Hereditas Historiae

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The Daily Telegraph - 26 August 2017


Diana remembered - A legacy of love

By Allison Pearson

She was a breath of fresh air when she was introduced to the public 36 years ago, and Diana, Princess of Wales, has had a lasting impact on how the Royal family conducts itself


At Broadlands country house, Hampshire, with the Prince of Wales, 1981. Credit: Getty Images.

'"Goodbye England’s rose, may you ever grow in our hearts," sang Elton John at her funeral. Diana dead? Her body lying in that coffin under the red and yellow flag, her two boys in heartbreaking step alongside their mother? The shock of it arrived in waves. Wave upon wave of disbelief. The Princess of Wales was the most famous woman in the world, dazzling with the incandescence that fame bestows on its most graceful exponents. The idea that all that radiance, that intense young life had been snuffed out in a few cruel seconds in some scuzzy Paris underpass. No. Sorry. Category error. "And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind… Your candle’s burned out long before your legend ever will."

Twenty years on, how is the Diana legend holding up? Well, there is no doubt that she changed the Royal family, and changed it for good. Diana altered irrevocably what it means to be royal. In July, Princes William and Harry produced a TV tribute that made it plain they see themselves as their mother’s champions. She has been apart from the 
boys for longer than they knew her. I find that a particularly onerous thought, but, movingly, we saw how they are still sustained by her love and laughter. Harry’s memory of being on the other side of a room and feeling the force of her love for him was the finest tribute any mother could wish for. ‘She set us up well for life,’ William said, by which he meant her insistence that the brothers did normal kids’ things outside the palace walls.

Clockwise from top left: in Rhyl, Denbighshire, 1981; at Cullompton in Devon. 1990; visiting Thrope Park in Surrey with her sons in 1893.

The Princes have been criticised for speaking out about mental health, but it’s a very Diana thing to do. What she did 
by holding the hand of a man with Aids, William and Harry may yet do to lift the taboo around depression. The brothers made 
public the anxiety and self-doubt that gnawed away at their mother in private. Diana once said the Royal family thought that her marriage to Charles fell apart because of her bulimia, when it was the other way around: the unhappy marriage caused the illness. It’s not a mistake her emotionally intelligent sons are likely to make.

Witness the way the Princes make a beeline for a baby in a crowd. Harry, in particular, is a magnet for small people. He looks happiest in the situations that make normal members of the Royal family feel most uncomfortable. Now think back to the Princess’s first walkabout after her honeymoon in 1981. It was Wales. In the rain. Yet nothing could dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm. Diana was wearing a red and black outfit and a wide-brimmed hat that was much too old for her, but it was her youth that they responded to. Tremulous, blushing youth and the sense that this novice princess was taking on a daunting role and that maybe, just maybe, with their support, she could pull it off. Royals in the past had inspired awe, fear and respect; none had made the people feel protective.  

The ability to inspire affection in people can be hereditary. It has not gone unnoticed that more and more requests pour in for visits by William and Kate, and Harry.  

The Faustian pact between Diana and the media – the only weapon available to her, perhaps, but ultimately fatal – has left a lasting impression on her children. ‘William literally believes that the media killed his mother,’ says a friend. This accounts for his obsessive protectiveness of the Duchess of Cambridge and their children. ‘One of the reasons the bond with Kate is unbreakable is because she was the first person he talked to about his mother’s death.’ The same is said to be true of Harry and Meghan Markle. The Princes will do anything to avoid the chaos of their own childhood, which, ironically, has made the future of the monarchy more stable and secure.  

Clockwise from topleft: meeting a resident of an Aids hospice in Toronto, 1991; greeting her boys on The Royal Yacht Brittannia in Toronto, 1991; holding an HIV-positive baby at a hostel in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the same year.

Can it really be two decades since the phone rang on my bedside table, dragging me up from a deep well of sleep? A friend in New York had heard a rumour about Princess Diana. An accident in Paris – did I know anything? ‘No, we’re all still in bed here,’ I mumbled. Anyway, it couldn’t be true. Only the day before there had been photos of Diana in a swimsuit in Sardinia. She looked glorious, a lioness in her purr-fect prime. I was drifting back to sleep when my baby started crying. Heating up a bottle of milk downstairs, on impulse I turned on the TV, to see a reporter on a street in Paris, adrenalin making her speak very fast. ‘They opened the chest cavity. She had a serious wound to the left ventricle. They tried cardiac massage, but it was no good.’

The Princess of Wales had died of a broken heart. Not a metaphor, sadly. The story that was supposed to last my whole life (Diana and I were just a few months apart in age) had ended in the most brutal manner. All those chapters still unwritten. The loss felt deeply personal, and still does. I look at Prince George and Princess Charlotte and think of the amazing grandmother they will never know. And it’s impossible not to wonder how Diana would have got along with the formidable Granny Carole.  

Millions felt the same sense of loss. Like me, they will never forget where they were when they heard the news. At Balmoral, the Prince of Wales was in anguish, weighing up whether to let William and Harry sleep until morning, granting them a few more innocent hours in which their mother was not dead.  

Diana’s death was a Rubicon for the monarchy. It was forced to confront just how out of touch it had become. By strictly observing protocol, the Queen and the Palace were perceived to be showing the Princess the same lack of compassion in death that they had dealt her in life. Like Laertes, incredulous and angry at the lack of funeral rites offered to his sister Ophelia, the public might have cried out as one, ‘What ceremony else?’  

Clockwise from top left: the Prince of Wales and his sons outside Westminster Abbey on the  day of Diana's funeral, 1997; flowers left outside Buckingham Palace; girls paying tribute to the Princess at Kensington Palace. 

The ‘top lady’, as Diana called her, was obliged to leave Balmoral and return to London, where she made a live broadcast to the nation – an extremely rare occurrence. Protocol be damned. Not everyone shared the enthusiasm for a new, more compassionate monarchy. ‘The People’s heroine, why did we need one?’ sniffed the writer James Fox. ‘It was celebrity culture meets the democratisation of monarchy.’ Princess Margaret was distressed by the smell of rotting bouquets outside her Kensington Palace apartment. ‘She said the hysteria was rather like Diana herself,’ recalled a lady-in-waiting. ‘It was as if everyone got to be as hysterical as she was when she died.’  

But Princess Margaret’s cut-glass condescension was on the way out. In Tina Brown’s brilliant biography The Diana Chronicles, Lord Janvrin, then private secretary to the Queen, recalls that ‘the death of Diana made the institution look hard at itself. It was an opportunity to shake the system. Who does come into Buckingham Palace on the guest list? What kind of engagements do we do?’  

Mercurial and frequently impossible (‘Watch out, mood swing coming, boys!’), Diana may have tested the royal system to its limits, but she was no republican. ‘I so want the monarchy to survive,’ she wrote to her butler Paul Burrell, ‘and realise the changes that [sic] will take to put “the show” on a new and healthy track. I, too, understand the fear the family have about change but we must, in order to reassure the public, as their indifference concerns me and should not be.’  

Since the Princess of Wales’s untimely death, the Queen loses no time in turning up to support victims of national tragedies. When Her Majesty chatted in a Manchester hospital to a little girl injured by the bomb at the Ariana Grande concert, you could imagine Diana smiling her encouragement.  

At her funeral in the Abbey, all those years ago, the Princess’s favourite hymn, I Vow To Thee, My Country, co-existed with Elton John playing piano. It shouldn’t have worked, but somehow it was wonderful. Diana proved that it was possible to be royal and modern. In so doing, she guaranteed the survival of an institution that caused her so much pain. For that she will never be forgotten. The candle burned out long before the legend ever did.'