Obituary: Diana, Princess of Wales

Rupert Cornwell
Monday 01 September 1997 00:02 BST

The 20th century will have many symbols. Few however will be as potent as Diana, Princess of Wales. In a sense she was the ultimate product of the age of celebrity, sought after as no other for celebrity's ephemeral trappings of elegance, beauty, and high fashion, all lent especial allure by the life-long role that fate had thrust upon her, as mother of a future British monarch.

She was a peculiarly bewitching blend: the public goddess who in private knew more misery than joy, a figure as far removed from the serious business of high politics as it is possible to imagine, yet a person who would become an extraordinary ambassadress for her country. In many respects her life was a happening - but one which may yet exert greater impact on Britain than a clutch of the weightiest public dignitaries of our time.

Diana Frances Spencer was born in the late afternoon of 1 July 1961 at Park House on the royal estate of Sandringham, the third daughter of Viscount and Viscountess Althorp. For her parents, initially, she was something of a disappointment: they had yearned for a son to keep alive the Spencer name, close to the English court for more than four centuries. But that omission would be soon put right with the arrival three years later of a baby brother Charles, and for a while at least every condition of an idyllic early childhood was in place.

A quick glance through Diana Spencer's lineage of landowners and royal servants - her paternal grandmother Countess Spencer was a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; the late Earl Spencer served as equerry to both King George VI and the present Queen - gives only a partial picture of her background. The Spencer collection at Althorp is famous for its portraits and for the copiousness of its family correspondence and archive. But on both her mother's and her father's side there was also a strong literary and particularly a musical bent, which gives a telling gloss to one of the first iconic images of Diana, Princess of Wales, when she sat at a piano during a royal tour of Australia and, unabashed, played some bars of Rachmaninov.

Ruth Fermoy, Diana's maternal grandmother, was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother (the public face of the family) but also a concert pianist and founder of the King's Lynn music festival. Lady Fermoy also set up with the Prince of Wales in 1989 a church restoration charity, Music in Country Churches, whose fund-raising through concerts, is continued today by the Prince and by Diana's sister Lady Jane Fellowes.

On her father's side there was a strong tradition of amateur music, played at the highest level. Her grandfather Jack Spencer, the 7th Earl Spencer, a considerable connoisseur of art and architecture, was the son of Margaret Baring, a first-rate amateur violinist and brother of the novelist Maurice Baring who grew up in a house where Clara Schumann and other instrumentalists of the day played at private concerts, and whose Stradivarius was until recently in the family collection. Jack Spencer's sister Margaret, Diana's great-aunt Margaret Douglas Home, inherited her mother's musical gene, was a fine pianist and founded in 1974 the Burnham Market Festival, in Norfolk.

Margaret Douglas-Home, who died last year aged 90, kept alive for the younger generation of Spencers not only the family music tradition, but also the literary one. She was especially anxious when Diana married the Prince of Wales that he should be given a complete set of books by the Russophile novelist, playwright, poet, critic and journalist Maurice Baring. And it was telling that at the time of the wedding, her father could point to one cousin, Charles Douglas-Home, who was editor of the Times, still very much the establishment newspaper, and another, Richard Ingrams, who was editing the satirical magazine Private Eye.

All of this reinforces the sense of privilege of an upbringing in the shadow of a vanished age. The neighbours were royal, the household routines, as befits growing children of a certain station, were entrenched and immutable. But the idyll, always more apparent than real, was soon to shatter. According to her biographer Andrew Morton, Diana always remembered witnessing a particularly violent quarrel between her parents. Worse was soon to follow. In 1967, the Althorps separated after 14 years of marriage, and at the age of six Diana along with her siblings became a pawn in a particularly vicious divorce struggle. Her mother was named as the "other woman" in Peter Shand Kydd's divorce case, and in the Althorps' divorce Lady Fermoy sided with Lord Althorp against her daughter. Eventually, Diana's father was awarded custody of the children. For the young girl it was a trauma that would mark her life, and compound the misery of the collapse of her own marriage a quarter of a century later.

Outwardly however, Diana seemed relatively unscathed. She attended Silfield School in King's Lynn, and then 18 months after the divorce in April 1969, was sent away to preparatory school at Riddlesworth Hall in Norfolk. She was cheerful, friendly and eager to please, and swiftly made new friends. Academically she did not distinguish herself, but she famously won the Legatt Cup for helpfulness, and she acquired a love of dancing, and a passion for sport - above all tennis and swimming - that she would carry through her life.

At this stage already, wrote another biographer, Lady Colin Campbell, the young girl's determination and competitive instincts were apparent. "She will take great pains, go to any lengths, to get what she wants," a close friend was quoted as saying of those years - an observation that would ring true to critics of Diana's behaviour at the time of her own divorce years later. Then in 1973, Diana sat the Common Entrance exam for her mother's old school of West Heath in Kent - happily for her a test where failure did not matter.

