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Death of a Princess

Twenty years after her death, Dennis Ellam looks at the life and legacy of the self-styled queen of hearts

In those strange days after Princess Diana died, while the shock of her death still engulfed and stunned the country, and unfathomable question was already being asked... What memories of her would remain, in the years to come?

It had been a short and turbulent public life, roller-soaring towards its dramatic end on that summer night in Paris, and she had been cast in so many different roles.

She was Diana the fairytale princess and the champion of the world's poor, the self-proclaimed queen of hearts who cradled the sick and embraced the abandoned; she was the fashion icon, the charity campaigner, the ultimate magazine cover girl, of of the world's most beautiful women and certainly its most famous, wither the victim of an artificial marriage or a wilful young woman who could not accept the rules of Royalty. So, which of all these Diana's would be best remembered in the future?

Twenty years on, I have turned back to an article I wrote in that week of bewilderment between her death and her funeral, when we all struggled to put the enormity of her death into some kind of context.

"Once the mass mourning is finished, and normality returns to the country as it must, can we remain a nation which is entirely unaltered by the profound impact of such an event?" I wrote then.

"Are we at risk of taking sorrow too far, are we  guilty f looking for an icon where there was simply a human being with all of the defects; famous and immensely popular, maybe, but a flawed human all the same?

"Will we feel the same about Diana when time has done its healing work, after five years have gone by, or a decade, or two decades?"

Well, the future has arrived. The 20th anniversary of her passing, which seemed so far off, is now upon us.

We know what is her legacy and of course Diana is not forgotten, far from it.

She will forever have her important niche in Britain;s history, as a Queen-to-be who was denied her place, and as the mother of a King-to-be whose reign, whenever it comes, is bound to set a whole new style of monarchy. But beyond that- yes, to answer my own questions, I think that generally we do feel the same about Princess Diana today as we did towards the end of her lifetime and no, I don't believe that we did manage to remain unaltered in the aftermath of her sudden death.

This anniversary is time to reflect on the effect it had on is all, Royalist or otherwise, as the news unfolded in the early hours of Sunday September 1.

First, the reports that she has been injured in a car crash in a Parisian underpass, travelling alongside her boyfriend of the moment Dodie Fayed, then the confirmation that she was killed.

All around the world, the shock reverberated. She was, if nothing else, the biggest global celebrity of the day.

But here in Britain, it was clear at once that the death of Diana was an event far more serious, cutting far deeper into the national psyche, than the loss of some star of glossy mags of gossip pages.

Her time on the public stage was relatively short- little more than 15 years, from the day the Prince of Wales led her into the spotlight- but during it she established herself as a figurehead for an entirely new kind of Britain.

Even when the fairytale began to crumble and disintegrate, and a chasm opened up between the ill-matched Wales', there was no doubting where most of the public's sympathy lay. She was no longer an HRH, after the couple divorced, but in the public's mind, she remained the best hope that a staid old institution cold offer in modern times. 

"She could speak with ease to her own generation and to generation growing up after her, in a manner which was both refreshing and reassuring to those who had faith in the Monarchy's failure, I see that I wrote at her death.

"She was the Princess who danced in fusty palace rooms to the music of a Walkman. She was the princess who jogged to and from gymnasium clubs who laughed less than discreetly at the ridiculous nature of some of the solemnity that surrounded her, who rode with her sons at theme parks.

"It had begun to seem that she was one of the heralds of a new order that was beginning to take shape in Britain.

"The new prime minister Tony Blair was putting into place the foundations of what he would call politics for the people... the Princess was offering the promise, also, of a new relationship between Royalty and people"

Cool Britannia, I think we might have called it back then. How naively optimistic that sounds now.

But the fact is that changes were underway in Britain, and Diana was of of those at the forefront of change, and the influence she exerted is still with us today, most obviously in the ranks of the monarchy itself.

Her sons speak proudly of carrying on her legacy.

We might be uncomfortable with William's soul-baring, and we might frown at the more outrageous antics of Harry, but there is no question that they have inherited all of their mother's natural instinct to connect with the people, restrained by nine of their father's awkward angst.

Her sudden death was a test for the Royal Family- the 'Firm' as it liked to style itself- and it seemed to be lacking in understanding of the public sorrow.

It had to reform itself. Hard to imagine that, if the same circumstances were unfolding today, the Firm would stand so rigidly on formality- it would surely not, for instance, insist that two grieving children must walk the crowd-lined streets behind their mother's coffin.

