A Russian joke of relatively recent vin-tage comes to mind. “How could you, a Stakhanovite dairy worker, with two Red Commendations to your credit, with the Regional Party Committee foursquare behind you,” a collective farm boss shouts at the terrified girl in his office, “how could you ever become a Moscow hard-currency prostitute?” “I guess I was just lucky,” stammers the errant milkmaid.
In a certain narrow sense, the joke is funny. In another sense, vast and intractable, it reflects, as in a fragment of Hans Christian Andersen’s shattered mirror, all the evil that the world we now live in was lucky to have amassed, along with the money, as it moved from one fairy tale to another at the close of the 20th century. In the new fairy tale, Cinderella still marries the prince, though only because the honorable estate makes it easier to pick his pockets while he sleeps, a gold Patek Philippe right there on the bed table. The prince’s kiss still works a metamorphosis, yet the magic of love turns his beloved into a toad, or at least into a vituperative termagant. And if the Saint George character still fights the dragon, it is strictly in the media circus where the virgin he’s saving works as an usherette.
The trouble with fairy tales is that, like life itself under the conditions of political and economic liberty, they are untrammeled in their reliance on metaphor. Nowadays, we no longer balk at hearing that women are “raped” by the military-industrial complex; whether or not we think him a secret-police factotum, we speak of “President” Putin; it scarcely surprises us to read in a fashion magazine that black is the season’s white. Under some harsher political or economic conditions, we might easily distinguish between an ounce of rye bread and a whole wheaten loaf, between the experience of rape and a vague feeling of frustration, between a murderer and a fellow whose face is just not attractive enough. In today’s lineup, however, thanks to the milkmaid’s luck of the West, a pox-ridden prostitute is a woman of society, an illiterate vulgarian is an award-winning author, and a gum-chewing teenager is the princess of Wales. “Oh yeah?” says the backward, regressive, socially maladjusted loner from the boondocks, “if that’s so, then I’m the emperor of China!” Just wait awhile, is my advice to him. It’s still early days in bedlam. One day, you will be. But are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a Nobel Prize in flower arranging, or else the governorship of Mars?
Thus Tina Brown, the author of the book under review. If the British editor of the gossip monthly Tatler could be made editor of the New Yorker, why shouldn’t a gum-chewing blonde bimbo have had a go at becoming the queen of England? Personally I think that the New Yorker, like Vanity Fair that Miss Brown had famously commanded in the interim, could only have been improved by the ministrations of even the most petty-minded foreigner, much as both these journals might benefit from the insight of one of their office cleaners, but that is hardly the point here. To Miss Brown herself, her appointment was a revolution. Needless to add that Diana Spencer’s good luck in marrying the prince of Wales was a salient feature of the selfsame revolution, rather like the luck of Lenin, who had overthrown the elected government of Russia with hardly a shot fired and then created the myth of Red October to clothe this unforeseen happenstance in historical legitimacy.
I cannot hide the truth that Miss Brown, with her anorexic mind and her carnivorous personality, her wispy tergiversations and her rampant metaphors, is of rather greater interest to me than her subject’s life and eventual fate. As the editor of Tatler, an observer and arbiter of Britain’s social mores, Miss Brown used to specialize in girls like Diana, watching, teasing, and coaching them until they became ripe for revolution; for my part, as a freelance observer of the British cultural scene, I once specialized in girls like Miss Brown, chatting and drinking with them until they gave me something to write about. Miss Brown understands Diana to perfection, if only because she herself is the product of the same bedlam happenstance and the stuff of the same unhinged metaphor that, over the last 20 years, have managed to stand British society on its ear. Well, I understand Miss Brown to perfection, if only because her brand of revolution has robbed me of an adoptive homeland.
“We have put her living in the tomb.” Edgar Allan Poe’s line from “The Fall of the House of Usher” is how the twenty-year-old Diana Spencer experienced the days after the sound of trumpets in St Paul’s Cathedral had faded. When I think of the young, beautiful, newly married Princess of Wales at this time I see her sitting up abruptly in the middle of the night in the Spartan spaciousness of her bedroom in Balmoral and uttering a long, blood-curdling scream . . .
