The problem with fairy tales is as we grow up, we begin to realize that they are not always as they appear. For me, and for many women of my generation, this was especially true of the story of Princess Diana. I was not even 7 years old when she passed away, but I knew she was a beautiful princess and the whole world mourned her death. Over the last two decades the image I had of a perfect woman with the perfect life has been shattered for me and for many others as we continue to learn that Diana was a real human being who had very real problems. As we explore the life of Diana this month, I will try to remain as objective as possible. As the historian on this blog, I have researched and written about numerous men and women, but Diana is the first subject we have tackled who lived in the modern world. She was someone I grew up with, whose children I have woken up in the middle of the night to watch get married. My job here is not to convince you that Charles was the world’s biggest tool (because that’s a given), but to present the facts so that our resident neuroscientist can unearth what was really going on beneath the tiaras and ball gowns. Do you know the real story of Diana, Princess of Wales? Let’s find out.
Before Diana was a princess, and even before she was styled as “Lady” Diana, she was Diana Frances Spencer. Born on July 1, 1961 in Norfolk, England, she was one of four surviving children, with two older sisters and a younger brother (an older brother had died in infancy the year before Diana was born). While technically a “commoner” when she married into the Windsors, Diana came from a family of wealthy aristocrats who could trace their lineage back through hundreds of years of English royalty. Her father was Viscount Althorp (a viscount is ranked between a baron and an earl) and when Diana’s grandfather died, Viscount Althorp inherited his late father’s title – Earl Spencer. From that moment on, when Diana was 14 years old, she was titled Lady Diana Spencer. All of this to say that the Spencers grew up around the royal family, mixing with their children and attending important events. Both of her grandmothers were ladies-in-waiting to the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth’s mom. The concept of royalty was nothing new to Diana.
But despite the wealth and opportunities that surrounded Diana as she was growing up, she found herself plagued by insecurities and destructive family drama. When Diana was seven, her parents went through a nasty divorce and “the children became pawns in a bitter and acrimonious battle which turned mother against daughter and husband against wife” (Morton). Divorce is bad enough for children in the best of circumstances, but divorce amongst aristocrats in the 1960s meant that the lives of the Spencer children were put under a societal microscope, especially because their mother ended up marrying her alleged lover just one month after the divorce was final. Everywhere Diana looked, the broken marriage had taken its toll – her brother crying alone in his room, the cold shoulder from her father, her mother’s depression. Years later, the trauma of the divorce still haunted the siblings, with Diana and her sister Sarah both suffering from eating disorders (something Riley will cover extensively next week).
According to Diana, “it was a very unhappy childhood…very unstable, the whole thing” (Morton). But throughout these trying years of her youth, Diana remained a well-liked student and friend, who loved dancing and animals, excelled at diving, and had no desire at all to be a member of the royal family that she was so often mixing and mingling with.
Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman
When I was 16, I was being reprimanded for trying to get hot chocolate at my local 7-11 with my friends without my parent’s permission. Diana was 16 years old when she first met the man who would make her a princess. When Diana was introduced to Charles, he was dating her older sister Sarah. Any crush that Diana may have harbored at this time would have been a school girl crush, not only because Charles was the heir to the throne but also because he was 12 years older than her. So it was another two years before Charles began to court Diana as a serious candidate for marriage, a prospect that was both flattering and terrifying. As soon as the public got a whiff of the new couple, the tabloids descended like hounds on Diana and they would remain blood thirsty for photos of and information about her for the remainder of her life. Lady Diana was a part-time kindergarten teacher, part-time house cleaner and full-time teenager when she was engaged to Charles in February 1981 at the age of 19. As Martin Bashir said in his infamous 1995 interview with Diana, she went from “being Lady Diana Spencer to the most photographed, the most talked-about, woman in the world”. Everything she wore, every trip she took, everything she did and every public word she said would be acutely judged for the next 16 years.
Happily Never After
Unfortunately for Diana and Charles, there really was no honeymoon period in their relationship. Although it is no secret now, the public did not know at the time about Camilla Parker Bowles and her affair with the Prince of Wales. But Diana knew. As she famously said “there were three [people] in the marriage, so it was a bit crowded”. The stress triggered by knowledge of this clandestine relationship, coupled with extreme loneliness and a feeling of abandonment by the royal family, sent Diana in a downward spiral that manifested itself as bulimia nervosa, or simply, bulimia. During the height of her illness, Diana would make herself sick four to five times in a day, describing it as “ a profound release of tension [that] in some hazy way gave her a sense of control over herself and a means of releasing the anger she felt” (Morton). It was a cry for help, but no one answered the call. And perhaps most hurtfully, Diana’s new family was aware of her struggles and still declined to offer sympathy or assistance. The situation only got worse when Diana became pregnant with her first child, William, and made the first of several suicide attempts – although these attempts were not classified as “serious”, in the sense that they weren’t meant to actually take her life, they were of course concerning as it displayed the princess’s sense of desperation. When she was three months pregnant, Diana threw herself down a flight of stairs, where she was found by her mother-in-law Queen Elizabeth. Thankfully mother and baby were not seriously injured. This was followed up over the next few years by additional incidents of self-harm that included cutting her wrists and throwing herself against a glass cabinet. And all the while the world saw a beautiful, happy and confident young woman, oblivious to the internal darkness the Princess of Wales was battling every day of her life.
