Diana: The Still-Mourned ‘Princess of the People’

Diana: The Still-Mourned ‘Princess of the People’

When Tony Blair addressed Britain on August 31st, 1997 and spoke, with that masterly catch in his voice, of “the people’s princess”, it seemed that the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, would have a profound effect on the country. The media had by then gone into overdrive with rolling news coverage.

Earl Spencer, from his home in South Africa, declared that the press had “blood on their hands”. It was a damning indictment of the paparazzi and its hounding of Britain’s royals — in Diana’s case, literally to her grave.

Weeping Britons, meanwhile, left flowers outside palaces, so many that London florists soon ran out of stock. Similar sights followed outside British embassies across the world.

Princess Diana wearing a feathered blue hat and holding her hand up to her chin | Tim Graham / Contributor / Getty

It wasn’t immediately clear what the lasting impact of Diana’s life and death would be but – a handful of nay-sayers aside – everyone agreed that this momentous event would have far-reaching consequences for the British monarchy, the press that had “hounded” her, and even for the national psyche. In the aftermath of her death, the future of the royal family was also dissected.

Decades later, there are two orthodoxies about Diana’s legacy.

Some, such as Andrew Marr, believe her death “revived the culture of public sentiment”. (Not necessarily a favorable development.)

Others, such as Anne Applebaum, writing for Slate in 2007 under the headline The Princess and Her Pea-Sized Legacy, claim that Diana had no effect on anything, that the “genuinely bizarre aspect of the all-consuming Diana mania . . . is how slight a trace it has left behind”.

But the truth is this: Twenty three years later, we still mourn Diana with a kind of depth reserved for few celebrities in this world.

Did Diana really leave any significant legacy, and if so, what is it? Are we still in “Diana territory”, as many commentators have claimed, pointing out similarities between the loss of Diana and incidents such as the Soham murders or that of Sarah Payne, when the country is said, once again, to be “united in grief”? Was Diana – in the way that she conducted her life, and through the reactions to her death – responsible for the demise of the famous British stiff upper lip?

Or did she merely reflect the shift that Britain was in any case undergoing, a sea-change encapsulated in the switch from the John Major years to “call me Tony” Blair?

Diana has frequently been blamed for our newfound emotional incontinence. Columnists lament that murders, accidental deaths and disappearances are now the occasion for people with no connection to the individual involved to display public sentiment (the implication being that it is phony sentiment).

It’s likely that the way she chose to speak out did accelerate a trend for greater openness, that her death had an impact on the ersatz sense of community that surrounds certain tragedies.

The only things that are certain, however, are that she didn’t control the manner in which people reacted to her death, and that when she did talk about her personal issues she did so in a remarkable and courageous way – one that went against every stricture of royal protocol and tradition.

For some people, Diana will always be the patron saint of the self-obsessed. I see her differently. I think she had a lasting influence on the public discourse, particularly in matters of mental health. When she spoke publicly about her bulimia, the effect was powerful. Impossible to imagine a figure such as John Prescott disclosing his own eating disorder, had she not gone ahead of him. For a woman who was uneducated and intellectually insecure, who got engaged at a very inexperienced 19, who lived in the goldfish bowl of media attention, who carried the full weight of expectation that she would put up and shut up about everything – from her husband’s infidelity to the suffocating royal protocols – speaking out instead of shriveling up was not just a sign of wifulness (an adjective thrown at women and children, rarely at men) but of her determination to direct her loss and suffering outwards. It was a mark of her strength of character; small wonder that millions of people instinctively responded to that.

Her words may have had impact, but Diana was no great orator. She hired a voice coach, Peter Settelen, to help her prepare for speaking engagements. During a mock interview he asked why she did so much charity work.

“Because I’ve got nothing else to do,” said Diana, and fell about laughing. The humor was self-deprecating but far from the truth. The royals traditionally support numerous charities but Diana transformed duty and obligation into a phenomenally successful personal calling.

Diana Spencer, Picture: NY Times

Her favored causes, Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Leprosy Mission, Centrepoint, benefited hugely. Her presence at a fundraiser guaranteed large donations. An auction of her dresses in Christie’s in New York in 1997 raised $3.25m (£2.03m).

“Her overall effect on charity,” according to Stephen Lee, director of the UK Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, speaking a year after her death, “is probably more significant than any other person’s in the 20th century.”

No one could attract attention to an issue like Diana. A child of her time, she understood the importance of a well-timed (and well-documented) gesture, and this, combined with her natural impulse to reach out to the most marginalized in society, led to one of her most indelible acts. In April 1987, when ignorance about HIV and Aids was still rife, Diana shook hands with an HIV-positive patient. The photograph made front-page news around the world.

Diana’s ballroom dance with John Travolta. Picture: vanityfair.com

At a more fundamental level, Diana changed the game in the world of charity. It’s a theme that Tina Brown took up in her biography, The Diana Chronicles. Describing Diana’s trip to Angola with the Red Cross, and the plans she had for future campaigns, she writes, “It was Diana’s version of a Clinton global initiative – and she had the idea first.”

Put simply, Diana made philanthropy sexy. She paved the way for other celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Think of Clooney in Darfur. Think of Bono hobnobbing with George Bush. If you can bear to.

Following that trip to Angola, when she walked through a field only partially cleared of explosives, the representatives of 122 governments met in Ottawa, and agreed a ban on the use of anti-personnel landmines. Was it her achievement alone? Of course not. But she stuck her neck out by joining the campaign, which was criticized as an inappropriate political intervention by the Conservative government. And she undoubtedly made a difference – quite possibly the crucial difference.

Did Diana change the royal family? Did she perhaps even save the institution of monarchy, which had become so calcified it was in danger of crumbling away?

The palace clearly pays more attention to media gurus than before, anticipating the public mood and sensitivities, particularly for the carefully managed introduction of Camilla, who – we are only now told – “might” be Queen one day. Diana, it should be noted, never gave a toss about media advisors. She went her own way, smuggling Martin Bashir and the Panorama film crew into Kensington Palace after the staff had gone home. It was a huge gamble that paid off. No other royal would, or could, emulate her style.

Essentially the monarchy is much as it was pre-Diana. But without her, our interest in it would have faded. Kate Middleton is constantly compared to the woman who would have been her mother-in-law. Diana’s life and death didn’t reinvigorate the monarchy. But it reignited our fascination with it, even when – for a brief time after her death – that fascination was expressed as fury.

After a brief period of restraint from Fleet Street, the rise of the paparazzi has continued unabated. No lasting legacy there. Many have claimed that it was Diana herself who eroded the lines between public and private life. What was she supposed to do? Stand meekly and silently by her husband’s side? Everyone, including Camilla, had expected her to do exactly that.

Diana was tougher than they’d ever thought possible. She struck out on her own, and in so doing fused together so many aspects of the contemporary culture that it was virtually impossible to remain uninterested in her.

Diana’s ascendancy coincided with celebrity-watching spreading from downmarket magazines and tabloids to the broadsheets and the chattering classes and her progress was a bellwether of that passage.

Wronged wife, feminist symbol, fashion plate, media manipulator, ingénue, sexual predator, champion of the oppressed and needy, loose cannon, charity worker, humanitarian, hysteric, bulimic, iconic Good Mother, alternative therapy flake, challenger to the establishment – Diana was all that and more.

She was a one-off, fascinating and flawed. Her legacy might be mixed, but it’s not insubstantial. Her life was brief, but she left her mark.

  • Adapted from a tribute in The Guardian by Monica Ali.
  • Banner picture of Diana by royal.uk


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