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What is left of Princess Diana?

Twenty-five years after her death, Diana Spencer has been eclipsed by monuments and myth.

By Tanya Gold

At Althorp, the Northamptonshire estate where she lived as a young woman, there is a drawing of Diana Spencer, round-faced and smiling. It was made when she was a child, and unhappy: her mother, Frances, had left the family. It is a private family artefact, and something else too: an early study in iconography, in making Diana something she was not. Her marriage to Prince Charles made Diana a paradigm. A queen exists to be a paradigm – that is her job – but an unhappy, divorced almost-queen, who died while being chased by the mass media that both deified and abused her, is another category of paradigm entirely. The drawing reminds me that she was once a private individual, but she became something else.

In the 25 years since her death, and the insatiable public mourning that followed, and the royal family’s dash to London to preserve their power, Diana the woman has been obscured by interpretations of Diana “the People’s Princess”. There are films, television shows, memoirs, awards, documentaries, conspiracy theories. There are commemorative plates, coins, dolls, tubs of margarine. There are physical memorials – monuments, statues, and a fountain – where the besotted still pay their respects. Even so, the Diana trail has become strewn with tumbleweed. She is now a collection of emotions and memories and scattered artefacts: a myth. What, if anything, is left of her?

Althorp, where Diana lived from the age of 14, is really a house imprisoned in another house. The original mansion is Tudor red brick, but that was unfashionable by 1780 and the family had it encased in stone, and it sits tightly in its new walls as if oppressed. The Spencers have always been courtiers, and this house is a plea for access. Today, it is owned by her brother, Lord Spencer, a historian. It is a silent house in a silent park, open to the public for only two months of the year. When I visit in August, I go first to the gift shop, in the stable block, which has no mention of Diana: to speak of her would be to exploit her. She is stalked by contradictions.

This house has all the grudging reluctance of being seen when you would rather not be seen: in this it is Diana’s opposite. Rooms are roped off – I see a Joshua Reynolds portrait only in a mirror – and furniture and curios have captions: “Do not touch.” The hallway is full of paintings of horses, doing what horses do: in the next room I find a woman dusting Charles Le Brun’s marble curls with a paintbrush.

[See also: The interventions of Prince Charles will end in calamity – for him and the monarchy]

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There is a statue of a ship-wrecked marine, his hand reaching out desperately, and opposite it, pointedly, a photorealistic painting called Rehab by Mitch Griffiths. In it, a bloody, almost-naked man stands, arms outstretched, Christ-like. He is surrounded by people in masks and white coveralls who might be paramedics. It isn’t clear whether they are helping him or killing him. He has a glass in one hand, a cigarette in another; a needle is held at the throat, and his underwear is being cut off. The bucket at his feet holds champagne and eerie medical tubes and bears the red masthead of the Sun. The caption reads: “This contemporary interpretation of the crucifixion addresses the perils of addiction not only to drugs but also to salacious gossip.”

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I am amazed at the placing of this portrait, the first one that is not a horse. Though it accuses the tabloid culture that hounded her, I always thought of Diana as an addict, her emotions a slipstream. She was unanchored, open to all ideas, even witchcraft. She had the self-absorption, the craftiness, the hunger for love, the fury, the mercurial kindness and the self-hatred of the addict. She had no emotional boundaries, and she died young in Paris as the summer of 1997 ended, in something as prosaic as a car crash. When I heard the news, what surprised me was my total absence of surprise. She could not be safe. It wasn’t in her.

Princess Diana memorial folly Althorp
Memorial: the small folly on the island where Diana is buried at Althorp, Northamptonshire. Photo by Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

They fear salacious gossip here. Upstairs, in the picture gallery, I ask Diane, a guide, the name of a painting downstairs. I write her answer in my notebook. “Are you a journalist?” she asks. “What are you writing about?” I fear I will be expelled, so I say I paid the £25 entry free and asked a question about art history, which is presumably in the public domain. She is standing in front of another Mitch Griffiths painting, Britannia: a woman holding a CCTV camera and a buggy, cigarette in mouth, standing on the Union Flag. The caption warns of modern Britain’s “obsession with celebrity”.

There are pieces of Diana scattered through the gallery: a photograph of her as a baby on a piano, looking secretive; the drawing of her as a child, near her mother Frances, whose face seems weirdly indistinct, as if rubbed out. Frances left Lord Spencer when Diana was five, and Frances’s own mother, the monstrous Lady Fermoy, testified against her daughter in the custody battle. There is a huge, gaudy painting of Diana at the top of the stairs. She wears a white gauzy blouse and a long green skirt. No painting, statue or cinematic drama can capture her. Her medium is documentary film and photography. But here, she looks like a moneyed waitress in a themed restaurant: nothing like herself.

I walk to the Round Oval lake and its island, on which she is buried. I walk past garden furniture wound with velvet ropes, and 36 oak trees Lord Spencer planted, one for each year of her life. Thirty-six oak trees at the stroke of a pen; it is so easy to forget how rich the landed aristocracy are.

