Diana, by Sarah Bradford. Viking, 443 pages, $25.95.
The Palace Diaries: A Story Inspired by Twelve Years of Life Behind Palace Gates, by Sarah Goodall and Nicholas Monson. Mainstream, 318 pages, £12.99.
The Way We Were: Remembering Diana, by Paul Burrell. William Morrow, 288 pages, $25.95.
H.R.H., by Danielle Steel. Delacorte, 336 pages, $27.
The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears.
What are we to make of England’s royal family? Can they possibly be as ridiculous, as childish, as irrelevant as they seem? Forget the past—the rakish Prince Regent putting his wife, Queen Caroline, on trial for adultery (she was acquitted); the rakish Edward VII with his good-natured and highly public adulteries; Edward VIII, abandoning his throne for “the woman I love” and dwindling into the useless Duke of Windsor. In our own day, we’ve had the shenanigans of Fergie, Duchess of York; Prince Charles’ humiliating tampon tapes; and, of course, the disastrous marriage of Charles and Diana. But then there are the “good” royals, too: Queen Victoria, trailing clouds of rectitude; George VI, sticking to London while the Luftwaffe did its worst; and his daughter, the current queen, whom some of us have been contemplating since she was “Lilibet,” one of the darling “little princesses” who charmed the world in the 30’s—the perfect antidote to the bad odor of the abdication. Since her early ascension to the throne, she’s led an apparently blameless life, even if she was a somewhat chilly mother. And she’s always done her duty.
In The Queen, as impersonated by Helen Mirren in an Oscar-hungry performance, she’s in extremis—her back to the wall at Balmoral Castle, where the royals spend two months every summer, stalking stags. But this isn’t every summer—it’s the one when her ex-daughter-in-law Diana is killed in the Paris car crash. Since there’s no precedent for dealing with the sudden death of a divorced, wildly popular Princess of Wales, the royals flounder, for days showing themselves at their worst. Yes, Prince Charles flies to Paris to bring home the mother of his two sons, but the Queen stays immured and silent at the castle while London turns into a scene of mass mourning—or you could call it mass hysteria.
Tony Blair, no favorite of the royals despite his eagerness to please, is pushing her to do something before the people’s anti-monarchist sentiment gets out of hand. But the Queen Mother and the Duke of Edinburgh are vehemently opposed: Diana is no longer a royal, no longer a daughter-in-law—“this is a private matter”—so it makes no sense (to them) that the Queen should disturb her routine. The crux of the matter, if you can believe it, is whether or not the royal standard should be flown at half-mast over Buckingham Palace to honor the tragically dead mother of a future king. You see, the palace only flies a flag when the monarch is in residence.
As the days pass and the situation in London (and the press) grows trickier and the prime minister more exigent, the Queen is forced to rethink. The big moment—the Oscar Moment—comes when she’s out alone in the hills and sees a magnificent stag that her men are stalking. It’s too beautiful to die! Shoo, shoo—and it’s gone. A tear, a tender smile, and we get the point: The beautiful Diana, too, was at bay, and the Queen … cares. (In case you don’t get it, the stag reappears later on, now a slaughtered carcass.)
This movie has it both ways: The Queen is uptight, cocooned, trapped in protocol, but the reason she’s so stern and uncompromising is that she was brought up to the mantra “Duty first, self second,” and to maintain that stiff upper lip. At last, she realizes that she must adapt: However repugnant she finds it, however much she deplores the touchy-feely Blair, from now on emotions must be publicly expressed, hearts worn on sleeves. Meanwhile, we see the Blairs in their kitchen with the kids, she dishing out the fish fingers, he doing the washing up. Mrs. B. loathes the monarchy—“a bunch of free-loading, emotionally retarded nutters”—but Tony has come to respect both the institution and the woman who represents it.
The message: The royals may have screwed up temporarily, but it’s O.K. to love the Queen.
What gives the film its energy is the clever cross-cutting between the fictional scenes and the documentary footage of Diana flashing her provocative smile; of Londoners mourning—crease-worn old ladies and solemn children placing flowers at the palace gates, burly young guys weeping and being consoled. There’s something a touch ghoulish—Day of the Locust–ish—about all this, but then to an unreconstructed American republican (like me), there’s something ghoulish about the whole royal business: the kowtowing, the slavish obsession, the fuss.
Yet The Queen keeps us interested in the Queen. Helen Mirren’s impersonation of Her Royal Highness owes as much to her steel-colored, tightly curled wig as Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf owed to her extended nose, but beneath the wig and the accent and the county clothes, she seems to catch Elizabeth II—controlled, controlling, and just maybe a human being. It’s an admirable effort, though I have to confess I’d rather be seeing Ms. Mirren as Jane Tennison in the brilliant TV series Prime Suspect (come to think of it, another take-charge role).
MEANWHILE, THREE NEW BOOKS ABOUT THE ROYALS have turned up, all of them featuring Diana. Why more books about her? After all, we already have a bunch of biographies, to say nothing of the countless tell-alls by former lovers, friends, staff and journalists: Diana: The Secret Years; Diana: Closely Guarded Secret; Diana in Private: The Princess Nobody Knows; Diana: In Pursuit of Love; Diana: Her Last Love; Little Girl Lost: The Troubled Childhood of Princess Diana by the Woman Who Raised Her; etc., etc. The obvious reason is that these books make money for writers and publishers. But as you read, you begin to respond to something compelling about her. Conflicted, endearing, gallant, trouble-making, aspiring, out of her depth, dying so young—she’s a combination of Marilyn Monroe and Marie Antoinette, two other tragic stars whom biographers won’t let alone.
The most formal of these new books is a full-fledged biography by the prolific Sarah Bradford, who stresses the fact that Diana Spencer had been “a very sad little girl,” as her nanny put it, with an irresolute if loving father and a strong-willed mother who “bolted” from her marriage for another man when Diana was 6, and never came back. No wonder Diana had a lifelong fear of abandonment and a craving for love and approval.
She was educated, if that’s the word, at a traditional school for upper-class girls, where she hardly shone. (“She never carried off any academic prizes but she did win a prize with Peanuts for ‘Best Kept Guinea Pig’ and the Leggatt Cup ‘for helpfulness.’”) Then came London and various odd jobs appropriate for aristocratic girls, including the famous stint working in a nursery school. The Spencers knew the Windsors well—indeed, older sister Sarah had dated Prince Charles for a while. In fact, everyone in this world knew everyone else: One of the cozy specifics of their situation was that Camilla Parker-Bowles’ husband, Andrew, had once been involved with Charles’ sister, Princess Anne.
By the late 70’s, the Charles-Camilla situation needed to be resolved. Charles was in his 30’s and had to marry. What better choice than a pretty, naïve 19-year-old of impeccable lineage and a romantic temperament? Diana believed it all, and perhaps Charles did too, at first. But soon it was clear that Camilla wasn’t a thing of the past. It wasn’t sex so much—according to Sarah Spencer, Charles’ libido was low (indeed, the chronically indiscreet Diana confirmed that years later to her voice coach). It was that Charles needed Camilla—the slightly older, experienced woman who would take charge of him and take care of him. On the Wales’ honeymoon on the royal yacht Britannia, Charles might, Ms. Bradford comments, “have been an indulgent father observing the antics of a newly acquired puppy.” And every day, apparently, he was on the phone with Camilla.
To what extent was Diana manipulated and deceived by older, more worldly people, as Isabel Archer was by Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady? Ms. Bradford quotes one “seasoned royal observer” who suggested that Camilla was the prime mover: “Mrs P-B reckons that Lady Diana is sufficiently moronic that we can have our Princess of Wales and she can go on having our Prince.” Camilla as Madame Merle?
Later, Diana would say that she had been sold to the royal family to produce one “heir and a spare,” but the royals don’t come across as particularly cunning, and Charles in the various accounts seems less a sophisticated villain than a confused, weak and not especially bright man. According to Diana, when years later she asked the Queen what to do to salvage her marriage, the Queen replied, “I don’t know what you should do. Charles is hopeless.” But not heartless. In 1986, he writes to a friend: “It’s agony to know that someone is hating it all so much …. It is like being trapped in a rather desperate cul-de-sac with no apparent means of exit …. It seems so unfair on her.”
As the world knows, the marriage was unsalvageable, with Charles returning to Camilla and Diana taking lovers—both in revenge and to make Charles jealous. The situation became public, as both husband and wife aired their stories, egged on by their supporters and the ravenous press. They did their best for their sons—everyone agrees that Diana was a marvelous mother—but even so the boys were “aware of the fierce rows that took place.”
The situation was beyond repair, and the Queen (not Charles and Diana) decided that divorce was the only answer. Diana accepted a £17 million settlement, refused to move out of Kensington Palace, and eventually gave way on the critical (to the royals) issue of whether she would retain her title. The compromise: She would no longer be “Her Royal Highness” but would remain the Princess of Wales. It was a bizarre recapitulation of the refusal by George VI to grant “H.R.H.” status to the Duchess of Windsor—a slight the Duke never forgave. Have these people nothing better to worry about? (Prince William comforted his mother by promising, “Don’t worry, Mummy, I will give it back to you one day, when I am king.”)
Ms. Bradford sums up the marriage: “[T]he couple were basically incompatible. Both were psychologically needy, each seeking comfort, devotion and reassurance which the other could not provide.” Or to put it another way, they were both trapped in their dysfunctional childhoods. “In the master bedroom, the 7-foot 6-inch oak bed from his apartment at Buckingham Palace presented the poignant, even somewhat pathetic spectacle of the couple’s toy animals ranged upon it: Charles’s worn teddy, which he took everywhere with him and was tucked up in the bed at night by his valet, and Diana’s ‘family’ … overflowing from the bed to shelves.” Somewhat pathetic?
But Diana’s marriage and divorce aren’t the most interesting thing about her—stripped of their royal regalia, they’re all too similar to a million other marriages and divorces. What’s extraordinary is her determined attempt to grow and change—to leave behind the bulimic, tormented, insecure girl and become a worthwhile and useful human being. Her methods may seem ludicrous to us, but remember—this was a muddle-headed, uneducated young woman under terrible pressure. She tried everything: crystals, reflexology, colonic irrigation, acupuncture, aromatherapy, psychics, healers, astrologers. She read and reread Dr. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. She treasured the rosary that Mother Teresa gave her. And are we surprised to learn that Oprah was one of her favorite luncheon guests?
With whatever reinforcements she could muster, she swung out on her own, turning herself into a major player on the world stage, with her highly publicized campaigns to help AIDS victims and to clear the world of land mines. Was she sincere? Was she merely seeking to validate her sense of herself? Was she seeking publicity? Maybe all three—certainly she’d learned the hard way how to manipulate the press. But undoubtedly she felt genuine compassion on a person-to-person level: There are countless stories of private, generous interventions. She cuddled maimed children, returned again and again to the hospital beds of the dying, comforted the survivors.
She was also ruthless when it came to cutting off people she felt were disloyal (her mother, for instance); she was prey to violent mood swings and prone to self-destructive decisions. Her judgment was, to put it mildly, patchy. But she had charm, beauty and style. Against my will, I was impressed the one time I met her—at the entrance to Katharine Graham’s house on the occasion of Kay’s 80th birthday. Kay introduced us, Diana smiled her smile and offered her (gloved) hand, and I covered myself with glory by coming up with the following Wildean remark: “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
MS. BRADFORD IS JUST ABOUT as dazzling: Her book is thorough but perfunctory. There’s nothing perfunctory, though, about the other two Diana books on hand. If you want up-close, no-holds-barred accounts of the great and the near-great, go to their most ardent advocates and adversaries: their servants. And as it happens, we have newly before us a “His” and a “Hers.”
“His” is Sarah Goodall, the “lady clerk” who is the central figure in The Palace Diaries: A Story Inspired by Twelve Years of Life Behind Palace Gates. A clerk, in royals-speak, is a kind of secretary, and the young Sarah Goodall, on the loose in London in need of a good job, is taken on as the lowliest of a crew that sorts Prince Charles’ mail. She’s with him for a dozen years, climbing the ladder to jobs of more importance and greater proximity to His Royal Highness, and she’s clearly besotted with her boss. And just as clearly un-besotted with Diana. “I do not for a second doubt Diana’s great qualities …. But I also saw the other side and feel it can be honestly said the sainted Princess could be deceitful, manipulative and pitiless towards those who stood in her way or those she chose to discard …. To be frank, she was a passionate woman. If you think that Captain Hewitt was the only stallion in her stable, then you’re in for a surprise.” And, she goes on, “For the ordinary person like myself, therefore, the question is: was she a fruitcake, or was she at times just a spoilt bitch determined to get her own way?”
(Ms. Goodall’s exquisite taste extends to her account of her own romantic life—with “darling Andy, so charming and oh so eligible, the younger son, if you please, of a belted earl, no less. Cripes. Had I played it differently, I might now be the daughter-in-law of a peer of the realm!” She tries to play it right, going to a more sophisticated clerk for the crucial data: “Geraldine, how do you give a blow job?” Here’s Geraldine’s recipe: “The top is the most sensitive. Think of it like an ice cream that you wish to lick from the side. When you go further down, be careful with your teeth: never touch him with your teeth. Remember, he is very sensitive. Otherwise it will be like serrating a sausage. He won’t like it.” Obviously good advice, and I’m going to take it to heart the next time I’m romancing the son of a belted earl.)
Sarah has no complaints at all about Charles. They meet at a staff party. “Take a deep breath. Treasure this moment, Sarah. You are sitting next to the future King, here, right now. Look around. Remember this scene. You will be telling your grandchildren about it one day.” (Actually, she won’t have to; they’ll be reading this book.) “You are touching the face of God … well, not quite, but close enough.”
As she rises through the ranks, Ms. Goodall is even invited to take meals with her royals and their guests. But after 12 years of service, she’s dismissed, having, as she admits, gotten above herself: “By the end of my Royal employment, I had succumbed to a bad case of red-carpet fever.” Finally, she gets things in perspective: “[W]e shouldn’t take the Royal Family too seriously, even if some of them take themselves seriously …. The Royals serve a purpose, but reverence is for gods, not people. Unless, like me, you can’t help yourself worshipping Prince Charles.”
A MORE SERIOUS CASE OF ROYALS-WORSHIP is that of the famous butler, Paul Burrell, for Diana. (His second book, The Way We Were: Remembering Diana, is already a best-seller.) As a young man, after studying at a catering school where his prize was “for sculpting Chesterfield’s famous crooked spire entirely out of margarine,” Paul had gone to work in Buckingham Palace and quickly became one of the Queen’s two pages. (His most onerous job was walking the nine corgis.) His admiration for Her Majesty is boundless: “She is a remarkable, kind, Christian lady …. The Queen is one of the easiest people to converse with, and is not at all grand or pompous …. Her Majesty is like a gracious country lady who just happens to be the monarch.” He also insists that the Queen and Diana got along well and never quarreled. At summer barbecues at the log cabin on the Balmoral estate, in fact, Diana “was known to find a pair of rubber gloves and muck in with someone else not averse to washing-up—Her Majesty the Queen.”
After 11 years at the palace, Paul was snatched away by Prince Charles to be his butler, and although he’s respectful of the Prince, he’s somewhat less idolatrous than the lady clerk. From his first book, A Royal Duty, we learn, for instance, that—preferring to communicate by memo—Charles once wrote to Paul: “A letter from the Queen must have fallen by accident into the wastepaper basket beside the table in the library. Please look for it.” Another micro-managerial memo: “Would you please inform guests staying at Highgrove NOT to dispose of tampons or condoms down the toilet as they strangle the [environmentally friendly] reed beds.” On the other hand, Paul acknowledges that, at least in the early years, “Prince Charles did his best to understand his wife and be patient with the mood swings brought on by the eating disorder bulimia, which she later admitted to suffering.”
When the Wales separated, Paul went to work for Diana at Kensington Palace and stayed with her for the rest of her life. His duties grew as her staff shrank, and eventually he became her closest support, and her friend. It’s obvious that she trusted him completely, telling him all her news, showing him her letters from the Queen and from her husband, sending him on secret missions to collect lovers and sneak them into the palace. (He was her “emotional washing machine,” she told him; “I can come home, tell you everything and tip it all out.”) His two sons were in and out of Diana’s apartments, romping with William and Harry. It was he who went to Paris to oversee arrangements after her death and help bring her home. And it was he who kept a vigil beside her coffin on the night before the funeral.
It was also he who supervised the dismantling of her apartments, and who decided to remove certain papers of hers for safekeeping—the action that eventually led to his trial for theft. His account of all this, in A Royal Duty, is harrowing and convincing; reading it, one is relieved to witness the Crown’s case collapse when the Queen herself confirms that after Diana’s death, Paul told her in a private audience that lasted almost three hours about his taking the papers, and why.
But why a whole new book from Paul Burrell, apart from the money and attention involved? He seems to have had three motives:
1) To protect and burnish Diana’s reputation. He admired her, he devoted himself to her, and he loved her, though he doesn’t allow himself to say so. Although he was a happy husband and father, Diana took over his life: Just as Camilla was the third person in the Wales’ marriage, Diana was the third person in the Burrells’ marriage. His obsession with her only grew after her death. In the middle of one night, he wrote in A Royal Duty, he woke up from a nightmare, left his home and went to Diana’s now-empty rooms. “Having just dreamed about the princess, I needed to sense her presence …. I went into the L-shaped wardrobe room, pulled back the curtains where her dresses hung, and crawled into the gap between the floor and the clothes. I could smell her scent. In that position, I fell asleep for the night.”
2) To underline the specialness of their relationship. (Memoirs are always self-serving—how could it be otherwise?) After his rejection by the Spencer family, about whom he has nothing good to say, and the horror of the trial, he needs to remind the world again that he was closest to her, most trusted by her.
3) To bury once and for all the idea that Diana was planning to marry Dodi al-Fayed. “The cold truth about Dodi is that, to the princess, he was an intense, short-lived fling. He only spent ten minutes at KP [Kensington Palace], and the boss had spent just 26 days in his company.” “I want another marriage like I want a bad rash,” she said to Paul and others. Besides, she was still in love with Hasnat Khan, the Pakistani surgeon she’d been having an affair with and who, she told Paul, was her “soulmate.” (“The princess could disappear from KP to spend whole days in his one-bedroom flat, and the joy she derived from those occasions was immeasurable.” She would come home to the palace and tell Paul “how she had spent the day in a poky, sparsely decorated flat, vacuuming, polishing, dusting, doing the dishes, ironing piles of laundry, stripping and re-making his bed …. ‘I don’t mind ironing shirts,’ she said. ‘It reminds me of when I used to look after an American family and washed and ironed all of theirs.’”) Paul liked and admired Dr. Hasnat, while on the subject of al-Fayed, he’s relentless: “The world must stop believing that Diana and Dodi were due to get married, because that is not the truth.”
On the subject of whether the fatal car crash was less innocent than it appeared, he—like Sarah Bradford, like Sarah Goodall—is cautious. But he certainly feels—as Diana did—that there were secret forces in the palace and in the intelligence services that threatened her. Mysteriously, he quotes the Queen as saying, during their long private conversation, “Be careful, Paul. No one has been as close to a member of my family as you have. There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge.” Did she say it? Can it be true? Or is paranoia an occupational hazard of being royal?
Paul Burrell is the ultimate royal servant/courtier—devoted beyond reason to his “boss,” convinced of his special place in her life, certain that he would never suffer the fate of so many of the other “special” friends whom she eventually cut off at the knees.
Maybe he was right; I’d like to think so. And, given the amount of attention paid to the royal family, I’d also like to believe that there’s more to them than meets the tabloid eye: That Helen Mirren’s decent and sincere Queen reflects the real one; that Prince Charles is worthy of Sarah Goodall’s worship; and that Diana, Princess of Wales, was the woman Paul Burrell took her to be.
BUT FOR THE FINAL WORD ON ROYALTY in our time, let’s turn to another queen: Danielle Steel, queen of the best-seller lists, whose latest novel, H.R.H., is about to be published. (It’s her 70th book.) Our heroine is Christianna, daughter of the reigning Prince of Liechtenstein and just back from four wonderful years at U.C. Berkeley. All she wants is to be out in the world, “to do something … important for humanity,” but her father needs her at home. Her brother and heir to the throne is a good-natured, harmless playboy who zooms around Europe and Asia, partying. Alas, the far more suitable Christianna can never reign: no women rulers allowed in old-fashioned Liechtenstein.
“Cricky,” says Dad. “You absolutely must accept who you are, and understand to your very soul that you can’t escape it. It is your fate, your destiny, and your obligation …. I expect a great deal of you, Christianna. I need you. You are a Serene Highness. It is part of you, both your heritage and your job.”
Poppa does allow her, though, to go to East Africa for six months to do something important for humanity with the Red Cross, and there she meets Parker, a good-looking, dedicated American doctor, with whom she falls in love. “Together they were a force greater than even the sum of their parts that could not be ignored or denied.” Yet they must part. “I just can’t run away,” she explains. “This isn’t like a job that you quit. It’s about family and tradition, and bloodlines, and honor, and thousands of years of history …. It is who you are, and what you’re born to, a country and people you serve as example to …. It is about duty, honor, and courage. Not about love …. I have no other choice.”
So Ms. Steel’s prose is a little flat. (“The drinks were made by an African company, and tasted sickly sweet, but they drank them anyway, as it was hot and they were thirsty, although it was winter in East Africa, but the weather was warm.”) The important thing is that her values are firmly in place—the Queen would approve. And virtue, of course, is rewarded. After Christianna returns home from Africa, her father and brother conveniently die in a car bombing, and although women are not supposed to reign in tiny Liechtenstein, the powers-that-be persuade her that she’s the only one to take over. Her Serene Highness has graduated to Her Royal Highness! Not only that: As ruler, she can marry anyone she likes, even a commoner like Parker.
What a novelist! What a triumph for the concept of “Duty über alles.” And what a sad reflection on the fate of poor Diana, who wasn’t born royal, who didn’t place duty over feelings, and who was stripped of the very title that Christianna so fortuitously assumes. But then, Diana didn’t have the luck to be invented by Danielle Steel.
Robert Gottlieb writes for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The Observer.