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18 May 2016

Mourning and the media: the afterlife of Princess Diana

As part of the New Statesman's Monarchy Week, why we can't deal with a modern princess – and definitely not a dead one.

By Stephanie Boland

My parents didn’t believe me when I told them Diana was dead. It was first thing in the morning, and I was seven years old, listening to the news.

I must have known who Diana was before that, in order to register the news as significant, but that morning – and the mourning, which also played out on television for weeks after – is my first memory now. Then again, I barely remember what my generation calls “the royal wedding”, even though I must have been twenty by then. I suspect I was insufferably earnest about it. Watching the Cambridges is rather like seeing dressage horses: trussed up and glossy, taking a lot of ultimately pointless steps for a ritual from a culture which no longer exists in any meaningful sense.

But you don’t really get to opt out of these things, particularly in the era of rolling news clips. In an essay published in the London Review of Books in 2013, Hilary Mantel wrote of Diana’s wedding that when she “drove to St.Paul’s she was a blur of virginial white behind glass . . . the coach was a medium, a method of conveyance and communicative between two spheres, the private and the public, the common and the royal.”

There is something specifically modern about this, and not only in the sense that Diana managed to operate simultaneously as a royal and, partially in defying that category, as a celebrity. An estimated 750 million people worldwide watched her marry Charles – imagine that number of people being able to see every expression on your wedding day – and 32.10 million tuned in for her funeral.

Part of the strangeness of her persona almost certainly came from the novelty of her position, her potential to be, as Dorothy Thompson has pointed out, a different kind of royal, “new, young and pure”. Forget that the Spencers are to all intents and purposes a noble family; this was an unprecedented celebrity replacement for the hereditary stuffiness of the Windsors. She was not just a new sort of member for the country’s strangest family, but also the first member of that family to fully inhabit the new media age.

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It could have been glorious if it hadn’t all gone wrong – something Diana herself remarked on presciently in her (controversially) self-arranged interview with Martin Bashir when she said that her situation had “never happened before. That’s the problem”.

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***

The sort of publicity which Diana was subject to goes beyond any meaning of “public” comprehensible in the years preceding her marriage, but is one deeply familiar to us – if still not fully understood by us – today.

Researching this piece, I was struck by the similarity between the articles on celebrity mourning posted on the BBC website in the period immediately following her death and those written not so long ago about Prince. In fact, we might reasonably suppose that the fact Diana’s period of celebrity coincided with so many advances in broadcast technology informs her afterlife far more than the details of what happened, at least if the internet re-circulation of conspiracy theories and photos of her dancing with John Travolta alike is anything to go by. More significantly, it has also permitted the scale of media attention dedicated to her to be replicated, again and again, with far less resources, to construct a story about other women.

John Travolta dances with Diana at the White House. Photo: University of Texas Reagan Archives

Reading about her online, I have found Diana postcards, YouTube videos on “the secret she knew”, even Diana Blingees. We have no idea what to do with a modern princess, and even less of an idea what to do with a dead one.

***

There is a point to be made here, I think, about collective narrative, and it is on this point that Mantel quotes Sue Townsend, the woman who wrote a story about the Queen going to live in a council house and said of Diana that she was “a fatal non-reader”; she didn’t, to quote Mantel, “see the twists in the narrative”.

A princess who the media depicts as half mad and half a martyr isn’t supposed to die in a car crash: it ought to have been doing charity work overseas, maybe, or something that could prove how unstable she’d been, hit the right note of pathos. But perhaps the story of Diana’s life is less historical novel and more MFA: a story in which the conclusion is unsatisfying and left-field, designed to remind you that life is in fact under no obligation to make sense, that people are not characters, and that sometimes it is the very lack of drama, at least in the sense of dramatization, which is hardest to deal with.

Like most moments where the banal meets the eventful, there is an incoherence to someone dying which is only amplified by the person in question being a celebrity. Already at a stage of remove, celebrity death allows one to feel both intimately attached and yet uncomfortably distant at once. I suspect nobody was surprised when a 1999 BBC article following the public grieving of Jill Dando brought up Diana’s death as the ur-example of this complicated relationship, nor to read a quotation from Dr Oliver James stating that 80% of those queuing up to sign condolence books were women (although one wonders how they counted).

If there’s something instructive about empathy to be gleaned from our reaction to Diana’s death, it befits us to work it out soon. As Mantel’s essay points out, we’ve still not learnt our lesson when it comes to treating people’s real, physical bodies as plot devices.

“In the end”, Mantel writes, “nothing changed”. I’m not so sure about that: yes, our media culture is still, not to get too po-faced about it, toxic for women, and yes, we still as a society seem incapable of reconciling the existence of human bodies with the stories we’d like to tell about their owners. I detect a little backlash with Kate, though; a sense that perhaps a young mother shouldn’t have her photo taken with a long-lens while she sunbathes on holiday, even if proof that she has breasts will sell newspapers. (It hardly needs saying that no-one’s taking photos of William in a Speedo).

But there’s a trade-off for this sort of clemency. If you keep everything together, the hair and the school appearances and the constant, beaming smile – I’m trying now to picture Kate Middleton frowning, and can’t – you can gamble on some public sympathy, even on some irate newspaper columnists calling a novelist unattractive and jealous when she points out the wager that being a woman in the public eye forces you to make. Where the press was happy to call Diana mad, Kate is eminently sane (sort of).

***

There is a moment in Angela Carter’s Wise Children – a novel partially about what constitutes legitimate succession – which sees a young model, pregnant and bullied by her boyfriend Tristram, the inheritor of an august theatrical legacy, turn Ophelia on his television program and walk onto set “mad as a hatter in front of an audience of millions”. Tracking blood from bare feet and singing obscene songs, she exposes her breasts (“not like the ones she’d shown off like borrowed finery to the glamour lenses. This was flesh”), to the extreme discomfort of the audience. It is only when she leaves the set and Tristram manages his usual goodnight spiel that they relax and applaud.

A woman unravelling in public doesn’t work, doesn’t fit the story – at least, not if she’s paradoxically unravelling on her own terms.

As I write this, the news has come in that Sinead O’Connor, who was reported as missing earlier this week, has been found safe – yet in the brief twenty-four hour period where she was unaccounted for, plenty said she wouldn’t be missed. Sinead O’Connor: too mad, too loud, with that cropped hair and priest’s collar. Lily Allen, who recently revealed she had been stalked and harassed over a period of years, is the same, with comments under articles pointing out how she had done too much publicity for a harassed woman, was too much of “a tawdry character”.  Too bad.

I think we know what we’re doing when we subject these women to an endless critical gaze then collectively flinch when they show us the damage. For women in the media, failing on your own terms is almost as outrageous as success. If you can’t be perfect – and you can’t – you should at least try to be. Anyone who believes the press ultimately came to love Diana for her vulnerability, as her brother Edmund Spencer said the world had come to in his eulogy, might imagine the potential headlines if her death had been self-inflicted.

Or maybe imagine something else, instead. A few years ago, Monica Ali published a novel about a member of the royal family, Lydia, who fakes her own death and goes to live in a quiet town in America. She takes up working with animals and begins dating a kind, if mediocre, man. She cannot see her sons anymore but she can watch them grow up in the media, and although that troubles her, she is at least no longer subject to what the book calls “an unbearable level of scrutiny”. The town is generic; her friends are a trio of middle-aged, unremarkable women. It is in this small, banal life that she begins to find peace.

This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.