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Books: Death and the Maiden

Christine Stansell is a professor of history at the University of Chicago. She is writing a history of feminism.

The Diana Chronicles

By Tina Brown

(Doubleday, 560 pp.,


How often does summer reading disappoint? Usually you are immune to the shill of the bestseller list, but now it's hot and you deserve some fun, too. And so you shell out the thirty bucks for what the bookstores are hawking on their buzzy front tables--but then the thriller peters out into preposterousness, and you become guiltily bored with the book on Iraq, and you bog down in the Big Novel's glut of detail. So it is all the more delicious to report that The Diana Chronicles is that contradiction in terms: a summer spellbinder for serious people. Its pleasures are owed to more than its sensational subject. (Sensation is its subject.) They come also from seeing a fine mind take a severely limited theme and create out of it an acutely observed portrait of manners and mores, love and folly.

Brown was known in her years at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker for journalism with energy and bite, but the pieces never quite floated clear of the higher gossip. Now, with space to stretch her talents, she turns what could have been only a stylish rehash of the same old story into a study of a society and a culture-- specifically, of British society and the culture of celebrity in the 1980s and 1990s, a turning point that the Princess of Wales did much to bring about. In placing the affecting (and in many ways absurd) coming-of-age story of this naive young woman in its full historical context, The Diana Chronicles is much more than a celebrity biography: it is a superb cultural history of the transformation of the British upper classes in the last quarter of the last century.

It was ten years ago this month that a car crash in Paris killed Diana and her companion Dodi Fayed. The torrent of mourning that the death occasioned, primarily in Britain but also around the world, now seems almost quaint, an old- fashioned outpouring of emotion in those pre-9/11 days when Anglo-American psychological reserves were so high that people could afford to fling away feeling on small public provocations--outrage at a president who cheated on his wife, grief for a royal celebrity who died in a drunk-driving accident. The Diana Chronicles opens with the fatal night, setting up the book as something of a thinking person's whodunit. But the mystery Brown sets in motion is not about who was responsible: she has no truck with the conspiracy theories about the disaster. Brown wants to know, instead, how it was that Diana came to be in that car, with that man, and with that driver on that August night in Paris. To answer these questions, she embarks upon an investigation of how larger social forces and individual personalities connived in the woman's fate.

Diana Spencer was born in 1961 into one of England's oldest aristocratic families. The Spencers had a centuries-old pedigree--older than the Windsors, whose line did not arrive from Germany until the 1700s. In their grandest days, the Spencers were known for high living, endless glamour, and prodigious wealth. By Diana's time, however, much of the splendor had receded. But her father, Johnnie Spencer--charming, handsome, and in line for the title--was still one of the great catches of London in the early 19s. His marriage to her mother, Frances Fermoy, was essentially engineered by Frances's mother, the socially ambitious and scheming Lady Ruth Fermoy, whose passion in life was to marry off her daughters to great families--never mind the men. Inside the debonair man- about-town, Johnnie Spencer was melancholy and emotionally thwarted, and tyrannized by an eccentric, despotic father. But who knew, and in any case, who cared: Lady Ruth had no interest in matters such as emotional suitability. Companionate marriage, the hallmark of family relations in the modern West, had not yet made it into the British aristocracy in the 19s, and the marriage market was as vicious and venal as the one that Mary Wollstonecraft excoriated in 1792 in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Brown encapsulates the historical moment nicely: "The drive for upper-class women in the fifties and early sixties to land a titled husband, preferably one with an estate, was a cutthroat business managed with quiet, heartless tenacity by their mothers."

The marriage was predictably unhappy, and it was dissolved when Diana was six. Her mother left to marry a jolly, unpretentious commoner who was the heir to a wallpaper fortune. Ruth Fermoy, appalled that her daughter had thrown away a title, colluded with Johnnie Spencer to do her out of the custody of the children. Frances succeeded in escaping the emotionally parsimonious marriage into which her mother had pushed her when she was seventeen, but in leaving she lost any chance she might have had to save her teenage daughter from a worse version of the same thing. When Diana rapturously accepted Charles's offhanded proposal, she was too young, too inexperienced, and too out of touch with her mother to perceive that she was entering the same kind of marriage that had nearly done her mother in.

