Having been born in 1998, I have lived my life in the shadow of Princess Diana. I never saw her on television, never felt invested in her life or experienced the uproar surrounding her untimely death. The first time I even heard her name, in a year 6 History lesson, I thought she was a pop star.
But even twenty years on from her death, she still somehow holds the public attention. Whether it’s through television specials celebrating her life or tabloids running conspiracy theories about the car accident that shortened her life, the ‘People’s Princess’ has been a central figure of British pop culture.
I’ve never really understood the fascination with Diana. In this article, I want to look at why she’s so revered, and what that illustrates about Britain in the modern era.
“She was a wonderful and a warm human being, although her own life was often sadly touched by tragedy. She touched the lives of so many others in Britain and throughout the world with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her in how many different ways – with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy?” – Tony Blair (1)
If one were to read this short snippet of the former Prime Minister’s speech, they could assume he was talking about Mother Theresa. Some of the language used by Blair is reminiscent of the way Catholics would talk about saintly figures. He even states that ‘people everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana’.
A glance at Diana’s Wikipedia page does reveal an impressive body of charity work. She was the president of Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. She was the patron of numerous charities including Landmine Survivors Network, the British Lung Foundation, the British Deaf Association and Parkinson’s Disease Society. It was even said, by Stephen Lee, director of the UK Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, that “Her overall effect on charity is probably more significant than any other person’s in the 20th century.” (2)
Something often appreciated about Diana is her work with victims of AIDS. During the 1980s, AIDS was a widely stigmatized disease, associated with homosexuals and drug users. As such, people who contracted the illness were subjected to family abandonment, abuse and discrimination.
In April 1987, Diana opened the UK’s first HIV/AIDS unit that exclusively cared for patients suffering with the virus. She shocked the world when she shook the hand of an AIDS patient, without wearing gloves. At the time, many believed the illness could be spread through bodily contact and as a result, shunned those carrying the virus.
Despite the insistence of Queen Elizabeth that she focus her attention on something ‘more pleasant’, Diana persisted. It’s hard to say how much she changed perceptions on AIDS, but she certainly was part of the process that humanized people suffering with a strange and often fatal disease.
‘HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug: Heaven knows they need it’ – Princess Diana
The Royals At Large
It’s an often cited opinion that Diana saved the Royal Family. She is credited with bringing them into the modern age, bridging the gap between the elite and their subjects. In the modern day, William, Kate and Harry are continuing this trend with their open discussions on mental health.
However, there is an argument to be made that Diana is a largely fabricated character.
In the aftermath of her death, the streets were lined with mourners. Public crying was frequently seen, almost as if people were mourning a close family member. Writer Christopher Hitchens recalls that anybody now publicly bemoaning her death was shamed, and in the few weeks of mourning, Britain became a ‘one-party state’.
Hitchens, being a republican, may have a bias against Diana. In describing her as a ‘simpering Bambi narcissist’, he makes this perfectly clear. But his criticisms of the media coverage aren’t entirely without merit. For the media to claim that a whole nation is in mourning is quite a over-riding statement, as there were surely many who didn’t really care either way.
The extent to which Diana was mourned appears reminiscent of a religious figure and even deviates into fanatical behaviour. A supermarket that stayed open the day of Diana’s funeral was hit with several bomb threats – even though the store managers were going to donate the proceeds to charity.
Something that seemed to be forgotten in the wake of her death was that Diana was a mortal being. She had been fortunate enough to have her platform to help others, because she’d married into a family revered for their bloodline.
Looking beyond the pageantry of royalty, the media beatification and the public outpourings of grief, Diana’s story is a sad one.
Dying at age thirty-six, leaving behind two young boys, is certainly a tragedy for all involved. Her failed marriage to Charles, whilst tabloid fodder for many years to come, reflects a sad story of a young woman roped into a loveless marriage. On a human level, Diana is sympathetic and certainly has admirable traits.
Though she was given the prestigious title of ‘Princess Of Wales’, Diana was essentially a celebrity in the same vein as Michael Jackson or Jade Goody. Though they worked hard on causes close to their hearts, the degree to which they were glorified in death is somewhat jarring at times.
To some, Diana might represent a more sanitized vision of Britain. One in which a country is unified behind a friendly figure, as she shakes hands, cuts ribbons to hospitals and accepts bouquets from young girls.
I do wonder how long the fascination with Diana will persist. Of course there’s a heightened attention now, due to the upcoming anniversary of her death, but who’s to say it’ll be any different in the future?
Perhaps as the exclusives and conspiracies continuing pouring out of the papers, the interest in her life will only increase. In the greatest sense of irony, Diana may as well be living, because she continues to be hounded by the media.