August 22, 1999Shrinking the Princess
The author's diagnosis explains why Diana was so rotten, but not why others seemed to like her.
First Chapter: 'Diana'
The Death of a Princess with articles, photos, audio, video
By FRANK KERMODE
In Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess.
By Sally Bedell Smith.
Illustrated. 451 pp: New York:
Times Books/Random House. $24.
n July 1820 Caroline, the somewhat disreputable rejected wife of the disreputable King George IV, demanded admission to his coronation service in Westminster Abbey. She felt she ought to be crowned, too. There was a popular demonstration in her favor, but she was not allowed in. The public then lost interest, and soon afterward she died. After the accession of Victoria in 1837 a century was to pass before the marriage of Edward VIII caused a comparable disturbance, and another half-century elapsed before the marital problems of the royal family were once again in the foreground of public interest. But whereas the affair of Edward VIII had been kept out of the British press till the last moment, these later events were the daily sustenance of the tabloid press, which not only reported but played an active part in them.
Sally Bedell Smith, formerly the biographer of Pamela Harriman and William S. Paley, has now turned her attention to Diana, Princess of Wales, and taken ample note of the activities of investigative journalists and paparazzi, not least of the explosive interventions of Andrew Morton and the unprecedented televised royal confessions of both Prince Charles and the Princess. She has done a great deal of sifting, comparing and inferring, and her account of Diana's life is as full as any sane person could wish, and even a shade fuller.
Smith had the advantage of a brief acquaintance with both Charles and Diana, and her encounters with them, described in the opening pages of ''Diana in Search of Herself,'' are a foretaste of the rest of the book. Charles, attending some polo game at Windsor, was sweetly attentive to an old friend of his grandmother. Princess Diana, staying with Brazilian friends on Martha's Vineyard, was ''mesmerizingly beautiful'' but resisted conversation: ''Here was one of the most charismatic women on the planet, yet she seemed almost without affect.'' It seems the Princess suspected the author of '' 'closely observing' her,'' and as she was an expert in observing close observers Diana was probably right. As we read on we cannot help noticing that the husband continues to get rather more generous treatment than the wife. The Prince, though admittedly not well equipped by education and family tradition for dealing with an unusually volatile wife, is represented as having been as considerate as possible in the circumstances, the Princess as bewilderingly moody and uncontrollable.
This earnest book raises questions that people of ordinary experience are quite unqualified to answer. They cannot imagine what it must be like to be almost always subject to intrusion by competitively ruthless journalists and prying photographers. Sometimes Diana cooperated with them; she is said to have been as adept in seeking as in shunning publicity. One way or another, private life unavoidably became public performance, although we know from the life of John F. Kennedy Jr. that these things can be managed better by some people than by others.
Lady Diana came of a family grand enough to allow her to criticize the one she had joined (she thought her husband's country house rather mean by comparison with her father's vast domain); but it was the press, with its long lenses, ''revelations'' and gossip columns, that elevated her to the rank of enigmatic fairy-tale Princess. Millions of readers collaborated enthusiastically, and she became as famous for her goings-on as for her beauty and her clothes. She made friends with the very journalists whom she accused of making her life a misery. She would absurdly overburden herself with public or charitable duties, then on impulse, or for revenge on her husband and his lover, renounce nearly all of them; then resume her labors and kindle new journalistic efforts.
The Associated Press Diana in a 1974 family photo on the Isle of Uist in Scotland.
Royalty is accustomed to deference, which probably encourages selfindulgence. Diana, we gather, was unpredictable, egocentric, aggressive, insecure, manipulative, paranoid, possessive, easily bored, uneducated and a habitual liar. She was the victim of terrible mood swings. She was an eavesdropper. She steamed open other people's letters. Altogether her life is ''a sad tale of adultery, mental illness, betrayal, mistrust and revenge.''
Why should all these troubles beset a woman so hugely privileged? Smith offers a confident diagnosis: Diana suffered from a ''borderline personality disorder'' -- the borderline being the one between neurosis and psychosis. In this respect she resembled Marilyn Monroe and, Smith tells us, six million other Americans. Her many illnesses, especially her bulimia, were merely symptoms of this deeper disorder, which resisted treatment by astrology, colonic irrigation and many forms of alternative medicine.
What, then, can be said of her power to charm, her commitment to the cause of AIDS victims and her powerful propaganda against land mines? No doubt there was a good deal of orchestration; the photographers and television were always conveniently on hand. Indeed Smith holds that her concern for AIDS was ''motivated by personal considerations, rather than by an ambitious urge to take on a societal problem.'' Confronted with an emergency, Diana, we are assured, could on occasion act decisively; but that doesn't help much, since in doing so she was displaying ''a false maturity.'' Yet she didn't have to do these sometimes fatiguing and possibly dangerous things. Surely ''courageous'' should figure somewhere in her description.
However, the author reserves her charity for Prince Charles. No doubt it is deserved, though sometimes oddly expressed: ''As a young boy born in the first years of the postwar baby boom, Charles had been strikingly timid, with a sensitive, easily wounded nature.'' Are all baby boomers like that? Do they all make the mistake of marrying a woman of manifest psychological frailty, with a ''history of willfulness?'' We infer that the author, gifted with psychological insight, would not have made a comparable blunder.
One of the Princess's relatives is reported as saying that Diana ''had a perfectly good character, but her temperament overtook her.'' Her temperament is then identified with her borderline personality. This may seem profound, but on reflection is merely vacuous. Other authoritative-sounding paradoxes likewise prove unhelpful: the trip made by the young couple to Australia in 1983, ''an important bonding experience,'' also ''drove a greater wedge between them.''
A virtue of the book is its laborious accumulation of detail, and some readers will be interested in the characters of Diana's schoolteachers, in her bad grades, in her childhood dealings with her brother and sisters, as here conscientiously recounted. The story of her love affairs, involving men hardly to be thought of as well chosen, has a more natural interest. The last affair is the best known, and Smith leaves one in no doubt as to her opinion of the playboy who died with Diana in the crash.
Nothing is said of the funeral, though it was an interesting event. These Westminster Abbey occasions are always beautifully managed by the Palace, but Earl Spencer's eulogy of his sister, which was not under royal control, included some harsh allusions to her husband's family, already at something of a loss as to how they should respond to so unexpected a disaster. He even seemed to claim her sons as Spencers rather than Windsors. The public mourning was a topic for anthropologists -- the streets narrowed by huge crowds, the hearse stopped on its way north out of London when the driver could no longer see past the flowers heaped on the hood. It was impossible not to be moved. It is not easy to explain this outburst of emotion. It was not just whipped up by the newspapers, and it wasn't confined to people with a lingering nostalgia for royalty; indeed part of the appeal of Diana was her apparent rejection by the family. This book, which strives to tell us so much, does not aspire to tell us that.
Smith knows England well enough to make few mistakes of local detail, but she does claim that Diana chose Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes Day, to record her notorious interview, because it was a national holiday and her staff would be out of the house. The Princess even had to open her front door at Kensington Palace herself to admit the BBC team. But Nov. 5 is not a national holiday, and there could surely have been a servant or two around. (In fact the recording was made on a Sunday.) Perhaps she was just happy to greet her interviewer. Perhaps the date was appropriate anyway: like Guy Fawkes, she wanted, with the interviewer's help, to put a bomb under the monarchy.
Frank Kermode's latest book is ''Not Entitled,'' a memoir.
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