What is surprising about Brown's opening chapters is how little World War II changed the expectations and the sensibilities of upper-class British women. They were still trudging along in the same round of balls, races, male sporting events, and meals--each requiring a change of clothes--that their grandmothers had soldiered through. The royals, who anchored the entire system, were flying high. The Windsors' comportment during the Blitz had rallied the British public around them and put to rest the lingering scandal of Edward VIII's abdication for the American divorcee (although it still lurked in the family memories, one reason why Prince Charles's dalliance with Camilla Parker Bowles could not be tolerated indefinitely). Coronation Year in 1953 took the pub- lic by storm and heightened the royalist romance. The young Elizabeth was beautiful, and the spectacle of "the glowing, serious, self-possessed young Queen ... waltzing in iridescent satin with Prince Phillip" enchanted the nation. The press essentially worked as a media outlet of Buckingham Palace, a kind of Fox TV for royals. It was unimaginable that they would publish anything critical, and so the Windsors and their retinue swanned around London confident that no secrets would be exposed, no dirty linen aired. So intense was the adulation that when a Tory historian suggested in an obscure venue that the queen was too attached to the upper classes, a peer called for his execution for treason and someone slapped him in the street.

By the time Diana Spencer came on the scene, all this had drastically changed. The culture of deference had begun to crumble around the restless Princess Margaret, whose romances with several commoners, conducted in the photogenic regions of cafe society (she finally married one of the chic photographers), "moved the Royal Family decisively from regal seclusion toward showbiz availability." Rupert Murdoch's arrival in London in 1969 put the tabloids on steroids. Over the next decade, the jaundiced, no-holds-barred expose ethos that he promoted blended with the malaise of the era--what Brown remembers from her years at Oxford in the late 1970s as everyone's "sarcastic embracing of national decline," a Monty Pythonesque caustic mockery of a moribund elite and "a sclerotic social-welfarism that had lost its way."

And yet Diana was formed by the earlier era. This woman who became a symbol of her day began as an anachronism. Brown has a historian's skill at organizing details into a chronological frame, and she sees Diana Spencer's pathetic teenage ambitions as formed by a class and gender system that barred upper- class girls from the improvements in their life prospects that middle-class girls had been experiencing in fits and starts since World War II. Despite having grown up in the 1960s, when the rules had loosened enough for women such as her mother to have affairs and find better husbands, Diana's horizons were almost as low as Frances's had been when she was a girl. She did not travel or read books (except for the billowy romances of Barbara Cartland, in which the shy heroine always gets the manly prince). At home she never met artists or intellectuals or politicians, or heard the world's or the nation's affairs discussed with any seriousness. Quite incredibly, in the 1970s she received a slightly updated version of the same ladies' finishing school education that women reformers had been denouncing since--here is Mary Wollstonecraft again-- the eighteenth century as hopelessly feminine, class-bound, and provincial.

Such a life did not prepare a girl for university--that was for their brothers, Brown notes, even though middle-class girls had been going to university, including Oxford and Cambridge, for nearly a century. On graduating from boarding school, teenagers with titles went to London to take tiny jobs while they waited for husbands to come along. The one serious gift that Diana developed at school was a remarkable ability to work with suffering and distressed people--the poor, the sick--in charity settings. But it would have been unthinkable for her to consider a career in social work.

Nor, when she went to London, did she work as a publisher's intern or an art gallery receptionist or a charity fundraiser-- rich girls' jobs a generation later. She found employment instead as an au pair and an elevated cleaning lady. She was, Brown observes, "a Trust Fund Cinderella, drifting through temporary work--low-stress, undemanding jobs that drew on her agreeable demeanor." Menial work had cachet in these circles: it showed that you cared nothing about money or real work. If you wondered, when you first read about the Prince of Wales's fiancee, what in the world she was doing working as a kindergarten teacher, well, it turns out that this was not a starter job, but the height of Diana's professional ambitions at a time when British girls born far from the manor were preparing for medical school or careers in business.

Diana had a different aspiration. It was to marry a prince. Really, she planned to marry Prince Charles. She met the man when she was still a child, in passing, but Barbara Cartland's romances, in league with her culture, convinced her that marrying a prince was a golden vocation. The challenge was to hold on to her virginity, an essential occupational qualification. It wasn't easy. The one thing that had changed in Diana's milieu since her mother's adolescence was an acceptance of premarital and extramarital sex for girls. Charles himself was enjoying the loosened sexual ambience of the 1970s, sleeping his way through scores of one-night stands, girlfriends, and wives of wealthy chums. "All through the seventies," Brown writes, "Charles supplemented bachelor girls and bimbos with a willing cadre of married women. Their husbands rolled over for the same reasons their wives did, not droit du seigneur, but something at once medieval and modern: status."