Lord Spencer says that people have tried to steal her body. Today, visitors stand outside a small folly dedicated to her and take photographs. There is a silhouette of her face – a poor sculpture – and a quotation: “Nothing brings me more happiness than trying to help the most vulnerable people in society. It is a goal and an essential part of my life. A kind of destiny. Whoever is in distress can call on me. I will come running wherever they are.” A woman has left a plastic rose and a note: tu resteras toujours dans mon coeur.

People mutter at the folly. “Why isn’t she with her parents, why is she on her own?” “I thought she was buried in the Admiralty graveyard, and moved.” “She was a people person – it’s a shame she’s on her own.”

[See also: The making of Prince William]

A woman called Pam is sunning herself on the grass. She is softly spoken, and came from Seattle to visit the grave. Her home is filled with Diana memorabilia. “She is such a great overcomer,” she says. “She was a very compassionate person, and very willing to share her struggles. And she was so beautiful.”

I meet a woman walking away from the lake. She says it is the 14th anniversary of her daughter’s death, and she is here with her surviving daughter. They visited the family grave this morning, and then Diana’s this afternoon. She frets about the cruelty of Diana’s childhood and marriage – “she didn’t get the love that she deserved” – and her gifts – “she had a wonderful sympathy with children, with people with disabilities and people that needed help”.

By the stable block, which is furnished with cannons, I meet a woman with her daughter and granddaughter. She is a beauty with heavy eyes. She has wanted to come here for many years. She says her husband died in a car crash four years before Diana did: she turns to her daughter. “Your Dad idolised Diana.”

The bereaved are drawn to Diana. People see themselves in her: in her suffering, her triumph, and – in the end – her death. There would be no cult of Diana without her death: she has earned it. It is as if she gave people permission to feel; and, if you love Diana, you don’t have to do much else but feel. It’s the politics of sensibility: an impersonation of real politics, almost anti-politics, though increasingly fashionable. The contradiction is that people identify not because she was like them, but because she was not. You must have fame, and beauty, to be a mirror: it’s the price of entry. People are not enough for each other. They must have gods. Some people say she had healing powers. There is no evidence for this, though she loitered by deathbeds.

Diana fans will brook no opposition, and sometimes no truth. The woman at the stable block hints she might have been murdered: “We will never know.” When I suggest to the woman on the grass that Diana wasn’t well-educated – she had no O-levels – she sulks. Althorp is most extraordinary for its emptiness; only 60 visitors are expected that day.

The biggest collection of Diana material is in an online museum that began with a platypus. Its owner, Renae Plant, whom I meet on Zoom, sitting in front of a vast portrait of Diana, met the princess as a child in Australia in 1983. “She shook my hand,” she says, “and dropped a clay platypus in the dirt. I went under a barricade, and I picked it up. I ran to a policeman and said, ‘Lady Diana dropped this.’ He looked me in the eyes and closed it in my hand and said, ‘She must have dropped it to give it to you.’”

Years later, Plant bought at auction for $125,000 a Caroline Charles burgundy coat that Diana owned. “I gravitated to it because she was wearing it with Prince William on her hip. I thought it would retain its value because she was wearing a future king of England on her hip. It was an investment.” Then she began collecting: after Diana died, she felt the pieces were scattered all around the world aimlessly. Diana and her family would give things away to charity or staff: when the owners die, the heirs sell them on. There are the Hunter Wellington boots she wore at Balmoral the month before her wedding; 50 hand-written requests for hair appointments with Richard Dalton; Prince Charles’s riding trousers, which were donated to the Polish Mission; the doll’s house furniture she played with as a child; the original platypus. Plant believes that Diana’s gift was “this ability to make people feel they knew her”. When she died, Plant cried for a week.

The drama is in the transformation: as Hilary Mantel has noted, Diana is a collection of archetypes. She was the daughter of a disastrous marriage and later a stepdaughter, a lonely child; a nursery teacher’s assistant, and cleaner for her elder sister, a drudge; a virgin wife to an unloving prince, a human sacrifice; a divorcée, a disappointed woman; a global media phenomenon, a goddess.

[See also: Why Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview was the most successful in royal history]

People are as surprising as Diana was. Investigating her, I find oddities: pockets of emotion, or none at all. Tom Murphy, who sculpted her twice, talks of her with affection but not feeling. “She was quite difficult to do, Diana. She’s very beautiful in certain poses and she can look a bit awkward in others. It’s difficult to get exactly the right balance.” That is why he returned to her. The first time, he did it from curiosity: “I had time on my hands.” She was in his garden for years, and now she is in his workshop, where she sits amid “a pile of fragments” with sculptures of the Beatles, as if she were a member of the band.

When I speak to Tessy Ojo, the CEO of the Diana Award, I expect an interview from a bureaucrat, but it is something more interesting. What people grieved, she says, “were her values” and “the connection that they felt to her. How she made you feel visible, how she made you feel like you mattered even though you had never met her.” Even though Diana was a princess, Ojo says, she convinced people: “I want to walk in your shoes, I want to feel what you feel.”

