I remember exactly what I was doing on the morning of August 31, 1997. I was lying in my bed, in that half-state between sleep and wakefulness, when a phone call suddenly jolted me out of my semi-slumber. Looking at the tracer, I noticed my mother’s number on it. I was surprised, as my mom usually never called so early in the day. Had a family member died, I wondered.
Indeed somebody had died, but it wasn’t a family member. ‘Princess Diana was killed in a car accident,’ my mother said. ‘She was going through a tunnel, and the driver was trying to get away from some paparazzi that were chasing them.’ The conversation veered towards Diana’s ex-husband, Prince Charles. ‘He should never have married her if he didn’t love her,’ my mother continued. ‘She could have just settled down and been a wife and mother.’
Further details came out later that day. Not only Diana but her then-boyfriend, Egyptian-born Dodi al-Fayed, perished in the crash, as did the car’s driver. Diana’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, was the sole survivor. The revelations also put some of my mother’s (and others’) allegations into clearer perspective. As my boyfriend at the time noted, Charles really had nothing to do with Diana’s death, being long out of her life when the accident occurred. Nor could the paparazzi shoulder all the blame for the tragedy: Diana’s driver, a Frenchman named Henri Paul, was found to have a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit.
Tributes to the late Princess began pouring in shortly afterwards. A rose with the words ‘Good-bye, Diana’ underneath it was drawn on a wall on the corner of St. George and Bloor Streets in downtown Toronto, while an Indian restaurant on nearby Yonge Street put up a large photograph of Diana in its dining area. Adulatory articles appeared in magazines and newspapers. A Colombian commentator on the Internet described Diana as the ‘most Christian person the world has ever known.’ Pop star Elton John sang ‘Good-bye, England’s rose’ to the tune of ‘Candle in the wind’ (originally dedicated to Marilyn Monroe).
Soon enough, not-so-complimentary pieces about Diana cropped up. The Toronto Portuguese-language weekly Voice featured an article by an old doctor who portrayed Diana as essentially a vapid character wandering aimlessly through life going from man to man. He could barely contain his outrage at the fact that, as he saw it, Diana was being celebrated in the same way as those who, he said, had truly dedicated themselves to humanity, such as Mother Teresa or Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin. Similarly, Toronto Sun columnist Michael Coren, who is British himself, penned a commentary dripping with contempt at worst and pity at best towards Diana. The Princess, according to Coren, died an ‘ostensible martyr’s death… with a drunk driver and a playboy lover’ − though he showed a glimmer of compassion for her when he stated that she was ‘cheated on by a cruel clown of a husband.’
Fifteen years after her death, Diana remains an enigma. Was she a saint-in-the making, a wronged wife, a playgirl princess, or, as Michael Coren wrote sarcastically, a pop goddess? To answer these questions, my mind goes back to when Diana first appeared on the public scene: during her engagement to Prince Charles. She had been chosen as future Queen based on a variety of criteria. For one, she was tall, and it was considered necessary to ‘breed some height into the House of Windsor’ (my father sneered that for being allegedly so superior to us common mortals, the royal family were essentially ‘bred like dogs’). Diana was also of noble blood, thereby ensuring that the Crown Prince was not marrying a so-called commoner. Third, she was purportedly a virgin. Diana’s virginity, or lack of it, was the source of much speculation. One of her uncles, for instance, affirmed a few years after the royal wedding that his niece was indeed a virgin upon marriage (I had to wonder whether this whole conversation was about a woman in modern-day Europe or in Saudi Arabia).
Following a few supposedly blissful years of marriage, cracks began to emerge. Prince Charles was rumoured to have a ‘flame.’ Similar stories surfaced about Diana, who angrily attempted to deflect them with the statement, ‘Pretty soon they’ll be saying I have a lover who’s Black and Catholic.’ By the early 1990s, though, the facade had crumbled. Charles was caught talking on a cell phone with a lover, a married woman named Camilla Parker-Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall), with whom he had apparently been involved before, during and after his marriage. Diana was discovered to have had lovers of her own. One of them, army officer James Hewitt, was said by some to be the biological father of her younger son Harry. Charles and Diana separated in 1992 and officially divorced four years later.
To the first question, was Princess Diana the ‘most Christian person the world has ever known,’ as the Colombian commentator said? I am convinced that Diana was a genuinely good person. For example, as the late journalist and philanthropist June Callwood wrote, Diana’s embrace of a man with AIDS in the 1980s did a great deal to dispel the stigma and fear surrounding the disease at a time when it was widely believed that even being in the same room with a person with AIDS could spread the infection. And lest anyone conclude cynically that this and other gestures were simply a show on her part, it was revealed after her death that she had engaged in a number of charitable activities that were never publicized.
Second, was Diane really ‘cheated on by a cruel clown of a husband’ (Charles)? She stated in an interview after her divorce that ‘there were three people in this marriage,’ that is, herself, Charles and Camilla. It was clear, though, that Diana knew about Camilla all along but decided to go ahead with the wedding anyway. Perhaps Diana thought she could ‘win Charles over’ and turn him away from Camilla once and for all. More likely, however, she wanted the position of Princess of Wales and was willing to tolerate Camilla in order to obtain that role. At my most cynical, I’m tempted to think that neither Diana nor Charles ever truly loved one another but only married for their own self-interests: Diana to be Princess of Wales and Charles because his family expected it of him.
To many people, the most fascinating aspect of Princess Diana was her wild love life. Her first two notable romantic interests were the aforementioned James Hewitt and a rugby player named Will Carling, of whom she said she liked her men ‘hunky and chunky.’ There were even rumours she had an affair with Canadian singer Bryan Adams (which Adams himself denied). Although Diana’s comment that ‘Pretty soon they’ll be saying I have a lover who’s Black and Catholic’ was criticized for its supposed racism, not all of her lovers were white (and there was talk of Diana converting to Catholicism). For example, she was reportedly very much in love with a Pakistani heart surgeon named Hasnat Khan. This led to rumours that she planned to convert (or, as some Muslims said, ‘revert’) to Islam. After the romance with Khan ended, she embarked on a relationship with Dodi al-Fayed. There was always speculation as to whether Diana’s affair with al-Fayed was simply a summer fling or a step towards a longer-term union. That’s impossible to say with any certainty: the two died before the relationship could either evolve or devolve.
While, as I mentioned above, I believe that Diana was a good person, she had her inner demons. She apparently struggled with bulimia. I can sympathize: I know first-hand how easy it is for young women to fall prey to eating disorders with all the pressure they face to be thin and ‘look good.’ I also think that Diana suffered a great deal from her parents’ acrimonious divorce in childhood. Throughout her life, Diana seemed, as the Portuguese doctor suggested, unsure of what she wanted in terms of a man, a public role, and possibly even a religion. She had many lovers, but the one great love appeared to have eluded her. Her dream of becoming the Queen of England collapsed too. As she declared in an interview, she would have to resign herself to being the ‘Queen of people’s hearts.’ Maybe, as my mom said, Diana would have been better off just being a wife and mother. But whether Diana Frances Spencer Windsor would have been content in such a role remains an open question.