“Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” cried the craftsmen of Ephesus. They had heard of the threat to their occupation posed by Paul (Acts 19: 24-29), who was violently against the making of images. Demetrius, a silversmith, had made a just complaint: “So that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at naught . . . ” All they wanted was to make silver shrines to Diana, “which brought no small gain unto the craftsmen.” There was a rowdy town meeting at the theater (which we can still see), and the town clerk of Ephesus, a man of sterling good sense, settled the affair by recommending a class action, “the law is open.” Paul left town, for his own good.
The silversmiths are still with us, led by Franklin Mint. They still go in for class actions. And they still win. The furor over the marketing of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, with its ancient parallels, saw a debate between those who wanted to strike off images of Diana—dolls, signatures, photographs, margarine wrappings—and those who found this tasteless and materialistic, or at least in need of strict regulation, which they would provide. One side found idols profitable, the other deplored unregulated idolatry. The Princess Diana Memorial Fund, whose president was Lady Sarah McCorquodale, elder sister of the Princess, sought to preserve intellectual property rights to the production and sale of Diana memorabilia. The Fund unwisely took on Franklin Mint and refused a licence to vend memorabilia; Franklin Mint went ahead anyway. The case went to court; the Fund lost, costing it £4 million and another £13 million in compensation, and was forced to freeze its grants. The Fund closed down quietly in 2012. Vast quantities of Diana memorabilia, much of it silverware, are now for sale online. In the end the contest turned out to be less about principle than about copyright. And ownership. Both parties fostered in their own way the cult of Diana.
From all of this we can see that the great Diana cult, and its competitive supporters, have never settled and most probably never will. It began when the marriage between Charles and Diana publicly broke up. Sides were taken: The media stood with Diana, for her looks, extraordinary glamour, and gifted manipulation of the same media. Diana loved the camera, and the camera loved her. She took on causes of great visual impact. She knew that AIDS is not contagious and was filmed touching a sufferer. She often comforted young and old in distress. Her work for charities—she was patroness of many—gave real body to her celebrity. Everyone who met her spoke of her warmth, charm, and interest in their own stories, of her unforced ease of communication with all walks. This was genuine fame of the right sort.
There was another side to that fame. In 1992 the publication of Diana: Her True Story, allegedly written by Andrew Morton, caused a sensation. It was actually written by Diana herself, and the revised edition (1997) carried the title Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words. The Diana myth and narrative that sped round the world was largely created by her, for herself. Prince Charles made no response, then or since. There was this shot of the Princess seated before the Taj Mahal, alone save for the many photographers and press excluded from the shot. (“In solitude, when we are least alone,” as Byron put it.) There was the moment when the Princess, who had long objected to paparazzi harassment, called up her ally in the press to let the media know where to find the street corner where she was about to be harassed. Fitted with a transparent head cover, she later decided to go boldly among minefields, which had been well cleared in advance, to advertise her support for mine-clearance charities. And there was a moment I well remember, when I happened to be watching Sky News at five o’clock. They led with a riveting scene of the Princess wearing a surgical mask and gown, present in a real operating ward in a real hospital. The scene was pulled from the six o’clock program, and it was years before I saw it again; the powers had presumably decided that hospital care should be left to professionals. But it was as an actress that Diana engrossed the world.
Another aspect of Diana’s self-projection, which enhanced her cult hugely, was the domestic. She presented herself as a martyr to her cold, unfeeling husband and in-laws, a role that untold millions had already chosen for themselves. She thus gained the support of contemporary feminism, and also a formidable reservist army: republicans. There has always been a latent republicanism in England, especially from the middle years (post-Albert) of Victoria. Diana, who waged media war against Charles before and after their divorce, cued in without formal acknowledgement to this movement. Its aim was to drive Charles out of the succession, and thus to make Diana’s elder son the next king. But this would make Britain an elective monarchy, for which there are indeed Continental precedents. An elective monarchy is a way station to an elective presidency.
The war between the Waleses, as the press insisted on calling it—though one side only had declared war—reached its climactic moment in the Panorama interview. Here Diana, with unforgettably kohl-rimmed eyes, denounced her husband and his own arrangements—“there were three of us in the marriage.” She doubted that he was up to the task of king. Immediately after the interview, the TV panelists gave their verdict: Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, a former equerry and close friend of Prince Charles, described the event as “toe-curlingly awful,” adding that the Princess was displaying “the advanced stages of paranoia.” He was reviled for this. But a Rubicon had been crossed; members of the Royal house are not supposed to question the succession. The Queen urged the Prince and Princess to divorce.
