On August 31, 1997 died in a car crash in a tunnel in Paris Diana Spencer, former Princess of Wales and the resulting wave of mass mourning was one of the most remarkable mass phenomena’s of the Twentieth century. It was also one of the most stomach turning displays of cheap sentimentality ever. It became a wonderful excuse for people to indulge in a display of emotional excess. It served as an excuse to narcissistically put on a display of “sincerity” that cost little and in the end meant little.
The desire to wallow in a show of mourning was evident; complete with tears and theatre performances of “heart felt loss”. It was like the widow who carefully plans what to wear for the funeral and carefully calculates every tear, every sigh and every wail and melodramatically has fits etc., all designed to impress everyone with the depth of her feeling about her loss.
The object of this display of cheap, self indulgent, narcissistic sentimentality was of course not around to enjoy or be appalled by so much emotional kitsch. However let us briefly review the life of Diana Spencer former Princess of Wales.
Diana aside from being born into a very blue blooded English aristocratic family had done little of any note, or in fact worth mentioning until she was selected by the royals (mainly Prince Phillip) to be wife of Charles Prince of Wales. Charles apparently was very reluctant to marry her given her age (He was 33 and she 19) and the fact they were very different people.
The marriage proved to be a disaster. Diana however because she was very pretty, had great fashion sense and was very good at media manipulation was almost at once a media superstar. The media and much of the public could not get enough of her. Certainly Diana seemed to be a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of the rather staid royal family.
Soon it became rather clear that there were serious problems with the marriage. Within a few years began the tired soap opera of the “fairy Princess” versus her “wicked” in-laws. The media with embarrassingly few exceptions, aside from wasting its time with microscopically absurd coverage of Diana’s every move, portrayed Diana as a poor victim of the wicked royals.
Diana fed the process by strategic leaks and manipulation to an all too willing media that pandered to her self image as a poor victim. It was pure soap opera and like a soap opera about as close to reality.
Diana never got that the royals, whose benchmark was set by the Queen, had responsibilities as well as rights. Diana believed in her right to personal fulfilment and happiness in a situation in which no such rights existed. The Queen expected everyone in the “family firm” to accept that their duties as members of the royal family trumped everything else. Personal happiness / fulfilment were just not as important as fulfilling one’s duties and responsibilities. I do not think Diana ever got that. The fact that the Queen who very clearly in the public performance of her duties fulfilled this ideal of public service and was therefore even less willing to indulge Diana’s whining, hysterics and crass self indulgence should not be a surprise.
In all fairness it should be mentioned that Diana was married to a much older man who was rather staid and very conservative in many of his ways. The fact that he was apparently still in love with someone else did not help matters.
Diana soon proved to an absolute natural at charming the press and getting people to ohhh and ahhh over her. The press started it’s rather absurd infatuation with her which continued until Diana died.
It is pointless to go over the relentlessly reported details of the collapse of Charles and Diana’s marriage except to note the very expert way Diana manipulated the press into seeing things as Diana versus the heartless royals. Diana was especially good at making he husband look like the villain in the piece. I can remember an episode of the Donahue T.V. show where he was interviewing some royal watchers that when ever they said anything even slightly negative about Diana the audience would loudly murmur its distress.
When the marriage finally fell apart and Diana’s antics finally provoked the Queen into ordering Charles and Diana to get a divorce the media continued it’s infatuation with “St.” Diana of Spencer. Diana also continued her relentless campaign to both embarrass the royals and to cater to her seemingly endless need for personal self indulgence and attention.
A then friend of mine claimed with all seriousness that the Queen was “clicking her heels with joy” that Diana was dead and that Royals had been out to “destroy” Diana. Of course there was and still is no evidence to back up this rather silly notion. However the story of the “Fairy Princess” requires a “Wicked Step Mother” or mother in law in this case, to keep the fantasy going.
This nauseating spectacle of turning the Royals into villains reached its height with Diana’s brother's self serving and nauseating eulogy at the funeral, which seemed to consist of spitting in derision at them. That Lord Spencer was in no position to throw stones was largely ignored.
