Diana: Reinterpreting Her Legacy
Updated: Jul 2
The 31st of August, 1997 started as a sunny Sunday morning, glorious in fact, the summer not yet over. I had just made my way down to breakfast at my parents' where I had been spending the weekend. My mother was standing in front of the old black and white TV we had in the kitchen, ‘they’ve killed her,’ she said turning to me. On the screen, images of Diana, Princess of Wales, 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.
What followed is imprinted on the memory of anyone who lived through the following weeks: the funeral, a traumatised William and Harry, heads bowed walking behind the cortege, the ocean of flowers at Kensington Palace and an outpouring of grief for a Princess and a mother; for someone whose life we had followed and thought we knew so well, for our own loss, 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; on magazine front covers and in the news. 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'.
From Greek myths to German fairytales and Hollywood movies, there is always the story of a young girl who beats the odds to become a princess. But as with all fairytales, the real story starts with 'happily ever after ...'
Diana had an archetypal quality, she was a ‘Persephone’ character: fragile, charming and manipulating in her willingness to please others, accepting of all the projections of how a princess should be, to begin with at least, as she walked down the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral towards her waiting, ambivalent Prince.
In Greek mythology, Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Abducted by Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, her fate is negotiated by the Gods of Olympus and eventually a compromise is reached. Since she has tasted the food of the underworld she has to spend the winter months there. Persephone has no say in any of this, however she transforms the despair and hurt for her lost life beyond anyone's expectations; she goes into the underworld a girl, but comes out a powerful queen.
Women whose personalities are shaped by this archetype seem wide-eyed and innocent at first and they often draw out the 'rescuer' in us. Part of them is loyal and dutiful, another part is motivated by more shadowy qualities such as anger, horror and revenge. Other ‘Persephone’ characters include: Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. As they grow, often through adversity and their association with men, they end up discarding both their persecutors and those who try to rescue them but there is often a cost as well.
Diana foresaw this when she spoke in the now discredited Panorama interview of 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?’
I have thought a lot about repeating this quote. Whilst the interview was secured in an unethical way and contributed to Diana's 'fear, paranoia and isolation', it is also incredibly powerful and illustrates the kind of woman Diana was becoming. The narrative of Diana as victim is too simplistic. Diana was a complex woman; she had a long and complicated relationship with the media and from the early 90s she was finding her voice and had wanted to talk, seeking out different media platforms both in the UK and US. The past cannot be changed and her words must not be silenced.
Diana had her detractors but I was never one of them. Who did she represent? Growing up in the 70s, life could be grim; power cuts, garbage piling up in the streets, dreary politicians and the smell of Rothmans cigarettes and Old Spice. And then suddenly there was Diana, that blonde sweep of hair, the blue eye shadow which matched her engagement outfit, the playful woolly sheep jumper she sported. I was 10-years-old, we had seen nothing like her before in the public eye. 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 a 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, listening, taking it all in; the outsider. In Diana, I saw a kindred spirit.
She was paradoxical: vulnerable yet powerful, manipulative yet victimized and always that extraordinary inate radiance. This was a woman who found her strength through her psychological wounds. She embodied her complexity and had a deep awareness of self and other. She held people dying of AIDS at a time when there was talk of putting gay men in isolation camps. She had an understanding of 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.'
In the Roman world, the goddess Diana, like Persephone, was associated with the underworld. She symbolises the paths a hunter takes at night, the crossroads they encounter in the forest, and the decisions they need to make which may lead to life or death. This association with the countryside and wooded landscapes is significant too. Oak groves were especially sacred to the Goddess. If you have watched The Crown on Netflix, you may remember the scene where Prince Charles first meets the shy teenage Diana; she is dressed as a woodland nymph for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, her face is hidden by an oak leaf mask. The pagan associations cannot be coincidental, the oak leaves here highlight Diana's ancient lineage, her deep connection with 'Englishness', in contast to Prince Charles and his Germanic heritage. In Greek mythology, nymph means 'young bride'. Diana and Charles married in St Paul's Cathedral, which is believed to be the site of a temple to the Goddess Diana.
Diana, Princess of Wales 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 on the lake. Black swans symbolise a momentous event that is 'inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.'
Finally, I leave you with this quote from Diana back in 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?'