Tabloid girl in a tiara

The latest book on Diana is a racy eye- opener, writes Shelley Gare

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

WHEN the Queen and Prince Philip sum­moned their daugh­ter- in- law, Diana, princess of Wales, to a meet­ing in late 1995, His Royal High­ness said tersely: ‘‘ If you don’t be­have, my girl, we’ll take your ti­tle away.’’

‘‘ My ti­tle is a lot older than yours, Philip,’’ re­torted the blue- blooded princess, aka Lady Diana, daugh­ter of Earl Spencer, the eighth earl in an an­cient line of king- mak­ers and prop­er­ty­hold­ers. Tina Brown’s bi­og­ra­phy, The Diana Chron­i­cles , could as eas­ily have been called The War Against the Wind­sors.

Brown, the cool for­mer ed­i­tor of Tatler , Van­ity Fair and The New Yorker , knows the weaponry: deft PR, me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion, the right photo at the right time, con­nec­tions, gos­sip and, most lethal of all, beauty and celebrity to win au­di­ences’ hearts what­ever their brains may be telling them.

How the clunky roy­als must have been dis­com­bob­u­lated by the slim, spin­ning, ra­di­ant, slightly cuckoo rule- breaker sud­denly in their midst. Diana was, Brown writes racily, a tabloid girl in a tiara, a siren of sub­ver­sion. First though, she was an English rose­bud, cho­sen to be the next queen be­cause she seemed so bid­dable.

But, Brown notes, ‘‘ ever since Diana was a small girl she had been dan­ger­ous when hurt’’.

She had per­se­cuted her nan­nies af­ter her mother de­serted the fam­ily, a loss that tipped six- year- old Diana into ‘‘ dark­ness’’. She locked one nanny in a bath­room and tossed an­other’s en­gage­ment ring down a drain.

At 15, she slapped her fa­ther when, with­out no­tice, he mar­ried Raine, daugh­ter of ro­man­tic nov­el­ist Bar­bara Cart­land. When the heir to the Gil­bey gin for­tune stood Diana up, she and a friend cov­ered his Alfa Romeo with egg and flour paste. Much later on, Diana pushed Raine down a flight of stairs. Un­for­tu­nately for Diana, her new fam­ily was just as bad.

One of the gog­gle- eyed de­lights of Brown’s page- turner is its rev­e­la­tions of what passes for or­di­nary life be­hind high walls.

Prince Charles throws an­tique clocks across the room. The Queen is irked by Diana’s pub­lic pop­u­lar­ity that blazes all the brighter as her hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­ests grow. The Duke in­sults ev­ery­one. At sea, Charles screams jeal­ously at one of his loyal staff who has been seen ad­vis­ing Diana on deck.

The sur­prise in Brown’s book is that the bad be­hav­iour be­tween Charles and Diana, the first stir­rings of war, set in so quickly.

One minute Diana is swoon­ing, per­suad­ing a friend to drive her round and round Buck­ing­ham Palace while ask­ing, ‘‘ Do you think I stand a chance?’’ About a mil­lisec­ond later, she is on the last leg of her hon­ey­moon, up in Bal­moral and in tears at the sheer bore­dom and cold­ness of it all.

There wasn’t even the con­so­la­tion of good sex. Diana is al­ready mis­er­ably aware that Camilla Parker Bowles is far more of a threat than she could ever have sup­posed. ‘‘ I can’t stick it much longer,’’ she cries alarm­ingly to Prince Charles’s aide, the kindly Aus­tralian Michael Col­borne.

Fan­tasy was the ruin of Diana. Too lazy to

study at school, she buried her head in sug­ary love sto­ries. Even af­ter the prince and princess had agreed of­fi­cially to sep­a­rate; af­ter Diana had con­fronted Camilla at a din­ner party while the prince and a friend shot away up­stairs ‘‘ like chick­ens with no heads’’; even af­ter her own lovers, Diana wanly hoped she might re­trieve her mar­riage. Film di­rec­tor David Put­tnam asks Brown rhetor­i­cally: ‘‘ Was she al­ways nutty or nutty be­cause of the sit­u­a­tion? She be­came nutty be­cause Prince Charles didn’t love her, sim­ple as that.’’

Brown and her team have clearly gone through all the books, films and in­ter­views about Diana like a flock of seag­ulls, duly snap­ping up and foot­not­ing the best quotes and anec­dotes.

But Brown has snaf­fled plenty of her own ma­te­rial to as­sem­ble a dev­as­tat­ing and de­tailed por­trait not just of su­per­star Diana, but of a group of spoiled priv­i­leged peo­ple, all in­tent on get­ting their own way, just as at­ten­tion from Bri­tish so­ci­ety, pol­i­tics and es­pe­cially the me­dia were ratch­et­ing up a cou­ple of gears.

The even­tual ca­coph­ony shook the monar­chy on its perch.

There are se­ri­ously funny cameos. At one stage, Charles de­cides he wants to take com­mu­nion with the pope. Brown re­marks drily, ‘‘ an act which, had the Queen not in­ter­vened, would have . . . [ cre­ated] the un­for­tu­nate side ef­fect of de­priv­ing the Wind­sors of their le­gal hold on the throne’’.

Brown takes on the re­ceived wis­doms. She de­mol­ishes the palace line that Camilla was ‘‘ the wo­man who waited’’. Not at all. Camilla’s true love was her hus­band, Andrew, and it was only af­ter the pair di­vorced — and she found her­self so cash- strapped she had to hide from a fish­mon­ger she hadn’t paid — that Camilla moved to marry the Prince.

Diana’s death is one more case of ill thought out con­se­quences. Th­ese are sup­pos­edly du­ti­ful peo­ple, Brown re­veals, who are care­less with oth­ers, and them­selves.

All this makes The Diana Chron­i­cles as se­duc­tive as a sofa with a choco­late box at its side. Brown has stitched a kind of Bayeux ta­pes­try. Oc­ca­sion­ally the writ­ing is strained, the metaphors stretched, but the one big wince comes up­front when the reader must tra­verse seven pages of Brown’s gush­ing ac­knowl­edge­ments, star­ring ev­ery­one from Tony Blair and Colin Pow­ell to shoe­maker Jimmy Choo. If Becky Sharp had ever writ­ten a book in her ef­forts to get on, her ac­knowl­edge­ments might have read like this, too.

Still, Brown has been on the outer of the in­ner power and celebrity me­dia cir­cles since her mag­a­zine Talk came a crop­per in 2002 to the sounds of joy­ous schaden­freude. The Diana Chron­i­cles is re­turn fire, a PR coup.

Diana, a mistress of pub­lic power plays, might have thor­oughly en­joyed the spec­ta­cle. As she once said, ‘‘ I am a great be­liever that you should al­ways con­fuse the en­emy.’’ Shelley Gare is the au­thor of The Tri­umph of the Air­heads and the Re­treat from Com­mon­sense.

House of hor­rors: A teenage Diana at the gates to Althorp, her fam­ily’s an­ces­tral home

Girl­hood fan­tasies: Read­ing step- gran’s ro­mances

Pop- star ap­peal: Fend­ing off the press

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