October 1997
by Stuart Reid

Saint Diana

It was a fairy-tale funeral. More than a million mourners watched the gun carriage bearing the coffin make its way from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey. All the grief that had attended the deaths of Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean, Jim Morrison, and John Lennon was focused on the cruelly broken body of the greatest icon of them all: Diana, Princess of Wales. Inside the Abbey itself, last resting place of Edward the Confessor, 2,000 guests -- from show business, politics, fashion, and the media -- followed the specially tailored liturgy. There were concessions to tradition: Elton John did not wear earrings (or a tiara) when he sang his hastily revised version of "Candle in the Wind." And there were concessions to popular sentiment: the congregation, taking its cue from the pop concert crowds outside, clapped when Diana's brother, Lord Spencer, had finished insulting the press and rebuking the royal family. On the other hand, to the disappointment of news desks around the world, nobody booed the Queen. You can't have everything, even in a fairy tale.

The funeral was the biggest event ever staged in London (only 300,000 saw Winston Churchill off in 1965). It came at the end of a week of hysterical grieving in which endless rivers of syrup had flowed from television, radio, and newspapers. The death of the Princess was treated as the greatest story ever told: greater than D-Day, greater than the moon landings, greater even than the Coronation of 1953. London went mad, making Los Angeles look like a city of monastic dignity. One radio station offered free counseling to those in distress. There were calls for the creation of a new public holiday, Diana Day. Within three days of the accident in Paris, a dozen people emerged from St. James's Palace, where Diana's body was lying in the royal chapel, and said that they had seen the superstar smiling down at them from the corner of a portrait of Charles I. Soon, no doubt, miracles will be performed in her name.

With Diana's death a cult has been born; a secular saint has been created by popular acclamation. The Queen of Hearts has become the People's Princess, less regal but more powerful. The House of Windsor cannot hope to compete. In the week before the funeral a revolution took place in England. The People, inflamed by the brutish tabloids, demanded public grief from the Queen, and they got it. Her Majesty made an unprecedented live broadcast and ordered the Union Jack to be flown at half mast over Buckingham Palace, something that had never happened before, even for a dead monarch. The one thing the Queen did not give the People was tears, but at least the Princes William and Harry wept, and we all bawled along with them. It was a wretched, shaming business, this orgy of bullying sentimentality. At the end of the week the monarchy as we have known it for most of this century, a mixture of stoicism, decency, and cod medieval tradition, was dead. The baseball cap had triumphed over the crown.

Sovereignty is now vested in the people. But the People's Princess was very far from being of the people. Her father was Edward John Viscount Althorp (pronounced, dyslexically, Awltrop), the only son of the 7th Earl Spencer. Her mother was Frances Ruth Burke Roche, the youngest daughter of the 4th Baron Fermoy. The Spencers had served the royal family for generations, her maternal grandmother having been a Woman of the Bedchamber to the Queen Mother. Diana was descended from Charles II and James II, and is Charles's seventh cousin once removed.

At 20, in keeping with the family tradition of royal service, she became a sacrificial virgin to the House of Windsor. The rest is history. What is important here is that the bitterness between Diana and Charles provided the newspapers, broadsheet as well as tabloid, with endless copy, much of it meretricious and nasty. It undermined the monarchy as much as it undermined the unhappy couple. I have myself contributed to the process. Neither the Prince nor the Princess was innocent in all this, of course. Both used the press for their own purposes, but Diana was better at it than Charles, because she provided the picture editors with the spreads that dreams are made of. The newspapers did not kill Diana, however; they created her by promoting her far beyond her merit. That (not murder) was their crime.

Diana was famous for being famous, but she put her fame to good use. She worked hard and raised vast sums for many worthy causes (let us not quibble about land mines). She fed the hungry and comforted the sick. The tens of thousands who turned up at Kensington Gardens to lay wreaths or teddy bears and to say a prayer were, of course, paying homage to glamour, but they were also paying homage to what they saw as -- and what may have been -- genuine goodness. Diana had the common touch. She spoke to the least powerful in the land, to the blacks, the homosexuals, the cripples. They loved her. So, perhaps surprisingly, did such robust and unsentimental thinkers as Paul Johnson and Auberon Waugh.

To her enemies, many of whom discovered a sudden warmth for her in the immediate aftermath of her death, she was a scheming, manipulative woman. To her friends she was Mother Teresa with legs. Diana's friendship with the ancient nun, who, with poor timing, died in the same week, did neither of them any harm, but the two women had nothing in common, beyond an interest in dying children. Mother Teresa put the fear of God into people: like many real saints, she was not an attractive figure. Diana, on the other hand, made people feel good about themselves, which is why she is worshipped. In place of self-denial Saint Diana offered self-fulfillment; in place of the shriving stool she offered the therapist's couch; in place of the contemplative's cell she offered, and demanded, "space." And if all else failed, as it sometimes did, there was always the fortune teller. (Rita Rogers, the psychic Diana and Dodi Al Fayed consulted a fortnight before their fatal crash, went into mourning at the beginning of September. Said a friend: "Rita is terribly upset, naturally." Naturally.)

Charles, in contrast, doesn't make people feel good about themselves. The poor fellow doesn't feel good about himself. He is riddled with guilt. Some blame him for Diana's death. (Some blame the Freemasons, some MI5. The French police, less plausibly, blame the paparazzi.) He was condemned as wicked -- or weak, since he was apparently obeying the Queen's orders -- for taking William and Harry to church on the morning of their mother's death. In the Guardian a psychologist called Dorothy Rowe suggested that the church outing ''was an act of child abuse meriting a call to the NSPCC." Not even Oprah Winfrey would tolerate so loopy a comment. Charles's position seemed hopeless immediately after Diana's death, but he had gained a lot of sympathy by the time of the funeral. He still appeals to the conservative and moderate and liberal instincts that linger in the English soul. It remains possible, however, that he will step aside for William when Elizabeth dies, and hand over what remains of the British monarchy to a new generation. In her "Panorama" interview Diana (all mascara and pleading, puppy dog eyes) suggested that Charles might not become king; and she would certainly have wanted William to succeed in her former husband's stead. What Diana wants Diana is likely to get. If ever Charles wears the crown, his head will lie more uneasy than most. Republicans are delighted.

What of the Government? Tony Blair has come out of the tragedy well. He is the first Prime Minister to be more popular than the royal family, and he doesn't care who knows it. It was he who, on the morning of the crash, reached out to his, and her, constituency and (rodent eyes burning with sincerity) proclaimed her "the People's Princess." In doing so he was suggesting, albeit obliquely, that the legitimacy of the monarchy rests on the will of a sovereign people led by a democratically elected prime minister. Diana's death has not diminished Tony Blair.

Anything is now possible. As I write, the story is changing every minute, and so is the mood. There is one constant, however: the pain of the young Princes. We look at our own children and are consumed with guilt. We look at William and Harry following their mother's coffin and we can scarcely bear the misery. What can have been going through their minds? Let us hope we never find out.

Stuart Reid, a frequent contributor, is associate editor for comment at London's Sunday Telegraph.