The ellipsis is Miss Brown’s, of course. The metaphor of suffocation, so hopelessly stilted in the hands of so inept a writer, is meant to go on dilating of its own accord, like a Chinese magic-paper ball, in the reader’s brain. Note how the word spaciousness, undercut by Spartan, is a pitch for republican empathy in the hearts of suburban housewives from Peshawar to Caracas. Just how Spartan was that stifling spaciousness, as a matter of interest? Well, “it got on her nerves,” for instance, “that as soon as you left a room at Balmoral, someone behind you would switch the light off,” apparently to save the taxpayer’s nickel in the days when the royal yacht Britannia had not yet been taken away from the Queen through the rabble-rousing of journalists in Miss Brown’s own social circle.
On board Britannia, which spirits the honeymooning couple off to the Greek islands, “there were twenty-one naval officers, a crew of 256 men, a valet, a dresser, a private secretary and an equerry sharing their romantic getaway.” Diana “was bored out of her mind,” comments Miss Brown, “and who can blame her?”
There was no pulling into a port to hit the cafés and shops as they cruised past the playgrounds of the Mediterranean. The royal yacht could not visit foreign soil without being met and fêted by local dignitaries. Aside from the complications of the press, Britannia showing up means the Crown is in Town. In Port Said they had to welcome the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, and his wife aboard for dinner.
How perfectly horrid! Truly a scene from “The House of Usher.” Just imagine the Older, Colonially loquacious, unfashionably Dark-skinned couple intruding one Gothic night on an Aryan princess’s dolce far niente. And not even a crummy beach, or a transistor radio playing Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell,” or a wad of pink bubblegum to stick on the underside of the dining-room table to make it all a little less claustrophobic in the daytime. “She loved the swimming and the sun but the only other thing to do on the boat was read and books had never been her long suit.” Her husband happened to love reading, an obnoxious habit that leads the highbrow editoress of the New Yorker to the conclusion that “the Prince’s pleasures were those of a man twice his age.”
Thus, when it suits the champagne-swilling Miss Brown, royal frugality is distasteful, while in another, more politically astute mood, Miss Brown rather thinks royal profligacy must be curbed. The prince of Wales, aged 32, is much too decrepit for her doe-eyed Diana, but when this elderly bookworm has premarital affairs with other 20-year-olds, she ridicules him as immature. Reading may be a wonderful pastime for all ages when you are editing a national magazine, but equally, it’s a pain in the neck and a colossal waste of time. A dark-skinned Egyptian is unfashionable under one set of rules, yet under another he is the perfect partner for a woman of sophistication and discernment out to cuckold her husband. From Freud at his most absurd to Cosmopolitan at its most suggestive, from Marx at his most fantastic to the New York Times at its most vindictive, we have all seen how the tattler’s dialectic works.
Miss Brown is nothing if not a creature of this consummately contemporary approach to the discovery of truth. “Just babble away!” is how to subdue enemies and influence governments the Tatler way, a far more democratic prescription than stodgy old Carnegie’s. “Babble without fear or favor, babble like a housewife on amphetamines, babble until the cows come home. Don’t worry about contradicting yourself—isn’t everything a contradiction? Forget Aristotle’s excluded middle—if he’s so smart, how come he’s never made the Forbes? Let go of determinate values—remember, everything’s relative! Have no fear of banality—when printed on glossy paper, or backed up with Condé Nast millions, every cliché will look as fresh as a daisy, while the Remy de Gourmonts and the Vasily Rozanovs will stay just where they are, in musty old libraries frequented by tweedy, lonesome losers like the future king of England. “Above all, remember that political, social and economic power, long sovereign over the corporeal existence of mankind, has come at last to reign over the human spirit, and every kind of literature nowadays is but a projection of this power. A Nietzsche or a Kier-kegaard existed irrespective of whether they were published or by whom, while my thoughts on Prince Charles, as well as Prince Charles’s own thoughts should he decide to publish them, have an immanence strictly proportional to the publisher’s advances we receive.”
I apologize to the reader for saying hardly a word about the wedding dress, the glass coach, the acrimonious divorce, and the tragic accident or political assassination. The great upheaval of modern times is the emergence of figures such as Miss Brown, and all the tragic accidents or political assassinations, including John F. Kennedy’s, cannot compare in their destructive impact on the way we think and feel with the occlusive rise of the tattling immoralist. As for the dresses and the coaches, these have not changed since the fairy tales of our childhood days.
[The Diana Chronicles, by Tina Brown (New York: Random House) 481 pp., $27.50]