By the time Harry was born in 1984, Diana and Charles’ brief marriage was a disaster. It certainly didn’t help when Charles greeted the birth of their second son with disappointment that he wasn’t a girl (quite the opposite reaction we are used to from royals!). Diana felt completely isolated from her extended family and Charles was very much in love with Camila, who was still married herself. But as royals, and more importantly the heirs to the throne, divorce was not a serious option. So Diana threw herself into raising her two beloved sons and fulfilling her royal obligations, all while in the deep throes of bulimia. In fact, it was not until 1988-89 that Diana finally received serious help for her eating disorder and felt as if she was finally in control of her life. As she found physical strength, she also found the strength to pursue causes that she was passionate about, most famously those suffering from AIDS.
To make matters worse within the royal family, the marriage between Charles’ brother Prince Andrew and Diana’s friend “Fergie” was clearly beyond repair after a short five years. Charles and Diana knew their marriage was not in a much better place, but the options available to his brother Andrew were not open to Charles. In 1992, amid the scandal of the breakdown of Andrew and Fergie’s marriage, the palace was hit with another bomb – a biography about Diana that had been written secretly with her assistance. That book was instrumental in the research for this blog because it provides something that we as historians are not always able to access when studying historical figures – her thoughts and feelings in her own words. Diana’s suspicions of Charles and Camilla, her state of mind as she succumbed to bulimia and episodes of self-harm, the isolation and betrayal she felt from the royal family – all of it was suddenly out in the open for the world to read. That same year, recordings of conversations between Diana and her alleged lover were leaked to the press, exposing a side of Diana that she had not been ready to share. Not surprisingly, the Prince and Princess of Wales found it impossible to continue on with the charade of their marriage, and in December of 1992 their separation was announced to the public. But if the royal couple believed that formalizing the separation would bring her some relief, they were disappointed. The spotlight from the media burned even more brightly on their every move until Diana announced in December 1993, exactly a year after the separation announcement, that she would be stepping away from public life. According to Diana, when she became Princess of Wales she was “not aware of how overwhelming [the] attention would become; nor the extent to which it would affect both [her] public duties and [her personal] life, in a manner that [had] been hard to bear” (Morton)
In 1995 the world was once again invited to listen to Diana in her own words when she sat down for a candid interview with BBC journalist Martin Bashir. Twenty-five years later, this interview is being investigated under the belief that Diana was blackmailed into agreeing to do it. Whatever the origin of the interview, the effect was once again a shock to the monarchy and it’s squeaky clean public image. On July 15, 1996 (exactly one year before our own Queen Riley was born), Diana and Charles’ divorce was officially announced and Her Royal Highness, Diana Princess of Wales, reverted back to the name that had served her in much simpler times, Lady Diana.
Gone But Not Forgotten
Most of us know about the tragedy that took place in Paris on August 31, 1997, when Diana and two of her companions were killed in a car crash in Paris (ironically, on the day of Riley’s baptism). The driver of their car had been extremely intoxicated and the group had been attempting to flee from throngs of paparazzi on motorcycles when they drove into a barrier inside of a tunnel. Diana’s death shook not only her country but the entire world as it mourned the loss of the “People’s Princess”. More than two decades later, I have the benefit of hindsight as I observe the legacy Diana left behind, but at the time the overwhelming reaction was anger and disgust at the establishment that had utterly failed the Princess of Wales. Next week, Riley will take a deep and meaningful dive beneath the fairytale persona that Diana and the royal family fed to the world for so long as we continue to explore how her challenges and struggles shaped the modern British monarchy.
BBC News, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/politics97/diana/panorama.html.
Emma.Goodey. “Diana, Princess of Wales.” The Royal Family, 31 Mar. 2020, http://www.royal.uk/diana-princess-wales.
Morton, Andrew. Diana: in Her Own Words Her True Story. New Holland, 1997.
2 thoughts on “Princess Charming”