Today officially marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. There isn’t a lot left to say that hasn’t already been said this summer, but I thought I would cover off on the question of where Diana fits into the historical record at this point. Last month, her sons, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, spearheaded a documentary on her charity work and her role as their mother, indicating part of their efforts were meant to address the fact that younger generations didn’t really know her.
So, if you were to take a measure of Diana’s legacy based purely on this summer, what are you left with? For starters, I think it’s become clear that she has by no means grown irrelevant. Diana has become an icon, separate and apart from the British Royal Family. She is synonymous with the idea of “Princess” far more so than the reality of it. She is still a lightning rod, capable of summoning intense emotion from both her fans and critics. Nor is she allowed to exist independently; to this day, it’s impossible to conjure her name without mentioning her ex-husband’s.
There seems to be this unconscious idea that to give credit to Diana is to take it away from the Prince of Wales. To praise Charles is to let him “get away with” how he treated Diana.
I wish – however impossibly – that this anniversary had passed only with the specific actions of her two sons, who announced a statue, re-blessed her grave, gave candid interviews and unveiled a memorial garden at her former home. Let’s be clear, that is the only “new” news to come out of all of this – the extent to which William and Harry have re-claimed her.
Unfortunately, their proactivity unleashed a tidal wave of rehashing old gossip – much more so than I remember being the case in 2007. To be honest, I’ve been surprised by the sheer volume of coverage, analysis, scandal-raking and intrusion that have made up the public’s commemoration. I thought lessons had been learned – that time would have added a layer of evenness in how her life and her impact are reviewed. But while we see a learning curve in how the media handles the Duchess of Cambridge and her children, Diana still inspires a visceral level of aggression. No detail too small or personal to report; no theory too outlandish.
Throughout it there’s a holdover of an idea that wouldn’t hold water today: that she asked for it. Diana had an abusive relationship with the press during her life and it’s apparently continued decades after her death. So here we are – weeks upon weeks of salacious headlines, accusations and personal vendettas splashed across newsstands (and, well, the internet) as though it’s 1996 again. Nearly all of it comes back to the central figure in all of this – the one person who has remained silent (and indeed, hasn’t spoken a public word about her since before her death) – Charles.
But more so than her marriage, what I find truly unjust is that at the time of her death she was divorced. The last year of her life was the beginning of her emancipation and when some of her most notable humanitarian work took place. Honoring her, in theory, would finally let her be free – following through on the very action she herself took.
So, where does she fit into the historical record? Today, she doesn’t. She’s still too immediate and her memory too raw. Eventually she will and when she does, I hope we allow that she informed the modern business of monarchy in a beneficial, personal way. I hope we credit her for forging a path for how royalty – and celebrity, for that matter – can be used as a force for humanitarian good. And I hope that she is remembered, without angst, as the mother and grandmother of future kings; indeed, if the succession continues uninterrupted, she will be an ancestor of all future monarchs.
All of that is true and none of that has anything to do with Charles.