So eventually we get to the crash in the Paris tunnel. With the driver apparently, if not drunk, nearly so. The hordes of bloodsucking paparazzi chasing the car. The mangled corpses and the Paparazzi disgracing themselves by interfering with the Paramedics.
Then came the mourning, a wave of what amounted to public hysteria, in Britain and much of the rest of the world. It was amazing how so many who the day before would have dismissed Diana as an air head now went through paroxysms of grief; it was also cheap and easy entertainment for people bored with their lives.
So many had brought the idea that Diana was a victim and therefore her death was just the culmination of her victimhood. It is distressing to note that because of Diana’s death and the over the top campy mourning that took place afterwards the death of Mother Theresa, which took place at about the same time, was entirely eclipsed.
At her death Diana changed from:
Members of Parliament seriously suggested that Heathrow be renamed Diana Airport among other over the top responses. We of course got endless displays of histrionic playing for the audience grief.
… the ‘simpering Bambi narcissist’ became not only the loveliest woman of the century but also the Queen of Hearts, the Nabob of Sob.1
Of course those people who thought that the whole thing was too much where hooted down by the hordes of Diana gawkers. The B.B.C., for example got an enormous number of phone calls from people complaining that coverage was excessive. Those who said they thought the whole thing was over the top where treated like lepers or someone who had just loudly farted at a wedding.
The Queen was roundly attacked for not being emotionally extravagant enough; for not putting on a show of hysteria and fake “sincere” emotionalism. The nonsense about the Royal ensign not being flown at half mast was stomach turning. The fact is the Royal ensign is NEVER flown at half mast even when the monarch as died seemed to pass people by.
Such stomach turning examples of dishonest or frankly mawkish statements about Diana’s death as a man who said that he cried far more a Diana’s funeral than at his own father’s; tell us far more about the cult of celebrity and emotional immaturity than they do about anything else.
Basically Diana’s funeral was an episode of mass hysteria, a good excuse for people to come together for a good cry and to feel sorry for themselves. In other words an example of self-indulgence, that I hope 12 and ½ years later people are embarrassed about it. What people where mourning was the passing of their fantasy and the waking up to real life.
The whole absurd mythology about was Diana murdered, which led to an expensive and useless investigation of her death was a further example of the desire of so many even after Diana’s death to engage in fantasy. Of course the investigation found no evidence of a murder, which was apparent right from the beginning.2
Indulging in sentimental tosh can be quite pleasant and that was what the Diana funeral hysteria was mainly about. Of course saying so at the time was considered both heresy and bad taste. Periodically people want an excuse to have a good self-indulgent cry.
In other words it was not about Diana it was about us.
Far from being signs of “greatness” or emotional maturity, the periodic swellings of emotion in England over the past couple of centuries were the anguished pleas of a lonely and atomized populace, desperate for company.3
As for my own opinion about Diana. I personally at the time thought she was an upper class twit, who although she did some good work, was self centred and shallow. Further I saw her as a manipulative bitch. The celibrityitis around her appalled me, and I was sick to death about hearing of her.
However although I still see in her a far too shallow twit and manipulative bitch I do see that she was less the airhead I thought she was. After her death I found out that she used to take Prince William and Harry to hospitals to see and meet with chronically ill patients with diseases like Aids, Cancer and so forth all without the media being around; in order for her very privileged sons to get a dose of reality. So it appears that her concern for these people was not just for the photo ops she would get.
I did watch the funeral, (what can I say the hype got to me), and I must admit that I was genuinely moved when I saw the close up of the card on the coffin which said simply MUMMY. But then someone would have to have a heart of iron not to have been moved by that. It was a very forceful reminder that two young men had lost their mother. Beneath all the sentimental, self indulgent hogwash was that painful truth; two boys who had just lost their mother.
1. Wheen, Francis, How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the World, Public Affairs, New York, 2004, p. 193.
2. See Coroner’s Inquests into the Deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Mr. Dodi Al Fayed, Here.
3. Wheen, p. 199.
Aside from my own, not entirely reliable memory, I used pp. 192-204 of Wheen’s book.