What Diana death means to me now, 20 years later: Timson

August 31, 2017 News

What Diana death means to me now, 20 years later: Timson. 

I have learned to not turn her into a feminist heroine rebelling against the stifling Royal Family. She was more complicated.

We had driven home, wearily unpacked mountains of stuff from a family vacation, and I had collapsed in bed early, thinking I’ll deal with the laundry tomorrow.

Around midnight, my husband firmly shook my arm to wake me up. What, I moaned. “Big story,” he said. “Diana’s been in a car crash. She’s dead.”

Diana, Princess of Wales, a young, woefully undereducated aristocrat with a wicked sense of humour, whose virginal pedigree qualified her at 20 to marry Prince Charles, 32, heir to the British throne, died when she was just 36 on Aug. 31, 1997, after a horrific car crash in a Paris tunnel.

Despite her glorious 1981 carriage ride as millions watched to her “fairy-tale” wedding to Prince Charles, Diana had already taken quite a detour from Happily Ever After.

There was her scandalous openness about her unhappy marriage. The couple separated after 11 years in 1992, and divorced in 1996.

(“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” she told one interviewer, referring to her then husband’s long liaison with Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he subsequently married in 2005). There was her bulimia, her own liasons, and after the divorce, the subsequent stripping away of most of her title and membership in the world’s most stable monarchy.

But this tragic end was so shocking it left one stoic British television announcer in tears.

I stumbled from bed to television, where I sat numbly for hours and then days (who did the laundry? Not I) watching the tragedy unfold.

Diana’s death, the 20th anniversary of which will be observed next week, would upend the Royal Family, change the nature of public grieving and leave her sons William, 15, and Harry, 12, without a mother.

Despite the marital turmoil, Diana’s love for her boys was apparently so extravagant that when William and Harry for the first time recently publicly recalled in depth her laughter and fierce hugs, it was with a sad tenderness that’s hard to watch.

“It was that love that even if she was on the other side of a room, that you as a son could feel it,” Harry says haltingly in the new HBO documentary Diana Our Mother: Her Life and her Legacy.

The movie, which aired this week on CBC, honours Diana’s devotion to AIDS patients, and her high-profile campaign to end landmines.

But it is really a vehicle to finally allow the public what they’ve always craved — full access to mourn alongside Diana’s sons.

The Royal Family clearly learned from its disastrous initial reaction to Diana’s death, which saw them pull up the emotional drawbridge and stay secluded with the misguided idea that her death was a private matter.

It wasn’t until an outraged public demanded they do so that the family came out to acknowledge the public grief — and to some extent their own.

The weeping public, the finger-pointing, and most of all the cellophane wrapped bouquets, stretched on as far as the eye could see.

Blame was heaped on the paparazzi ferociously pursuing the Princess and her lover Dodi Fayed, who also, along with the driver, died in the accident; and on the royals, who had exploited Diana as a lovely modern symbol — until she made it impossible for them to do so.

The conspiracy theories and salacious gossip will never stop.

Harry, now 32, says he “shut down” for 10 years following his mother’s death, unable to deal with it. (Didn’t anyone get these boys to a therapist?) “So there is a lot of grief that needs to be let out,” he said in the film.

William, now at 35, only a year younger than his mother when she died, seemingly well-married to Catherine (Kate), whom he met at university, and with two young children, described the loss of a parent at such a young age: “There’s nothing like it in the world. It’s . . . like an earthquake . . . ”

Obviously close, the brothers alluded to their mother’s “naughty side” and what an “absolute nightmare” she would have been as granny Diana. “She’d probably come at bath time, cause an amazing amount of sea and bubbles and bathwater all over the place and then leave.”

I admire the warmth, dignity and determination with which they have reclaimed their mother, after not only her death, but their difficult childhood as children of divorce.

The “boys,” now composed and approachable men, will clearly be all right.

What about the British public?

In a brilliant piece in The Guardian, writer Jonathan Freedland wrote recently that the public grieving over Diana, its angry refusal to be deferential to the royal family, was a foreshadowing of something so powerful it connects all the way to Brexit.

“Through her death, the people’s princess gave us an early glimpse of a very British form of populism — and it is anything but dead,” Freedland wrote.

And what have I learned? Not to turn Diana into a feminist heroine rebelling against the stifling Royal Family. She was more complicated.

However, a juicy line still haunts me from Tina Brown’s 2007 nonfiction book The Diana Chronicles, that when Diana would not be quiet, Prince Philip imperiously said: “If you don’t behave, my girl, we’ll take your title away.”

“My title is a lot older than yours, Philip,” replied the young woman whose own noble Spencer family lineage dates back longer than these royals.

Diana is buried on a beautiful tree laden-island at Althorp, on the Spencer family estate.

With her sons now coping — and whether or not the monarchy endures — I hope that with this anniversary, Diana can now finally rest in peace.

We owe her that.

Judith Timson

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