People remember where they were at notable moments, such as when they first heard that someone famous died. And if that death was unexpected, the memory is likely to be clearer.
If you’re a certain age, John F. Kennedy’s murder is a perfect example. So, too, is the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a Paris automobile accident 20 years ago this month.
Getting ready to watch a Saturday late-night movie, I was finding the channel and my wife was in the bathroom brushing her teeth when the breaking-news crawl appeared across the bottom of the screen. At first, my wife thought I was making a tasteless joke.
So instead of the movie, we watched the evolving news story for a bit and then turned out the light. I can’t claim to have been particularly upset. As public personalities went, Diana wasn’t important to me. But over the next week, it became clear that she was apparently important to huge numbers of people.
Using the term ‘apparently’ is deliberate. In this hyper-media age, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between waves of public feeling that are real and those that are exercises in transient collective melodrama. And the emotional tenor of the week leading up to Diana’s funeral had a peculiar feeling.
Married to Prince Charles at age 20, Diana made a bad spousal choice and watched it all disintegrate. Significant numbers of people experience that. Most, though, get to go through the disheartening cycle in private. Not so with Diana.
And the popular narrative does tend to see her as a victim, someone who didn’t know what she was getting into and was subsequently treated badly by the British Royal Family. In this rendering, her utility diminished once she’d produced the obligatory heirs. So when she had personal issues of adjustment and disappointment, she received little by way of family sympathy, understanding or support.
No doubt there’s significant truth in this, albeit a truth that should be tempered by an understanding of how the real world works.
By definition, an institution like the monarchy has its imperatives. Heirs need to be produced, public roles need to be played and participants need to avoid loose cannon status. And when a sense of inherited duty is insufficiently motivating, there are abundant perks to provide consolation.
Joining the Royal Family is a bargain where you give something to get something. And from Buckingham Palace’s perspective, Diana didn’t hold up her end of the deal.
It can, of course, be convincingly argued that she was always an inappropriate candidate for the role in which she was cast and that Buckingham Palace should have known better from the get-go. But it’s not reasonable to assign all the blame in that direction.
After all, Diana wasn’t forced to marry Charles. Indeed, in light of the difference in their ages, personalities and interests, it’s hard to imagine that she’d have given him a second thought if he wasn’t the Prince of Wales. But perhaps dazzled by the trappings rather than the man, she made a bad bargain.
Then there was the tense week leading up to the funeral. In addition to the mass outpouring of grief, there was a strong undercurrent of anger at the “cold” Royal Family.
An English work acquaintance of mine described the experience as being bullied. If you weren’t sufficiently grief-stricken, people wanted to know why. To borrow a phrase from Toronto-born columnist Mark Steyn, “aggressive empathy” was the order of the day.
Along with another Canadian, Christie Blatchford, Steyn produced the most acutely observant commentary on the goings-on that week. While most writers waxed sentimental, Steyn was having none of it.
There was this: “Before her death, Diana was a complicated figure, offering something for everyone … now there was only the luminous angel who walked among her people bestowing love.”
And referring to Elton John’s musical musing about Diana’s footsteps and England’s greenest hills, there was this: “If so, it’ll be the first time since her schooldays. She never showed the slightest interest in England’s greenest hills – or, anyway, not when compared to Switzerland’s whitest Alps and the Caribbean’s silveriest beaches and the Cote d’Azur’s swankiest yachts.”
Still, 20 years on from Diana’s tragic end, the popular narrative is probably set. That’s generally the way it is with legends.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.