Ojo tells me she took the job after she dreamed about Diana. In the dream she remembered the card she placed at Kensington Palace years before. “I wrote, ‘You touched my life, and I am going to touch yours.’ Which is ridiculous. What does that even mean?”

The Princess Diana memorial walk begins in Kensington Gardens and winds through Green Park and St James’s Park, past palaces that house people who terrorised her. I begin at Café Diana, a greasy spoon and kebab shop swagged with Union flags off Notting Hill Gate. It feels like a café that rebranded itself on impulse and is more committed for it. The owner wanted to name it after himself – Ahmed’s Café – but when he learned Diana was his neighbour and saw her in the street in 1989, he changed his mind. Café Diana is filled with portraits of her: an eerie and disorientating landscape. Ever helpful in gilding her myth, she brought some in herself. There is a gnomic and self-pitying note from her on the wall, thanking Ahmed for flowers on her birthday. She ate here – of course she did, and I love her for that. I would do the same. There is a photograph of her sitting in the window in which she seems to impersonate herself. “I have no interest in Princess Diana,” says a solitary man, drinking coffee in front of hundreds of photographs of her. The waitress says people do come and ask what she ate: small English breakfast, she says, or croissant; English breakfast tea or coffee – no lunch, no dinner.

The walk passes a playground with a pirate ship and goes on to Kensington Palace, and her statue by Ian Rank-Broadley, in which she is surrounded by three idealised children, in the sunken garden. It is not a good statue: the Palace, as if embarrassed, only allows visitors to get close to its back; to see the front you must stand far away. At its feet is a quotation from “The Measure of a Man”, a poem so bad I feel for her: “These are the units to measure the worth/of this woman as a woman regardless of birth/not what was her station?/But had she a heart?/How did she play her God-given part?” Monarchists always use the sentiment “regardless of station”. I found it in a life of Catherine Middleton in the gift shop at Sandringham House. They don’t mean it.

Still, people believe it. “She was so real,” says a woman by the statue, as if other princesses are not. “She was just like one of us. She wasn’t royal or upper-class or anything.” I ask her if she likes the statue. “To be honest, they could have done a better job,” she says. We ponder what a better statue might have been: a climbing wall, a giant shoe, a scream.

As far as I am aware I am the only memorial walker today: when I meet others on my journey, they are surprised to learn they are doing the walk. The memorial fountain in Hyde Park suits her perfectly: it is water and Cornish granite, mutable and immutable, and it curves, falls, stills. It is filled with shouting, almost naked children, who are unconscious of her, but happy.

Hundreds are queuing outside Madame Tussauds in the heat. They are here to see their archetypes laid out, their waxy and compliant gods. I marvel at the laziness and the convenience: that you can, for £33.50, queue to pose with the objects of your imagination. It is a peculiar act that feels both supine and entitled.

Diana stands alone in front of a fake window framing a photograph of Kensington Palace. It is the third Diana to stand here: the three Dianas are dated 1981, 1983 and 1996. She sat for this, most recent model, and the first model. The caption reads: “High-profile charity supporter and iconic presence on the world stage.” The phrasing is accurate. An icon is a devotional object.

She is opposite Henry VIII, who would have executed her – the only myth he allowed was himself – and between William Shakespeare and a dispenser of hand sanitiser. This Diana is uncanny, and frightening. She looks wistful and amused: intelligent. But there is something wrong with her. I stand on tiptoe and crane my head. I must look madder than anyone here. I stare into what passes for her eyes. I look from all angles and then I find it. Her gaze rests nowhere.

[See also: How Princess Diana became a millennial obsession]

“It couldn’t get any closer to her,” says a woman behind me. “She had a presence the other royals haven’t got. She’s one on her own.” She met Diana when she opened the women’s hospital in Liverpool, where one of Tom Murphy’s sculptures sits. Diana has her own parallel map of Britain: memorials are dotted vaguely through the land. “I’ve never seen anything like her. She has something that no one else has. She didn’t care who she was. She was just Diana. She didn’t think she was better than anyone. She was just her.”

The royal family – the Queen, Charles and William and their wives – are in a different part of the museum, where they stand before the throne: the focal point. People pose for official photographs, which they take home. When they mount the rostrum to wave at the camera, they jostle the Queen. She is tiny, and she wobbles. Her earrings shake. This is the most popular photo, the girl in the sales booth tells me. Darth Vader is in second place.

People call Diana’s story a thwarted love story: if it was not thwarted, she would have settled into the palace portraiture and been forgotten. This is a story about class as much as love; or, rather, in the end, love of class. People noticed Diana because she was a princess, and mercurial. But her paths were not new. She followed the ancient custom that the British establishment will absorb anything that makes it stronger: the Queen never seemed kind until Diana died. People saw Diana as someone who spoke kindly amid cruelty. And in her, they found that quality of thwartedness – of a world that can’t be changed, no matter your strivings – that they saw in themselves.

When we deify, and sacrifice a woman, her complex self slips away. Madame Tussauds is the most visited Diana site, and there is nothing of her here. It is the final victory of the people’s needs and the end point of her journey. She has become wax.

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars