Friday, August 24, 2012

Diana - Story of a Princess by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig

The Brits put on a nice show at the Olympics, didn’t they, synthesizing all the elements that make this island nation so unique – at once both a bastion of European tradition, and at the avant-garde of the arts and social trends. The segment where the Queen parachutes in with the redoubtable 007 was especially appreciated for its co-mingling of royalty and cheeky humor. For after all, what could be more English than the Queen of England?

Though as intrigued as the rest of the world might plausibly be about a lifestyle that includes tiaras, gracious hand-waving, and ribbon-cutting, I’ve always been a little skeptical about books that purport to tell us about the Royals as they ‘really are’, more so when they are penned by British writers. Those have always seemed to be either fawning tributes, or bitchy exposés. The best biographies are extensively researched; unsparing in recounting the pertinent details of the subject’s life; impartial in their analysis; neutral in tone, yet insightful; offering readers a perspective that would have otherwise eluded them. Judging by these standards, Clayton and Craig’s chronicle of the late Princess Diana’s life is a decent read, though its sympathy seems slanted more toward the Royals than Diana.

As you might know if you have ever read about the battling Windsors, the press always chose a side when describing the tensions between Diana and her then-husband – Charles, Prince of Wales. Most of the time, Diana appeared to have won the war for the public’s support. The beautiful, well-coiffed Princess with her global do-gooder image, and mega-watt charisma just made better copy than the noticeably stiff and reserved Prince. As to the truth of their marriage, who really knows? If you believed Diana’s version, she was a loving, vulnerable woman whose heart was broken by her insensitive, philandering cad of a husband. The Prince’s vociferous supporters might say that she was a bottomless pit of insecurity whose incessant demands for attention would wear down the patience of a saint. What is evident to the reader is that the union was perforce doomed from the start with the pair’s uncompromising personalities, and their readiness to seek solace outside their marriage.

But apparently, it wasn’t just Charles with whom Diana had a falling-out. Clayton and Craig charge that Diana opened hostilities on the entire Royal family over their perceived lack of support, and their belittling of all that she strove to do. It was a family feud that played out before a captivated world audience, and when one side proceeded to spill the beans, the other didn’t want to be left behind. The paparazzi, sensing a free-for-all gleefully jumped into the fray, at which point nothing was sacred, least of all notions of privacy or personal dignity.

Diana, had very early on, started a dangerous flirtation with the Press, smitten with the idea of her own celebrity. Like a woman not understanding the consequences of encouraging an obsessive suitor, she showed particularly poor judgment in her dealings with the paparazzi. When the fracas got out of control, and Diana felt herself being hounded on all sides, she attempted a retreat from public life, which didn’t last too long. The last years of the Princess’s life and her tragic death make a sad story; but as to who was to bear the blame for that is left to the readers’ discernment.

So, who was Diana? Was she a self-promoting Princess of ‘Wails’, a drama queen in search of an audience, a loose cannon barreling down the corridors of power? Or was she the angel of mercy that many thought her to be, an instinctive humanitarian with a near magical ability to channel compassion, and an intuitive empathy for those in pain? In the course of her turbulent, all too short life, she played many roles. No doubt people will believe what they want to believe.

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