Diana: Reinterpreting Her Legacy
Updated: Nov 10
Portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales - courtesy Shanks Fine Art
The 31st of August 1997 started out sunny. A glorious Sunday morning. The summer not yet over. I had just made my way down to breakfast at my parents' house where I was spending the weekend. My mother was standing in front of the old black and white TV we had in the kitchen, and as I came in, she turned to me and said, ‘they’ve killed her.' On the screen, images of Diana, Princess of Wales, reports of a car crash in Paris, three dead, the paparazzi involved, like a pack of wolves now sheepish. No seat belts; no hope of surviving the crumpled wreckage.
What followed is imprinted on the collective memory: the ocean of flowers at Kensington Palace. William and Harry, heads bowed as they walked behind the cortege. An outpouring of grief for a Princess, and a mother; for someone whose life we thought we knew so well. 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, on magazine front covers, and in the news. And then just like that, she was gone, her mischievous 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, the story of a young girl who beats the odds to become a princess is a familar one. But as with all fairytales, the real story starts with 'happily ever after ...'
Diana had an archetypal quality, there was something of ‘Persephone’ about her: fragile and charming 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. She is abducted and raped by Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, and her fate is negotiated by the Gods of Olympus. Eventually a compromise is reached, and it is agreed that since she has tasted the food of the underworld, she must spend the winter months there. But let's not forget, Persephone goes into the Underworld a girl, but becomes a powerful queen.
Women whose personalities are shaped by this archetype may seem wide-eyed and innocent but in channelling their trauma and adversity, they triumph over their persecutors. In the process they may discard those who try to rescue them. There is often a cost to themselves. The mistake those around them make is to underestimate their intelligence and perceptiveness.
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', these are her own words, 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. 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 cannot be silenced.
Diana had her detractors, but I was never one of them. Growing up in the 70s, there were power cuts, strikes, football hooliganism and everything smelt of Rothmans cigarettes. And then suddenly there was Diana. That blonde sweep of hair, the blue eye shadow, and the playful woolly sheep jumper. I was 10-years-old. We had seen nothing like her before. 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 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. As she matured, 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 the time of her death, there was a sense that Diana was coming into her power. A detente with her ex husband was taking place. Her work with landmine charities was giving her purpose and meaning. The world was changing; who knows what part she would have played in that. There was also something implusive about her behaviour that summer of 1997, which seemed out of character, and almost reckless. But of course, she was a young woman, just 36-years-old. Who could deny her some fun.
At her funeral, her brother Charles spoke a eulogy, rebuking the press and media for hounding 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.'
This association with the Roman Goddess Diana is intriguing. In the Roman world, Diana, like Persephone, was associated with the underworld. She symbolises the tracks and paths hunters takes at night, the crossroads they encounter in the forest, and the life or death decisions they must make, that will lead to bounty, or starvation.
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 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 'Britain', in contrast to Prince Charles and his Germanic heritage.
Diana and Charles married in St Paul's Cathedral, which is believed to be the site of a temple to the Goddess Diana. In the mythology of Britain, the Goddess Diana prophesied the founding of this island.
Diana, Princess of Wales was buried on an island in the middle of an ornamental lake, at Althorp her family home in Northamptonshire. 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.
Beyond the symbolism is a woman whose legacy becomes stronger with the passing of time. There is no silencing her, even in death. 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?'
Portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales by Nelson Shanks, courtesy Shanks Fine Art. Sold at Sotheby's 27th January 2022.