In 1979, the Prince of Wales, then thirty years old and under pressure to find a bride, and soon, proposed marriage to Amanda Knatchbull, granddaughter of his revered mentor and great-uncle Lord Mountbatten. She declined the offer. In the present age, a young woman can turn down a proposal of marriage from the next king of England, preferring the tranquillity of a private life.
Few could blame her. One of the main themes of Tina Brown’s carefully pitched biography of Diana (who needs only one name for immediate identification), The Diana Chronicles, is the extraordinarily intrusive ubiquity of the media in the lives of the British Royal Family. Today no secret can be kept. The financial and cultural power of newspapers and television has increased; the old sense of deference, or perhaps even loyalty, in some of royalty’s servants and subjects has diminished. Nobody can be relied on to turn away in disgust from the public revelation of humiliating personal details. Diana, initially deemed a well-born but malleable virgin by the court, was so brilliantly successful with the mass of the British people in part because she rapidly came to understand and successfully manipulate the media, transmitting an image with which ordinary people could sympathize and identify.
In the early stages of her engagement to Prince Charles and after, the Royal Family suspected that Diana was not very bright but, not generally intellectual themselves, did not see that as a problem. However, one of Diana’s difficulties as princess of Wales was her lack of personal resources when marooned in Balmoral Castle, the Royal Family’s Scottish estate, for the annual holiday. She did not hunt or shoot or fish. Bored, she sat and “glowered,” to the anger of Her Majesty. Although Charles took pleasure in country pursuits, he could sit and read too. Diana read nothing except the romance novels of Barbara Cartland, her stepmother’s mother, incidentally. Indeed, one of Diana’s more extraordinary characteristics was her intellectual vacuity. Biographies usually, and necessarily, spend some time recording the intellectual life of their subjects. Diana did not have one. She had “an aversion to books,” writes Brown. Diana could take no intelligent part in a discussion between Charles and the editor of the Sunday Times, she had “no intellectual resources to fall back on” after her divorce, and she patronized “astrologers, psychics, palm readers and graphologists.” In committee meetings, “she had the attention of a fruit fly.” It is true that she once considered embracing Islam, but this was because she had fallen in love with a handsome Pakistani doctor. This is the woman who has caused more trouble for the British monarchy than anybody since the Abdication Crisis of 1936.
Tina Brown knows about the media with which she and her subject have been so familiar. Brown was twenty-five when she became editor of Tattler, which she describes as “the house magazine for the upper classes”; she later became editor in chief of Vanity Fair and the first female editor of The New Yorker. She takes the more superficial levels of the media, clothes, and flash and dazzle as seriously as Diana did. Readers learn that in the six weeks of Diana’s relationship with Dodi Fayedher last lover, who died in the same car crash in 1997he gave her “a multistranded seed pearl bracelet fastened with jewel-encrusted dragons’ heads, a rectangular Jaeger-LeCoultre wristwatch studded with diamonds and a gold dress ring with pavé diamonds.” Brown can gauge the heft and cultural implications of these presumably expensive status-markers, but she is under the impression that what she calls the Royal Standard, which flies from the flagpole of Buckingham Palace when the queen is in residence, bears “lyres and lions rampant.” She makes a number of other errors about precedence and nomenclature. In other words, she is very much a consumer, high-life Di rather than a...
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