Tabloid girl in a tiara
The latest book on Diana is a racy eye- opener, writes Shelley Gare
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