But the prince's girlfriends were one thing and the girl he was to marry was another, chastity-wise. The press loved to tail Charles, hype the new prospect, and then unearth the secret that would disqualify her; more often than not, it was a sexual past. Diana Spencer knew the rules, and she was disciplined enough to keep herself "tidy" (her word). Indeed, she was one of the few titled girls of marriageable age in the voluptuary London of the 1970s to do so.

The older royals, especially the queen mother, were by the late 1970s unhappy about Charles's reluctance to marry. Anxiety turned into collective resolve to take action when his dalliance with Camilla Parker Bowles became a full-fledged affair in 1980, a torrid involvement--at least on his part--that he threw in the face of the public and his family. Brown thinks that Camilla was really in love with her husband, the eternally faithless Andrew Parker Bowles, and that she was dangling the prince so as to lure Andrew back. But Charles was passionately in love with this athletic, relaxed, and highly sexual woman--who also happened to be married. It was all too reminiscent of Edward VIII. And so the older royals and their retinue had to find a bride.

The field was sparse. By 1980, as Brown quips, virgins were mostly to be found on sitcoms. The queen mother and the queen picked out Diana Spencer because she had the right pedigree, and was a virgin, and was--with all respect to the dead--too dumb to say no. (Two previous candidates knew enough about the royal family and the life that awaited a princess in Buckingham Palace to demur. ) And so Diana Spencer it was. The pair saw each other thirteen times before she floated down the aisle in her puffy-sleeved Cinderella gown with its thirty- foot train. (In the 1990s, when Diana's fashion taste ran to slinky elegance, she looked on the dress with embarrassment.) In the television footage shown obsessively around the world, everything was mesmerizing in its sumptuousness (she arrived in a glass horse-drawn coach), but I recall that even then the bride and the groom looked like the kind who, standing at the altar, provoke doubt among the wedding guests: she looked enraptured, he looked like his mind was somewhere else.

And it was. Apparently Charles had the decency to stop sleeping with Camilla for a time, but Camilla was still in on the deal, dropping Diana a coy little note congratulating her on the engagement: the note was dated two days before anyone was supposed to know the news, and ensured that Diana understood how knowledgeable Camilla was about Charles's comings and goings. The rest was for the world to see, and Diana soon made it her business to let the world see it. Her miseries began before the wedding, as she experienced the shock of massive media attention with virtually no one to help her. Eating disorders set in, and she was holed up in the confines of the palace, a place that "was tailor-made for a bulimic outburst. It is suffocating and empty at the same time, and everyone is trained to look the other way." (That observation is a fine example of the astuteness, the almost ethnographical precision, of Brown's eye.) What Diana wanted after the wedding, Brown judges kindly, was to settle in with the husband she barely knew, have sex and sleep late, and greet the family hand in hand. Instead she went to bed with a man who found her much-vaunted virginity boring and made his sexual indifference clear. With the family, Diana's plan was to use her talents for sympathy to bring everyone together--a feeble, doomed hope for people whose emotional stuntedness was their method of operation.

For a young woman who, Brown notes, actually had a few years' experience with some kind of life, as paltry as it was--watching television with her girlfriends, cooking dinner for the flatmates, dashing around London, going to work--the boredom and the loneliness were suffocating. The princess's job, she discovered, was to do nothing, nothing at all, except please her husband and, by extension, his family, and produce a male heir--and at the first two tasks she flopped from the start.

What made the story interesting, of course, was Diana's success in re- inventing herself in her dismal if luxurious circumstances. She might have become only a shrieking hysteric, a woman with "whims" (Brown observes that men in the palace had wishes and all women except for one had whims), the irritating sad-sack wife who did not fit in. Instead she grew up, more or less, and turned herself into a person of substance, more or less. At least Brown makes a persuasive case that she did.

It took time, though. And the process occurred by fits and starts. At first, she was nothing but angry: at her husband's continuing relationship with another woman, at the royals' coldness, at the torpid routine. Picked because she seemed so obliging, she proved to be a woman who could really kick up a fuss, and the noise, the broken china, and the tearstains made her unhappiness known: first to the palace staff and the family, and then to friends, and then to the press. Starved for conversation, she slipped downstairs to hang out with the help. Infuriated by Camilla's lingering presence, she pitched fits. Outsiders--meaning anyone who had not taken the royal pledge of omerta: ex- servants, reporters, hairstylists, friends of either spouse--talked about Charles and Diana's increasingly bitter and nasty fights. It was a tribute to her force, I suppose, that she managed to squeeze so much anger out of a man who cared for her so little.