In contrast to Royal reserve, the country's reaction to Diana's death was an outpouring of lamentation on a massive scale and that too, signalled a shift in behaviour that still persists today. The scene of catastrophe, or a terrorist outrage indeed any loss of life which catches widespread attention, and there have been many examples since, now becomes what the media terms a 'shrine' for the laying of flowers and impromptu tributes.

Mourning has become a public demonstration, to be extended far beyond those directly affected.

On the eve of Diana's funeral, I walked in the park around her home a Kensington Palace and, all around, the night was lit by tiny lights, and as you came nearer you realised they were the flames of candles, gathered around each of them a small, silent huddle of people.

Their explanation? Invariably, it was always much the same: "We just had to be here".

The ocean of flowers that spread in front of her palace gates that week, was a spectacle that was to be seen again on so many occasions in a new kind of Britain, where emotions are on display and feelings have to be demonstrated and shared; we still call it the Diana Effect. What is she had lived? what if she had survived that car crash or some would say, better still, what if she had never been there at all, in the company of an easy-living playboy and unaccompanied by any protection officers?

She would be 56 years old now and a grandmother.

It's impossible to imagine that she would have slipped quietly into middle aged obscurity. But what person would Diana have become in 21st century Britain, in a very different world than the one she left.

Older, obviously- although modern advances in plastic surgery and cosmetics would probably have kept the physical evidence at bay, vanity being one of her strongest characteristics.

Wise? Well we have to assume so.

The girlie escapades with mates like Fergie, the dalliances with bling masters such as Fayed, such episodes would be in the past, as life inevitably taught home of its harsher lessoons.

She might well have remarried. The obvious candidate wold be the Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnet Kahn, her real love in her final years according to friends, although he absolutely resisted the burden he would have to carry is her ever became Mr Di.

"I knew I would never be able to lead a normal life, and that was my main concern about our getting married," he said, after her death. ut I think if Diana were alive today we would have remained very good friends, whatever she did and whomever she was with."

Possibly a cordial relationship with Charles would have been established, once the 'Camilla Problem' was resolved, not because Diana would have any ambition to be the third person in that marriage, but through the Wales's parental duties to their growing sons.

If so. drawing on his experience with the Prince's Trust, she might have sought his advice and help with her own charity work.

She had already established herself as a champion of less that popular causes: HIV/AIDS and leprosy sufferers, homelessness and drug addiction, the sick and the poverty-stricken, here and abroad, and then early in 1997 she took on campaigning for the innocent victims of landmines

Memorably, she was photographed in an Angolan minefield. Of course the image went around the world.

It seemed as if she was searching for new challenged, the less popular and more stigmatised the better, and  had she lived she would almost certainly have looked for more.

There was ta;;l of a Princess Diana Foundation, to raise donations from the wealthy and the very important, who used to clamour just to be in her company.

What American zillionaire, perhaps with ambitions to be president, would not have paid a fortune to be seated at her table at some Washington ball?

The self-styled queen of hearts was ready to extend the franchise. She was in her mid-30s it doesn't seem likely that she would have been happy to while away the next  few years with wastrel rich kids on yachts.

We have to consider, also, a factor of everyday life toy that was almost unheard of in Diana's time, the internet and social media.

In the world of the Twitterati shoe would have been in her element; she would have lost no time in using sa whole new level of communication to promote her causes, and for that mater herself.

It's easy to speculate there might eve, by now have been a website; perhaps queenofhearts.com, a showcase of all things Diana-related, though nothing so tacky as the internet enterprise of those party-merchandising demi-Royals, the Middletons.

Ah yes, the Middletons.. one can only wonder what Diana would have made of the in-laws. In Kate she might have seen much of herself, a young woman who came from an un-Royal upbringing beyond the palace walls, marrying into the Windsors, facing a lifetime of public scrutiny, having to learn the terms and conditions and adjust o the unique way that things mist be done withing the Firm.

She would be only too keen to offer advice, would she not, to provide comforting reassurance, generally to guide Kate along a path she had had to negotiate for herself?

She might have worried about her son's decision to marry outside of nobility because no one knew the pitfalls better than her, but she may have welcomed her new daughter in law as a sister in arms, in that struggle she had already initiated, to shake the monarchy out of its straitjacket of tradition and into a fresh future.

Twenty years ago, like everyone else, I was already trying to git into her place in history: "No matter how Diana might have been ostracised, or how her style might have been thoroughly disliked among courtiers, no matter which way her personal life might have wandered and strayed, she had a special responsibility to fulfil, as the mother of the king-to-be. Time will tell how well she managed that task, before her life was cut short."

Had she been here now, I think she could have allowed herself a satisfied smile.

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