My first memory of Diana is visual: that blue suit she wore and the sapphire ring, on the day of her engagement. When she married Charles in 1981 I was nine years old; she was twice my age, but still hardly a woman. I stood around the TV that summer in Ireland with my mother, grandma and auntie, who exited en masse as Diana clambered out of the royal carriage in her billowing dress: “It’s creased!”
It was the age of New Romantics, and I recall the outfit I wanted for a birthday party around this time – a white blouse with high-neck frill, and black velvet knickerbockers. I don’t remember the party, or if I wore that outfit again. I also had one of the many Diana picture books rushed into print – I’m not sure who gave it to me, but it might have come from the Marks & Spencer sale.
After learning that British royals don’t marry Catholics, I abandoned my girlish notion of becoming a princess. Behind the doors of Kensington Palace, the fairytale marriage was crumbling. Diana’s style changed, turning sleek and modern as she embraced the next decade. She emerged as a political force, aligning herself with AIDS patients and children of war. And she encouraged others too, as my friend Fraser Penney told me:
I remember when she was first introduced to the media and it was really like a tidal wave of affection and interest. But it wasn’t really until the cracks started to appear that there was a change in the air. It was like she evolved into something else. She gained power without really having any if you know what I mean? Each thing she got involved with seemed to bring awareness to many things that possibly others would shy away from. It’s the reason I got into care work and helping people with special needs. She inspired me in that I knew I had to help and support others. Nobody really demonstrated that before her.
Diana was born into privilege and, seemingly, had no special talent (although in another life, according to Wayne Sleep, she might have been a dancer.) But like Marilyn Monroe, she was warm and sensitive, and her tremulous beauty – ‘the silvery witch of us all’, as Norman Mailer once wrote of MM – was highly photogenic. Of course, they both died at thirty-six.
Mario Testino’s images of Diana in her last spring remind me of Bert Stern and George Barris’ so-called ‘last sittings’ with Monroe. But there’s another, more contemporary parallel: just a few years before, Testino had photographed Madonna, playing at being a princess. Her video for ‘Drowned World (Substitute for Love)‘ evokes the relentless pursuit of women in the spotlight. But for Elton John, Diana was just another ‘candle in the wind.’
In August 1997, I was twenty-five and living with my husband in a studio flat on Grand Parade, just a stone’s throw away from Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, when I heard of her death on the radio. The dusty, silent streets seemed eerie that morning, as I passed the legend ‘DIANA DEAD’ on a newsstand. Two decades on, I’m nine years older than she was then; and like her, I have two lovely sons and a healthy contempt for English elites. In this frightening era of Trump and Putin, the loss of Diana still haunts us. As another anniversary approaches, I’m struck by these prescient words from Hilary Mantel:
Myth does not reject any material. It only asks for a heart of wax. Then it works subtly to shape its subject, mould her to be fit for fate. When people described Diana as a ‘fairytale princess’, were they thinking of the cleaned-up versions? Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification … She was not a saint, or a rebel who needs our posthumous assistance – she was a young woman of scant personal resources who believed she was basking with dolphins when she was foundering among sharks. But as a phenomenon, she was bigger than all of us: self-renewing as the seasons, always desired and never possessed.