Twenty years ago, I sat in the greenroom of a major television network, watching the funeral procession of Princess Diana with several others, including a well-respected national anchorman. A deeply moving sight unfolded onscreen: the casket of the most famous woman in the world being drawn through the streets of London, trailed by her devastated sons, as millions of people watched in solemn silence along the cortege route and around the world.
“I don’t get it,” the anchor shrugged.
He couldn’t grasp why this poor little rich girl warranted such a global outpouring of grief: the sea of flowers, the week-long mourning, the wall-to-wall news coverage, the raw and open sadness of countless strangers.
With her youthful vibrance, Diana had breathed new life into the crusty British monarchy and provided it with an heir and a spare. But to those who didn’t “get it,” she was just a woman of aristocratic pedigree but limited intellect who hadn’t achieved much beyond marrying really well. And given what we later learned of their loveless marriage, even that appeared to be an accident of her beauty, lineage and timing.
What they didn’t understand was that Diana represented the inevitable and disillusioning collision of fantasy and reality, especially for women, many of whom grew up with the Cinderella/Snow White stories of princely “rescue”. And here was Diana, for whom it had actually happened. Her fairy tale became ours. We rooted for her, projecting our own hopeful idealism on to her — which was perhaps too great a weight for her, or anyone, to bear.
Over time, it became clear that her seemingly glamorous, exceptionally privileged life came with a steep price: an emotionally barren marriage and crippling loneliness, desperation and despair. She wasn’t Cinderella. She was Rapunzel, literally trapped in a modern-day Tower of London — until she staged her own prison break.
In Diana, we watched a chrysalis-like awakening unfold in real time. She went from being an impossibly young and naive bride and mother to a woman betrayed and humiliated publicly, who was nevertheless expected to suffer in silence and soldier on by a family notorious for its institutional coldness and ruthless disposal of inconvenient people.
She reacted humanly, messily: indulging in her own revenge affairs, suffering an eating disorder and bouts of profound depression.
But somehow, she found a path to re-invention as a sturdier creature with an identity and mission of her own. With growing confidence, she took on controversial issues — from AIDS to landmines — partly to eclipse her royal nemeses but mostly because she wanted to comfort victims of cruelty and injustice.
True, she could be supremely calculating, invoking victimhood when it suited her and manipulating public opinion to gain support or to get even. Three years after she and Prince Charles had separated, perhaps in an effort to precipitate divorce, she gave an interview to the BBC in which she told the world that she knew of her husband’s longstanding infidelity. When asked directly if Camilla Parker-Bowles were “a factor in the breakdown” of her marriage, Diana glanced up from the floor and replied, “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
Perfect line, perfectly delivered. Diana — already the peoples’ favorite — enjoyed an explosion of renewed sympathy and public pressure to free her from her misery. Within a month, the queen privately counseled both of them to divorce. Her evolution was complete: she had learned how to play the game of thrones. Even in death, she compelled the reluctant queen to acknowledge her nation’s grief after days of apparent callous indifference.
In a way, Diana was a paradox: her experience seemed simultaneously far removed and extraordinarily familiar, imbuing her with an unexpected and poignant relatability. That’s why when she died prematurely in a crush of metal in Paris, millions felt the loss. They had still been rooting for the happy ending, and the story had ended too soon.
Yet the greatest moral of the story endures: her brief, turbulent life showed that while fairy tales may not exist, it’s never too late to come to your own rescue.
• Monica Crowley is a senior fellow at the London Center of Policy Research.
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