Sunday, July 01, 2007

Diana’s Legacy

Her death created a hole in the world that has never healed

Like everyone else, I also suspected that partaking in the media frenzy (for example by reading anything about the royal family) was to feed the pack of wolves, and so condemn Diana most of all to a ridiculous existence. But, like everyone else, and probably Diana herself as well, there were many times when the media, as intrusive as they were, provided us all with catharsis.

Her story as we know is a sometimes charming fairy tale that didn’t end happily ever after. Just prior to her death it did seem as though the story would still ultimately end well, because the young woman had renewed herself, had found once again an inner strength and a new direction. Diana, in those halcyon days before the car crash, was more beautiful and more confident than ever, and incongruously she was on her path to ‘reasonably happily ever after’ when she lost her life.

The story starts as one such fairy tale does, with the very young, and very shy, the mischievous and the kind Diana literally on her hands and knees, scrubbing floors, and otherwise being a nanny (and a very good one) to an American family in London. When she married Charles, although she loved him, she was not certain of his love for her, and she was aware of Charles’ mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles very early on. She confided in friends, and her father, just before the wedding that she meant to call it off. It is then that the most bizarre reasons are proffered for going ahead with such a charade: the fact that towels and plates had already been printed with Diana’s image on it. And indeed, how could the story have ended there? Without marrying Charles we would not have had the Princess, or the two princes born to her, or any story at all.

It is interesting to look back at the wedding, and all the pomp, and wonder what must have been going through Charles’ mind, knowing what he knew he was about to embark upon. One also wonders if the various soldiers on their horses, the carriage drivers, the priest who called it ‘a fairy tale’, the camera men, the crowds, had they known the dreadful conclusion to this story, would have shown up for the wedding parade in the first place? Would we? Unfortunately, the tragedy of life is that even knowing that something is doomed before it is begun, we still come together in the hope that it might not be, that at the very least life should be given its chance, and probably, this was the sentiment felt by both Charles and Diana, perhaps more by Diana.

On the balcony of Buckingham Palace, a taste of the life that awaited Diana was demonstrated right off the bat: Charles’ brother Andrew urging him to kiss the beautiful bride, and then the Prince asking his mother’s permission to do so, and the queen duly gave her permission.

There is a powerful sense of irony, knowing now how inadequate Diana felt (who was engaged at 19 years of age, and married 6 months later), that this same sense of insufficiency was soon to come to Charles. But imagine Diana’s early burden, not only having to deal with her insufferable, stiff upper lipped, controlling in laws, but also with an invisible third party, competing for her husband’s attention, hiding in the shadows both before and during the marriage. Perhaps in those early day’s Diana’s principal feeling was needing safety from the baying hounds outside, of feeling supremely vulnerable at first, and then unexpectedly, suddenly very lonely.

The irony emerges as an enormous wave that builds, breaks on itself, and mountains ever higher. Because of course Diana eclipsed the entire royal family, starting with Charles, who soon became a mere flower bearer, a gloved puppet, for the rising star. It was perhaps an overly cruel retribution for his deceitful ploys, but one suspected that the crowds joined Diana in feeling justified that Charles, initially at any rate, certainly deserved them. How could he find a way not to love Diana when the whole world did? Why after all would he love someone less lovable and beautiful than Diana?

In the movie The Queen Helen Mirren portrays Charles’ mother as someone who loathed Diana for her success, saw her as unintelligent, was jealous, incredulous and resentful of Diana’s popularity, and who over time developed terrible contempt for the girl. Was it not the Queen herself who invited Diana to Balmoral to meet Charles, and not even Charles himself? So it is somewhat sad that the Queen’s pride kept her from owning the situation between her son and the princess. Instead, she turned Diana into a threat, and an outsider. Perhaps more than anything the Queen felt a bitter sense that the Royal Family had somehow been robbed of adulation they had always felt entitled to. Diana’s legacy in part demonstrates that although the Royal family were perhaps entitled to fanfare and fuss, they probably did not deserve it. In simple language this simply meant that as people, they (the Royals) just weren’t as likable or as nice as Diana. Diana on the other hand, most people felt, did deserve the people’s love She was beautiful, and radiant, but also sensitive and kind, and in many ways just like us. She approached people, because she often felt such a deep sense of unworthiness. She reached out, because her family did not reach out to her.

And throughout this period, the press prodded her for vulnerabilities, and found them. She felt assailed by then, but at times perhaps the press – especially The Sun – sometimes were her allies in the involuntary war with the family she’d been married into. Diana had an affair after her two children were born, a long time after she’d first known about Fred and Gladys (Charles’ and Camilla’s codenames for one another), a long time after she’d found Charles wearing cufflinks on their honeymoon (given to him by Camilla), and the bracelet with GF engraved on it, (which he was to give to her immediately after the wedding).

While many, perhaps the Queen most of all, were horrified by Diana’s infidelity, we can’t but understand it as a very normal response of a lonely wife, who long knew of her husband’s infidelity, and who struggled to bear her own seemingly interminable suffering.

I do wonder, since the press was such a terrible burden, why Diana did not employ a number of doubles, to lead them astray. Imagine the waste of effort, the indirect counterfeiting of photographs and stories, if the media had been led astray as to the real whereabouts of the real princess, even for a season. If Diana had pulled this off, the press might have been defeated at their own game. So one can argue that perhaps both the Royal Family and Diana, at least on some level, consented to the ridiculous circus they attracted.

We can focus now on the paparazzi, but Diana cannot be brought back from the dead. We have to know with regret that in Paris she fought for two hours for her life, while a French doctor had his hand in her bloodied chest, and her heart literally in his hands. She suffered two heart attacks in that time, and then that wonderful, beautiful woman died, and was lost to the world that loved her so much. We can look at her sons, and ask: why are they being sent off to war, to Iraq or anywhere else? We could also pose the question to them, why they would want to participate in war at all (even one as unpopular and unethical as the Iraq war), when clearly they have the same heart to help the sick (think of Harry and his work with AIDS orphans in Lesotho), as Diana did?

Diana never lost her sense of both humility and sensitivity to others, and indeed, she seemed to find comfort and solace in the grim physical realities of the very sick, and the destitute. Diana’s legacy is that her life, her story and her beauty crossed all boundaries. One person really brought the world together, for a good cause. We celebrated her beauty and goodness, and she showed us the vulnerable, the poor, and the suffering in our own world. She gave humanity to humanity when we sorely needed it. If there is any doubt, we should ask ourselves how or why we find ourselves with no Princess Diana in the world today. The closest we have to Diana is arguably the heiress Paris Hilton. Not quite the same ring to it as Princess, and Paris Hilton is certainly different in many respects to the Princess of Wales, but she’s celebrated nonetheless. It says a lot about who we are and what the world has become since Diana died.

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