In 1975, when Diana was almost 14, came fresh changes for the family. Upon the death of her grandfather, her father became the 8th Earl Spencer, her brother Charles, three years her junior, took over as Viscount Althorp and she and her two sisters became Ladies. The family moved to Althorp, the intimidating family seat in Northamptonshire. Then, equally dramatically, two years later Earl Spencer married Raine, Countess of Dartmouth, the daughter of the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland. Raine set about turning the estate into a paying concern, introducing tea rooms and a gift shop, among other changes. Large numbers of Althorp's works of art were sold. After years of having their father to themselves, the four children found her an unsettling presence, and christened her "Acid Raine".

Diana's performance in the schoolroom did not improve. Her later teenage years, the last period of "normal existence" she would know, have been a case study in legendary English upper-class aimlessness vacuity. She left school at 16 without a single 0-level, and spent a few miserable weeks at a Swiss finishing school where her sole achievement was to learn to ski. Then it was odd jobs in Sloane Rangerland, cookery classes and a spot of nannying, before becoming an assistant at a kindergarten in Pimlico in September 1979.

In fact, this was one of the happiest and most fulfilling periods of her life. With money inherited on her 18th birthday, she bought a pounds 50,000 flat in Coleherne Court, in west London, which she shared with two girlfriends (her telephone number was in the London telephone book). At the kindergarten, she had a job whose prime requisites were the warmth and instinctive affection in which she was richly endowed. And then there was the small matter of the pursuit of a Prince.

The heir to the British throne had met his future Princess at a shooting party at Sandringham that January, to which Diana and her sister Sarah had been invited by the Queen. If anything Sarah was the one earmarked for Charles, and indeed for a spell was the latest in a long series of royal girlfriends: "I was always paired off with Andrew," Diana would say later in jest, before everything went wrong. But, almost without realising, Charles grew enchanted by the gay and unaffected younger sister who was turning into a beautiful and captivating young woman before his eyes.

It was an improbable courtship. but one whose timing could not have been bettered. At the age of 30, Charles was under intense pressure from both the public and his parents to find a future queen. Diana fitted the bill perfectly. She was gorgeous, and in the famous words of her uncle, Lord Fermoy, a "bona fide virgin". Though she would loathe the inevitable, intrusive pursuit of the couple by Fleet Street, culminating in the leak of their official engagement to the Times 24 hours in advance, the distress was outweighed by love, and the national outpouring of rejoicing which followed.

"My Shy Di," trumpeted the tabloids, as Charles introduced his 19-year old Princess to the world. The marriage itself on 29 July 1981 truly seemed to crown an ultimate late-20th-century fairytale, a union made in heaven and sealed in picture-perfect splendour and pageantry before the congregation in St Paul's Cathedral, and hundreds of millions rapt in front of television screens across the world. Not least touching was the pride of Johnnie Spencer as he gave away the daughter he so adored. He would die in 1992, as her marriage publicly unravelled. For Diana it was a devastating blow.

In fact, this was a union that should have never been made. From its outset the living shade of Camilla Parker Bowles, a former girlfriend of Prince Charles, peered over its shoulder. Once giddy first love wore off, the couple discovered they had virtually nothing in common. Charles was cerebral, staid and deeply traditional, a man who often found it hard to communicate his feelings. She was half a generation younger, outgoing, impulsive, a lover of pop music, nightclubs and noise, who found the Palace and its ways heartless and oppressive.Like others after her, most notably of course Sarah Ferguson, Diana discovered that an aristocratic background, even family friendships with the monarchy, were no training for being a central part of the institution, every single day.

But if in retrospect the breakdown was only too easy to understand, for a while the idyll continued to bewitch an unsuspecting public. Within less than 11 months, the Princess of Wales had done her dynastic duty by providing Charles with a son and heir, Prince William Arthur Philip Louis, born on 21 June 1982. A little over two years later followed Prince Harry.

After William's birth, Diana suffered severely from post-natal depression. Nor did she make her life any easier by dieting furiously to lose the weight she had gained during the pregnancy. Nonetheless, compared with what was to follow, these were good times. Charles was besotted with his son. For a while at least, the couple had an interest in common.

The high-point perhaps came in early 1983 with a highly successful six- week tour of New Zealand and of an already Republican-leaning Australia. In breach of every royal precedent that an heir and his heir should never travel together, the Queen bowed to Diana's wishes and permitted William to accompany them. The schedule was exhausting, but the reception exhilarating. Astonishingly, public interest in the Princess, instead of ebbing after her marriage as she and everyone else expected, only grew. Her clothes, her hair styles, her every trivial utterance were of obsessive interest. Her wardrobe cost a fortune, but as a clothes-horse for British designers, she was a national asset. Only later would the tide turn, and public reaction to the cavortings of a younger generation of royals turn from amusement to accusations of vanity and extravagance. Soon though, almost imperceptibly at first, her marriage began to crack.

There were long separations, veiled intimations of eating disorders and bouts of depression provoked, it would later emerge, by the revived Charles- Camilla liaison, and the betrayal of the love she once had heaped upon her husband. The parallels with her own bleak early upbringing, the worries for her two infant children only made the suffering worse. By 1985, the first reports were appearing of tiffs, and by 1987 the People was writing of a "blazing row". But the extent of the disaster was only truly clear from Morton's biography, Diana, Her True Story (1992).

