Diana: 22 Years Later
Updated: Jun 5
The 31st of August, 1997. It was a sunny Sunday morning, glorious in fact, the summer not yet over. I had just stumbled down to breakfast at my parents' where I had been spending the weekend.
‘They’ve killed her,’ said my Mum, turning from the old black and whilte TV we had in the kitchen.
On the screen, images of Princess Diana, reports of a car crash in Paris. Three dead; the paparazzi implicated. Like a pack of wolves now sheepish. No seat belts, no hope of surviving the crumpled wreckage of that one.
What followed is now all too familiar: The funeral, the teenage William and Harry behind the cortege, the ocean of flowers at Kensington Palace and an outpouring of grief for a Mother; for someone we thought we knew but of course we did not. For someone whose life resonated, for our own losses, for all that had been suppressed for so long. Something changed that day and as a nation, we began to talk. We began to feel. The British stiff upper lip trembled, we would never be the same again.
For many years after that fateful day, Diana's presence was everywhere; her image not far from front cover of the tabloids. I remember a friend saying that their 5-year-old daughter had been in tears because ‘the beautiful princess had just died’; she was talking about Diana who had been dead for more than a decade. And then she was gone, her mischevious smile replaced by endless Z-list celebrity social media updates; her legacy hazy, disputed and relegated to that of 'fashion icon'. I still find it fascinating that some young adults have no idea who Diana was; born after she died, she means nothing to them.
Diana was an archetypal character. From Greek myths to German fairytales and Hollywood movies, there has always been a young girl who beats the odds to become a princess.
Whilst her namesake was a ‘virgin’ warrior goddess, Diana was perhaps more a ‘Persephone’, fragile, charming, seducing and manipulating in her willingness to please others, accepting of all the projections of how a princess should be, at least to begin with as she walked down the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral towards her waiting, indifferent Prince.
In Greek mythology, Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Having been abducted by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, the Gods of Olympus try hard to rescue her but because she has tasted food of the underworld, she is obliged to spend a third of the year (the winter months) there.
Women whose personalties are shaped by this archetype may seem almost ‘childlike’ and innocent, they often draw out the 'rescuer' in us. But as they grow and flourish, often through adversity, the ‘naive’ discards the system that may have nurtured them, to build their own independent lives. Other such ‘Persephone’ characters include: Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. I have always been curious about what would have happened to Cinderella had the next chapter of her life been told. Because as with all fairytales, the real story starts with happily ever after.
Diana foresaw this when she was interviewed by Martin Bashir in 1995:
‘I think every strong woman in history has had to walk down a similar path, and I think it is that strength that causes the confusion and the fear. Why is she strong? Where does she get it from? Where is she taking it? Where is she going to use it?’
Diana had her detractors but I was never one of them. Who did she represent for me? The older sibling I never had perhaps? Growing up in the 70s things could be a bit grim; power cuts, garbage piling up in the streets, dreary politicians - always outraged men - and the smell of Rothmans cigarettes, halitosis and Old Spice. And then suddenly there was Diana, that blonde sweep of hair, the blue eye shadow which matched her engagement outfit. I was 10 years old. Of course, there was Farrah Fawcett and Agnetha from ABBA, but Diana was different, she was like someone you knew, maybe a fun babysitter or friend's cool older sister. But perhaps most of all, she represented a part of me: the innocent child who sees everything from beneath the fringe - watching, learning, taking it all in - the outsider. On an unconscious level this spoke to me as a child. In Diana I saw a kindred spirit.
She was paradoxical: vulnerable yet powerful, manipulative yet the victim. This was a woman who found her strength through her wounds. She held people dying of AIDS at a time when there was talk of putting gay men in isolation camps. She understood abandonment, loneliness and psychological exile. As she said:
“there's no better way to dismantle a personality than to isolate it.”
At her funeral, her brother Charles, in his eulogy, rebuked both the royal family and the press for their treatment of his sister:
'It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this – a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.'
As well as being an archetype, there is much esoteric imagery associated with Diana’s name. St Paul’s Cathedral, where Diana and Charles married, is meant to be the site of a Roman temple of Diana, no coincidence by many accounts. Oak groves were especially sacred to the Goddess. Princess Diana was buried on an island in the middle of an ornamental lake at her family home Althorp. A path with thirty-six oak trees, marking each year of her life lead to the island. Four black swans swim in the lake. Black swans symbolise 'an event that has come as a surprise, that has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.'
Finally, I leave you with this quote from Diana back in 1993 - yes, 1993! - when she was campaigning for womens' mental health:
'Isn't it normal not to be able to cope all the time? Isn't it normal for women as well as men to feel frustrated with life? Isn't it normal to feel angry and want to change the situation that is hurting?'