souvenir industries allowed royal events and personalities to reach a very wide public, was immensely important for all classes of women," Linda Colley writes of the turn of the 19th century. "Monarch as soap opera made the wrongs and rites of passage of ordinary women's lives seem important and valuable in a way that no other aspect of British life could or can do, run exclusively by men as it was then, and still largely is today."

Colley argues that in a Roman Catholic country the cult of the Virgin Mary helps to satisfy a need for an idealisation of the conventional female experience. In Britain since the Reformation the prominence of female members of the Royal Family has acted as "a kind of substitute religion", a Protestant version of the cult of the Virgin. As we head towards the millennium, Diana is a fresh arrival in the firmament for us to worship.

I am sure Diana brought comfort to many. Her fame may even have expedited an end to the use of landmines. She may have encouraged some people to rethink on Aids and leprosy. The Diana nurses helping terminally ill children will prove invaluable. But, ultimately, what is truly significant about the past year is not what she appeared to ignite but how little has since been sustained. A saint, she ain't; a revolutionary - feminist of otherwise - she wasn't.

Worse, the myth hinders us from remembering a woman with expensive tastes who wanted to become Queen, to remain a dutiful wife and who, at the time of her death, believed passionately in her ex-husband's firm - ahighly limited company which elevates the untalented, prevents the rise of the meritocracy, endorses huge inequities in income and stops us from having the freedom to move from subjects to citizens. That's why I feel differently.

Rosa Monckton, Diana's friend, tells us that on her desk, she had a note which read. "You can't comfort the afflicted, without afflicting the comfortable." The pity is that her legacy might have been so much more than the stuff of miracles and fables

The never-ending story

November: Costner speaks out

Diana had agreed to star in a Hollywood blockbuster sequel alongside Oscar-winning millionaire Kevin Costner, the star claims. In the US movie magazine Premiere, Mr Costner reveals how he talked on the telephone to Diana about starring alongside her in a follow-up to The Bodyguard, which featured the singer Whitney Houston. The rumours about the film, which would have seen Diana's character falling in love with bodyguard Costner, have been dismissed as fantasy. But Mr Costner insists: "Diana and I talked ... about the level of sophistication and dignity the part would have. And we agreed it would be tailored for her in a way very similar to Whitney Houston. She said, 'Look, my life is maybe going to become my own at some point. Go ahead and do this script and when it's ready, I'll be in a really good spot.'"

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