But at some point Diana also made a bid for self-respect and independence. In part this came from doing her job and producing a male heir, and then another boy: she was, by all accounts, an absorbed and loving mother. (Brown counts it the tragedy of her life that she did not end up in the country with some nice man, four children, and ponies.) But her sense of adult identity was ironically derived in large part from a quasi- professional relationship with the media. Diana's beauty, her warmth with strangers, her preternatural ease with the camera, her evolving fashion sense: these were the resources from which she created the persona that beguiled the press and the public. It was not just that the royals had never expected this of the shy teenager whom they had conscripted; it was that none of them had accomplished such a thing. At least some of Charles's hostility, Brown argues, was owed to his feeling of rivalry: from very early on in their joint public appearances, Diana was the star and he was the morose sidekick.

Diana also found another role: the celebrity humanitarian. This vocation, which in our time has become a staple of popular culture and even of politics, she largely invented. She did this by using the capacities of media magnification that she learned to command. Film stars had been going around the world for UNICEF for some time, but Diana was much more serious in the causes that she chose and in the emotional aura that she emitted. In England, she turned the royals' dowdy do-gooding into philanthropy that was intelligent, practical, and focused on the needs of the victims rather than the generosity of the givers.

In the early 1980s, Brown reminds us, people held back from touching AIDS victims lest they be infected. In what was at the time a sensational act, Diana shook hands with patients in an AIDS ward, with no gloves on, before the cameras. In doing that she broke a taboo and challenged the fears that swirled around the disease. Had she been born much earlier, Brown speculates, she might have been a top-flight nurse in an army field hospital. A member of her entourage, describing a visit to an old-age home, recalled the stench of the squalor that greeted them as they walked into a room. Diana squared her shoulders and made her rounds, murmuring kindnesses to bedridden patients too sick even to recognize her.

In Africa, she took physical risks snaking her way along paths in land-mined areas, and almost single-handedly put the issue of land mines on the international agenda. She was not an analyst of any kind, and she was not in any of these causes for the long run, and so she did not completely break the mold of upper-class philanthropy. But she knew how to listen to people when they talked to her about their sorrows--a basic skill of humanitarian relief work that is usually in short supply. She sensed in herself some fatedness to provide companionship to sufferers, and surely this was a superior destiny to her fantasy of marrying a prince.

The divorce in 1996 freed her from the routine humiliations of being married to a man who loved another woman. Finally she was sprung from the palace. Determined to get a good settlement--partly because she had seen the terrible deal that Sarah Ferguson got in her divorce from Prince Andrew--she purged any shreds of the nice and pliant girl from her psyche and hired a smart and learned lawyer named Anthony Julius. He appears fleetingly in Brown's book, but he functions as one of the few moral reference points in the story. He insisted on a professional relationship, including payment. Julius did his job well, and Diana matched his efforts with her own great fortitude in resisting the royals' massive pressure. She walked away in 1996 with a fortune.

At thirty-five, she was rich, beautiful, and famous--and, while still "dumb as a plank" in her education, she was steely and knowledgeable in the ways of her world. She imagined starting a documentary film/philanthropy venture, changing causes every two years. She outlined the idea over lunch with Tina Brown in New York a few months before her death, and it certainly tilted toward the lightweight end of humanitarian relief--yet it was real work, involving real people and real issues, and she had the media power that might have made it work. For Diana Spencer, certainly, it represented a radical departure: for the first time she was thinking about work in the world, which was the condition of the modern female identity that she had always been denied.

But like a Henry James heroine, she never escaped Europe. Being alone was liberating, but it also meant doing without many perquisites. Once again the brutal forces of women's history, long ago vanquished in middle-class life, bore down on her. In England she became a peripatetic pariah, as divorced women had been in the nineteenth century. No one with any connection to the Windsors wanted her around, lest her presence discredit them with the royals. She spurned the offer of a royal security detail because she believed that the palace employees would spy on her. So she was suddenly on her own, facing the same relentless hordes of reporters and paparazzi she once courted; and now she depended on them all the more to portray her as the people's princess, not as a lonely divorcee, a bereft single mother, or, worst of all, a washed-up royal adrift among fashion designers, hairstylists, and vacuous celebrities. The press, sensing her need, turned vicious; and her hysteria at being hounded made them all the madder to hound her. Friends recall paparazzi screaming "cunt" and "bitch" to get her to turn toward their cameras.