Written with the encouragement if not the direct collaboration of its subject, the book laid bare a series of "somebody help me please" suicide attempts, the first in January 1982, mid-term in her pregnancy with Prince William. One moment, Morton says she told friends, "I was a nobody, the next minute I was Princess of Wales, mother, media toy, member of this family and it was just too much for one person to handle". In desperation, she threatened to take her own life. Charles, apparently, accused her of crying wolf and got ready to go riding. "She was as good as her word," her biographer continues, "Standing on top of the wooden staircase, she hurled herself to the ground, landing in a heap at the bottom."

And, it transpired, she did indeed suffer from anorexia and bulimia. Morton depicted a marriage made not in heaven but hell, fought out between competing circles of courtiers against the background of Charles' friendship with Camilla and Diana's own, retaliatory, association with James Gilbey. Five months after the book appeared John Major, to the surprise of absolutely no one, informed Parliament that the couple were separating.

But in 11 years, Diana had been transformed. The naive child-woman clothed in puppy fat had turned into the global epitome of high fashion, elegance and sophistication. She still hated the press, but she had learnt how to use it for her own ends. As her marriage crumbled, and until the end of her life, she almost always bested Charles in a duel for public opinion that would shake the Royal Family to its foundations. The Queen referred to 1992 as her annus horribilis; if anything yet more awful years lay ahead for the monarchy, and unending cascade of revelations, memoirs, leaks and plundered tapes, in which no stone was too intimate to leave unturned.

The clear victor however was Diana. When she and Charles were together, it was upon her the cameras and the attention lingered. When they separated, public sympathy stayed largely on her side. Anna Pasternak's Princess in Love (1994), which revealed her long affair with the cavalry officer James Hewitt, brought opprobrium only on Hewitt. Her BBC television interview on Panorama in November 1995 - of which she gave neither the Queen nor her own personal advisers any warning, and in which she admitted her adultery, criticised the Royal Family for its lack of support for her, and cast aspersions on Charles's fitness to be king - was regarded as a masterpiece. Maybe she was a manipulator, a strange blend of the trusting, the calculating and the flaky, but she was forgiven the bulk of her sins. If anyone was to blame for the marriage's failure, the public concluded, it was Charles. She, not he, came across as the doting parent. His confession of the Camilla affair to David Dimbleby in an earlier television interview was by contrast seen as a disaster.

More important, and in contrast to Charles, she found a genuine niche for herself on the British and international stage. By now, of course, Diana was the probably the most famous, and certainly the most photographed, woman in the world. The pressure was literally unending, the public appetite for news about her insatiable, the going price for a titillating photo exclusive running into six figures or more. In the pyramid of world celebrity, she occupied the very pinnacle. Long before yesterday's tragedy, there had been high speed car chases, pleas for privacy invariably ignored, and angry scenes between hunter and hunted. Sometimes Diana would bring trouble on herself, by first excoriating her tormentors, only to approach them herself to volunteer some confidence.

But the picture projected was the one she intended, of a woman who had discovered herself. Although mother of the a future king, she herself would never be queen. But she said, she hoped to be "a queen in people's hearts". She devoted much time to charitable and humanitarian work, travelling the world and working with figures like Mother Teresa. AIDS, leprosy, cancer and most recently the abolition of landmines were just some of the issues she championed, her name a guarantee of prominence that no other could match, her mere presence at a premiere worth pounds 100,000 or more to the fortunate charity involved. Whether at a vagrant's shelter or the White House, Diana automatically topped the bill. Britain, and certainly the Royal Family, had never seen anything like it.

The finalisation of her divorce on 28 August 1996 only enhanced the sense of liberation. Finally she seemed to achieve a balance between the understanding of how celebrity might be harnessed to the causes she cherished, and her personal happiness. Her friendship with Dodi Fayed, son of the controversial owner of Harrods and benefactor of sundryTory MPs, might arouse conflicting emotions within the British establishment. But shining through the blurry photo-lens images from the Mediterranean these last few weeks was a personal joy which she did not attempt to conceal. By the end too, she was casting off the political shackles too, vouchsafing to the French newspaper Le Monde her opinion that the previous Conservative Government had been "hopeless" in its refusal to ban landmines.

Nothing however could entirely remove the distortions imposed by the relentless, white hot glare of publicity. First to some British tabloids, and then to Le Monde, she spoke of her desire to live abroad. "Any sane person would have left long ago. But I cannot. I have my sons." Diana, as she realised better than anyone, was trapped - by her immediate pursuers in the media, by the establishment which had made her, and by her own imperfections.

In such circumstances, perhaps, only a superhuman could have withstood the pressures. Diana, Princess of Wales however was all too human. Had she married a country squire instead of a future king, the tragedy early yesterday in an underpass by the Seine would have merited no more than a line in the society pages. Instead, her appallingly premature, and utterly needless death will have repercussions on Britain, its institutions and the way the country sees itself for very many years to come.

Diana Frances Spencer: born Sandringham, Norfolk 1 July 1961; married 1981 The Prince of Wales (two sons; marriage dissolved 1996; died Paris 31 August 1997.

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