Monday, February 18, 2008

What I'm Reading: The Diana Chronicles

Tina Brown, The Diana Chronicles, New York: Doubleday, 2007.

Tina Brown's biography of the late and iconic Princess of Wales reads like smart cultural history rather than celebrity expose, and is therefore, I think, an important book. It's also an extremely even-handed account of a tragic life and death that has changed how we think about monarchy, celebrity, and media. Brown has talked to the partisans of both camps, but manages to be sympathetic and fair to the characters in her story.

As Brown portrays her, Diana Spencer grew up in a titled but dysfunctional family that left her craving intimacy. She was also the product of a largely bygone world that expected little of its daughters other than training them to a convincing degree of gentility that would prepare them for the right marriage. In Diana's case, that marriage was almost preordained, to the Prince of Wales, a man who was spiritually at least a generation older than her. Diana came from a pedigree that could claim "dollops" or royal blood, was young, virginal, and beautiful. I remember in my teenage years the stunning images of the fairy tale wedding of the century, but beneath the images that sold millions of tea towels and china plates was a reality, as Brown suggests, that there were precious few other women whom Charles could have married.

The question of whether Charles' infidelities drove Diana's or vice versa is, I think Brown would say, probably irrelevant. The tragedy of the day after the fairy tale wedding was that a young, affection-starved, and poorly educated girl found herself "interred" within The Firm. The Royal Family, as Brown portrays it, was an emotionally constrained, duty bound endeavour whose members were expected to buck up and do their job. One of Brown's best lines is her imaging of what it must have been like for Diana to have realized that she was trapped within this world: "When I think of the young, beautiful, newly married Princess of Wales at this time, I see her sitting up abruptly in the middle of the night in the Spartan spaciousness of her bedroom at Balmoral and uttering a long, bloodcurdling scream ..." (p. 172).

Compounding the tragedy was The Firm's (and Charles' ego, Brown suggests) inability to adapt to the enormous media attention that Diana generated in her "Dynasty Di" days. Brown is especially good at describing the cultural dynamic that generated this media frenzy - a sharpening of class divisions between rich and poor in the Thatcher years, the erosion of respect for those class divisions on the part of the press, and the ascendancy of money and public relations over titles and protocol in Thatcher's England. An avid consumer of tabloid culture in her youth, Diana built her power base as public icon because she understood the new media-driven, PR world while the rest of the royal family never got it.

While Diana understood the media, and certainly manipulated it, Brown never suggests that her connection with the masses was not genuine. Diana's ability to engage with the poor and her vocation for charity work later in life came from within. She was willing to shake hands with and hug people with HIV AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s when no one else was. As Brown puts it, in the ruthless Thatcher era, Diana "rediscovered her own big heart. Like a Method actor, she plumbed the unhappiness of her own life and turned it into empathy" (p. 282). (It's a revealing footnote that Diana's favourite film was The English Patient). Diana was convincing to others in pain because she did not hide the pain in her own private life, while the other royals were trained to conceal their emotion. It's a mark of Brown's fairness that she never diminishes the charitable work that other members of the Royal Family, including Charles, selflessly did. Unfortunately, their good deeds, as Brown quotes Beatrix Campbell, came across as "patrician" rather than "humanitarian" as Diana's work did.

One of the great tragedies of her life was that Diana the post-divorce humanitarian could have been a huge force for good in the world. Her willingness to go to places like Angola and walk through landmines came from courage and empathy, even if Diana made sure she looked good while doing it. Brown quotes one of friends who was noticing the changes within her late in life: "I never saw a prohject under construction as Diana" (p. 428). Unfortunately, she still had the hunger for intimacy and for a simulacra of the royal life that led her to the playboy Dodi Al Fayed and that fatal crash in the Paris tunnel.

Brown's final chapters ar a tour de force. She is devastating to Dodi's father, Mohamed Al Fayed, who generated enough conspiracy theories to fuel a staggering 35,000 websites at the time but whose scattergun accusations have been convincingly refuted by several inquiries. She's sympathetic to the Royals, who slowly adapted to the aftermath (her account of the crusty Prince Phillip giving strength to his grandsons in the funeral procession is very touching). Her comments on how Diana as "the People's Princess" changed (and possibly salvaged) the role of the monarchy going into the 21st century are especially insightful:

"The political power of the monarcy has been hemmorrhaging for nearly 400 years, and by a centuiry ago it was effectively gone. Diana stumbled on a new kind of royal power. She showed what could be done with the old concept of royal bounty when the drama of humanitarian concern is connected with the new electonic nervous system of worldwide media." (p. 481).

Another reason to read this book is to admire Brown's writing. She has a wonderful and often cutting capacity for description. Diana is pursued by "the farting motorbikes of the international press" (p. 12). The media savvy Tony Blair is a "master surfer of the zeitgeist", Margaret Thatcher is "Nurse Ratchett in Downing Street" and John Major is "a furled umbrella". As you might expect from someone whose editorial career has included both The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, Brown writes with panache, and her eye for style probably explains much of her fascination for her subject.

In the Anglican tradition of the Prayer Book, as one might expect from what once was (and in part still is) the state church of England, there is A Prayer for the Royal Family that is among those to be read in the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. The prayer asks God to bless the sovereign and all the royal family, to "Endue them with thy Holy Spirit; enrich them with thy heavenly grace; propser them with all happiness; and bring them to thine everlasting kingdom". As an ordained Anglican priest and as an officer of the Canadian Forces who holds the Queen's commission, but as someone who also remembers and sometimes watched Spitting Image (the vicious satire puppet show of the 1980s and 1990s) in its heyday, I confess that I have often been less than respectful of the royals. My takeaway from Brown's book is that these flawed human beings, tied to their ancient stakes of duty in a new media world, need our prayers more than ever.


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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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