Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel has questioned the reverence of what she terms the Princess Diana “myth”, in a caustic article ahead of the 20th anniversary of the royal’s sudden death in a car crash this week.
In a combative essay for the Guardian, the novelist breaks rank with the common perception of Diana as “the people’s princess” by challenging the true extent of her kindness and integrity – both virtues associated with the late royal by the media and the public at large.
Piecing together interviews and anecdotal evidence, Mantel argues that Diana is not the unambiguous hero that we want her to be.
As an example, she cites the recent Channel 4 documentary, Diana In Her Own Words. This touts the royal family’s most notorious member as being “candid” and “uninhibited”, Mantel writes.
Instead, Mantel claims that the footage shows her to be “squirming, twitching, avoiding the camera’s eye”.
“She describes herself hopefully as ‘a rebel’ on the grounds that she liked to do the opposite of everyone else,” writes Mantel. “You want to veil the lens and explain: that is reaction, not rebellion. Throwing a tantrum when thwarted doesn’t make you a free spirit. Rolling your eyes and shrugging doesn’t prove you are brave. And because people say ‘trust me’, it doesn’t means they’ll keep your secrets.”
Mantel also calls Diana’s legendary selflessness into question.
“By her own account, Diana was not clever,” she writes. “Nor was she especially good, in the sense of having a dependable inclination to virtue; she was quixotically loving, not steadily charitable: mutable, not dependable: given to infatuation, prey to impulse. This is not a criticism.
“… When people described Diana as a ‘fairytale princess’, were they thinking of the cleaned-up versions? Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification.”
Although Mantel admits “to her credit, she [Diana] had begun to work actively to lessen the amount of pain in the world” in her charity work after separating from Prince Charles in early 1990s, she is cynical about the “legend” that these acts have since given rise to.
“She visited the sick, and stopped just short of claiming the healing touch that custom bestows on the divinely anointed; had she become queen, she would surely have gone about raising the dead,” Mantel says. “Legend insists she showed the world that it was safe to shake hands with a person with Aids.
“Even in the unenlightened days of 1987, only the bigoted and ignorant thought casual contact would infect them, but any gesture from Diana was worth years of public education and millions in funding.”
Mantel – a two times Booker Prize winner – is also critical of other members of the royal family, in the far-reaching opinion piece.
She accuses the queen of lacking in warmth or love; “a queen who, even at Diana’s death, was reluctant to descend from the cold north”.
At the time of marrying Diana, Prince Charles, she says, affected an “attitude of anxious perplexity” which masked his “obtuseness” about what their marriage meant to her.
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Mantel claims Diana became a focus for public affection simply because there were few other options in the royal family: “A soft-eyed, fertile blond, she represented conjugal and maternal love, and what other source did we have?”
She says that in the years since Diana’s death in Paris in 1997, we have created a myth around who she was that is forever shifting – and is also palpably not realistic to the person she was.
The historical fiction author previously sparked controversy by describing Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge as a “shop-window mannequin” whose only purpose was to breed.
“She seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character,” Mantel said, during a lecture at the British Museum in 2013.
“She appears precision-made, machine-made: so different from Diana, whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.”