Mourning Diana Charlotte Muse
Why were we so affected by the death of Princess Diana? Were we caught up in some dream of the Good Princess, always safe or rescued from harm? If they'd laid her on a crystal catafalque in Trafalgar Square, might we even now believe that in a hundred years the handsome Prince (not her great-grandson!) would come along to kiss and wake her?
"She was real," people said, "not like those Windsors," but this is not true. No one has trouble believing in the reality of the dutiful, hardworking Queen Elizabeth, her waspish, resigned husband Phillip, or her soul-torn son, Prince Charles. The graceless, athletic, no-nonsense, Princess Anne is real. We can tell that she doesn't suffer fools gladly, that she seldom feels sorry for herself, that she gets on with things, that she's loyal. It's easy to invent descriptions just as plausible about the other royals.
Not Diana. When we think of her, we think of moments: Diana, looking adorably miserable in a diamond tiara, Diana riding the rollercoaster with her boys, Diana arriving at the reception in the most stunning of gowns, and with that aura of knowing exactly what to do and say, of delighting in, and taking power from, her knowledge. She never gave the impression that she wished she'd said or done something else, something more clever. She appeared to mean what she said to people, and if what she said was neither deep nor original, we thought its ordinariness showed sincerity. Unlike the Queen, who has something of the air of a factory foreman, or Prince Charles, who appears cowed by wrenching self-doubt, the Princess seemed to glory in her position. She was the best princess in the world, the best imaginable.
But it was because she was not real that we were captivated. We saw her struggle to become real; to swing out like a glittering spider on the thinnest of webs towards a connecting point. Connection was what she longed for, and we were witness to her loneliness. But who could look past her genius for gesture and pose, her instinct for the moment, to a person able to settle into a real life-one full of the ordinariness we resent and treasure? Who could imagine living with her? Easy to picture Diana Frying Eggs, Diana At the Meeting, Diana Picking the Kids Up From School, but every day? All the time? Who could connect the dots? Not even Prince Charles. We wanted more evidence, more photographs, perhaps in the vain hope that if we saw more pictured moments, we could fill in the blank spaces and know who she was.
If this is what drives us to look at pictures of celebrities, it's a concept many have understood. Politicians and movie stars know how to capitalize on mystery. Diana understood, of course, how to manipulate the media. She could appear to be what she wished, and we avidly absorbed her images, often captioned by the tabloids as if she were a doll or a madonna: Compassionate Di, Caring Di, Angry Di-Our Lady of the Highway, Our Lady of Sorrows.
But her genius, or whatever it was, was of a different order than the ability to manipulate implies. We don't feel manipulated by all those images (except, perhaps by the ill-advised television interview she gave in 1995, looking self-consciously grave and making digs at her ex). In fact, they seem to carry with them some kind of strange authenticity. We saw not just a picture of a young mother and a princess, but the Very Picture of Young Motherhood, the Very Image of a Princess, as if Diana had managed to combine and embody, without conscious intention, both her own deeply-felt versions of herself and our versions of how she ought to be.
Somehow, we sense that you can't fake this. We can tell drugstore cowboys from real. We know what Madonna, for example, is doing when she changes her image and that is: she's changing her image-a shallow, film-deep concept of herself-the way you change clothes on a paper doll. We're mildly interested in what outfit she'll invent next.
Princess Diana, though, meant it, in so far as you can mean to be the way you look. It wasn't an act. She had an eerie ability to personalize whatever role she chose and to somehow silently comment on it at the same time that she disappeared into it. There she is, walking down the red carpet in her sexy black dress, every inch the beautiful, vulnerable, yet independent ex-Princess (a role she perfected). Or there she is, visiting a hospital, holding a sick child, her face a study in shared pain and tender concern. We see the pictures. We don't doubt, for a moment, that she's who she represents herself to be. Neither do we doubt that she's Our Diana. She smiles for the camera, and looking at the picture, we can imagine what she'd say about it all later. Somehow, we're sure she's smiling at us.
Although we realize that nobody looks like who they are all the time because who they are changes all the time, Diana came as close as anyone ever has to that strange brand of authenticity.
At her funeral, Prince Charles, wearing the blue suit she'd helped him choose and saying nothing, suddenly seemed to shed his habitual aura of doubt and self-consciousness and take on some direct-from-the-spirit-power reminiscent of hers.
Maybe, sadly enough, Diana was beginning to lose her own need for images, just at the time when our appetite for them was at its peak. Now that she's dead, they flicker on and off in our minds: she was real; she wasn't real; she was real; she wasn't. We know we've lost something larger than one person; we're not sure what it is. We almost wish she could show us some defining image of death and lay herself to rest. Oh Diana, Child of Pictures, all of our attention couldn't keep you alive. Prisoner of Pictures, you've escaped before our very eyes.
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