This went ahead without additional acrimony, and with a reasonable but not excessive settlement. But the title “Her Royal Highness” went. Released from the bonds of marriage, the Princess took several lovers, at least one of whom was smuggled into Kensington Palace in the trunk of a car. The last was Dodi Al-Fayed, an Egyptian playboy and son of the owner of Harrods. He was with her on that last fatal night at the Ritz Hotel, Paris, which ended in the underpass to the Pont de l’Alma. At once stories of Establishment conspiracy were rife. France and Britain, which always cooperate fully in the highest matters of state, gave the Princess’s death their best investigation. Nothing suspicious emerged. No other outcome of the crash needed explanation, since the big Mercedes was driven at the speed of a light aircraft by a man who had been drinking before being called on duty, who had not had the special training that the car required, and who was not wearing his seat belt. Neither of the passengers in the rear seat did, either. Only Diana’s bodyguard in the front seat had belted up—which was against his standing orders—and he was the sole survivor.
The immediate aftermath to Diana’s death had a strange, almost surreal quality. The world shock was without precedent, as was the tidal wave of emotion in Britain. Many have said that they felt like aliens in a foreign country; the concept of vicarious grief—nowadays more widely encountered—seemed unnatural. The republican side of the press showed its claws: Show You Care, Ma’am! was the Daily Mirror’s headline rebuke to the Queen. She was in Balmoral at the time of the crash, meaning that no flag flew at Buckingham Palace. It was a couple of days before the flag flew there at half-mast. And the Queen came from a tradition of controlling private emotion, which is not today’s mode. Under some political pressure, the Queen spoke feelingly on TV about the late Princess, and public feeling was to some extent assuaged by the funeral ceremonies. The body had been brought over from the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, accompanied by Prince Charles; the cortège went from St. James’s Palace to Westminster Abbey, with the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, her two sons, and her brother, Earl Spencer, walking behind the coffin. The congregation included Nelson Mandela, Henry Kissinger, and Hillary Clinton; it heard Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” and was addressed by Earl Spencer. In his eulogy he reproached the royal family for their treatment of his sister—though his own relationship with her was not spotless. He claimed her two sons as “blood family,” as though the Windsors were not equally of the blood. The congregation, forgetting that it was not an audience, applauded. Tony Blair quoted 1 Corinthians 13, maladroitly, from the New English Bible so that the great line came out as “Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror.” This may indeed have puzzled those more familiar with “Now we see through a glass, darkly.” Diana’s body was then conveyed to a small island on the ornamental lake at Althorp, where the grave is now a permanent attraction. Althorp House is open to the public at a ticket price of £18.50.
For an even-handed and convincing account of this vivid episode in the nation’s history, I recommend the Oscar-award winning film The Queen. It is thought that Helen Mirren’s admirable performance was well received in the highest quarter. The script, acting, and conclusion—in which Tony Blair receives a memento mori warning from the Queen—stands up well today. For a flash reaction to Diana’s death, Private Eye printed a letter whose writer came downstairs on that Sunday morning, turned on the TV, and went back to report the news to his wife. “Diana’s dead. They’re playing ‘God Save the Queen.’” To which she responded, “I think He just has.” Diana was always a divisive figure, a truth partially masked by the dominant high emotions of that memorable week.
The cult of Diana had started to fade a little before her death. In her last few weeks her stock was beginning to fall on the infallible bourse of the media commentators. Dodi Al-Fayed had not been taken to the public’s heart, and he was the subject of jokes in the press. There would have to be a successor. Yet Diana stayed on the yacht owned by Dodi’s father and, clad in her leopard-print swimsuit, spoke frequently to the nearby paparazzi, promising revelations soon to come. Looking back one can see her behavior as a kind of Totentanz, or an evocation of Ernest Dowson: “I cried for madder music and for stronger wine.” It was toward midnight that she left the Ritz and ordered her wild ride.
And now the results are in. Some of them are mere réchauffé pieces that saw the light years ago—from Paul Burrell, her fissile “rock” butler, and Patrick Jephson, Diana’s private secretary, who by his own account had jumped from her employment shortly before being pushed. Both can relate stories that reflect well and ill of the Princess. Earl Spencer has adopted the role of curator of Diana’s memory, and he has the body. Ownership comes with its own trials; the lakeside grave has on four occasions been the target of grave robbers, all thwarted. And against the Earl’s protests, Channel 4—in the tradition of Demetrius the silversmith—broadcast some Diana tapes in which she offered more indiscreet revelations. They appear as the forerunner to the Panorama interview. But life has moved on. The royal house has slowly overcome the shock to its system of 1997. Prince Charles is now happily married to Camilla. The two young sons of Diana are in every way her legacy, and the future; they have recently appeared on TV and have struck a note that is set to continue, in speaking of the pain they have felt at their mother’s loss, and their difficulties with the demands of royalty. They have both taken up the issues of mental health.
This note is not without challenge. A star columnist in The Times (July 25) headlined in an article,“We don’t need the cult of Diana revived again,” and deplored the “emotional incontinence” she fostered. A Telegraph columnist wrote, “We don’t want Princes who unburden themselves. We want royals who are strong and silent. That way the mystique of the monarchy continues.” But the Princes stay in touch with the display of public emotion that is of our time, and follow the tradition of their mother. In the great ship of state the young Princes act as stabilizers.
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