And she was still a captive of what Adrienne Rich long ago mordantly described as women's quintessential obsession: "love, our subject." Since marrying Charles, she had had affairs with men in her retinue, but she, the married one, was always in control. Now she was looking for a mate. She fell hopelessly in love with a Pakistani heart surgeon, a man who seems by all accounts to have been a good and credible person. She concocted a fantasy of how he would quit his job in London and join her in humanitarian aid as heart- surgeon-to-the-world, overcoming the objections of his orthodox Muslim family in the process. But the doctor could no more imagine a life trapped in front of the cameras than she could face a life as a doctor's wife. She made a pathetic attempt to charm the family back in Pakistan--on one humanitarian venture she managed to "drop by" their house, an act of ostentatiously casual informality which proves that the humiliating "pop-in" that the Seinfeld characters used to mock knows no boundaries of class. By the summer of 1997 the affair was over, and Diana was facing a summer alone.

But a summer alone was out of the question, and so she fell in with the Fayeds: the driven, multimillionaire Egyptian father who was in love with the British aristocracy, and the affable, clueless, coke-addicted Dodi. Dodi was actually engaged to a Calvin Klein model--the marriage was set for that August-- but on Bastille Day the father, spying the golden opportunity of a princess at loose ends, ordered him to break it off and sicced him on Diana, sending the two off on a Mediterranean cruise on his yacht.

Diana did her best to ham it up for the press, posing in a swimsuit for the paparazzi, but far from being the glittering escapade that the media portrayed, it was a low moment. Her oldest son chided her for succumbing to the weirdly aggressive embrace of the playboy's ambitious father, who managed to sweep William and Henry away on a vacation with their mother on his estate in the South of France and acted like they were already members of the family. The boys returned to Balmoral, the queen's Scottish estate, which they adored and their mother loathed--and from which she was in any event excluded. But no invitations from any great British country houses were forthcoming, and she headed for Paris with Dodi, press in tow (goaded on by the father), still working on her new image as the gay divorcee.

On the night of August 31, the pair drifted aimlessly around. Brown's chronology has them leaving one place for another five times after 7 p.m. The paparazzi were fearsome and seductive: Diana was an old hand, even though she wanted a night off, and Dodi, the novice, was hungry for the limelight. The feeding frenzy increased because Fayed pere stoked it with briefings to gossip columnists and a publicist spinning their summer holidays as the romance of the century. When they turned up at the Ritz (which Fayed owned), at that time of year a gathering place for tourists and South American prostitutes, Brown insists it can only be construed as playing to the media.

But then apparently they got tired and panicked. Dodi had an addict's lack of attention and judgment; shaking off his own detail, which had no way of avoiding the paparazzi hordes since he refused to tell them where he was going, he grabbed the head of security at the Ritz, who had already knocked down several pastis. The bodyguard neglected to make Diana put on her seatbelt. Shortly after they left the hotel, the press in hot pursuit, the drunk driver crashed the car in a tunnel under the Seine.

It is a lamentable tale--and yet the book is so much fun. Brown, a British expatriate in America, still has an insider's access in England, but her years in America have given her an outsider's edge. She has succeeded in writing a tale of the English aristocracy that is neither cartoonish nor Anglophilic-- both occupational hazards of the American perspective--but somehow democratic. The egalitarian spirit of her book is born of equal measures of intelligence, sympathy, and irony. Her subjects can be howlingly foolish. But with an anthropologist's flair, Brown lays out their exotic displays of status, self- infatuated rituals ("Inter-Regimental Championship at the Tidworth Polo Club in Hampshire"), and silly names without superciliousness or moralism. She can tease out meaning from the most banal of texts: her analysis of Prince Charles's notorious "I wish I were a Tampax" confession to Camilla is a tour de force.

There is hardly a character with whom Brown does not sympathize--even the hapless Prince Charles, whom she rescues from his reputation as a dolt by pointing out that many of the ideas that were lampooned when he first broached them, such as strictly organic agriculture, have been subsequently vindicated. The queen did her best, with sparse emotional means, to behave decently to the troubled young woman whose expansive needs and aspirations, born of a different age, simply mystified her. Even the paparazzi come in for a measure of respect and empathy from this writer who knows first-hand the pressures of journalism: she understands their vulnerability to the ratcheted-up needs of their employers for sensational images. In one passage Brown sympathetically tosses off a characterization of a minor character as "a woman who had a complicated life, and understands that others do too." This can serve also as a fine description of the author of The Diana Chronicles, a consistently intelligent and empathic elaboration of the life of a preposterously famous woman, partly brave, partly silly, partly good.

By Christine Stansell