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Lady Diana Spencer attends a fundraising concert and reception on March 9, 1981 in London.
“Fairytales do not describe the day after the wedding, when the young wife lost in the corridors of the palace sees her reflection splinter, and turns in panicked circles looking for a mirror that recognises her,” wrote historical novelist Hilary Mantel in her 2017 Guardian essay about Princess Diana, “The Princess Myth.” In it, Mantel takes a two-pronged approach to Princess Diana’s legacy, dissecting the way the royal was presented to the public while making the case that the icon, in death, only exists “as what we made of her.”
Similarly, and to great effect, the latest season of Netflix’s plush royal drama The Crown takes a clear-eyed look at one of the most scandalous periods in modern British history, chronicling Diana’s emergence as one of the most adored — and tortured — members of the royal family in recent memory. (Diana’s inclusion in this season was so highly anticipated that people who’ve never watched the show are tuning in because of their love of a princess who has held the public’s imagination for decades.)
Over the course of its first three seasons, The Crown has created a complex but sympathetic image of the British royal family. But this time, the show, which has typically shown the monarchy in a generous light, finally takes a more critical approach. The family’s entitlement is front and center, with series creator Peter Morgan making them look like “out-of-touch fools caught off guard by change,” as writer Shirley Li recently put it in the Atlantic.
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Emma Corrin as Princess Diana in season four of The Crown.
The new season, which premieres Sunday, introduces Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin). And while the show continues the tradition of complicating its characters, the stakes are much higher this time. Luckily, the show convincingly captures the deification of Diana with a superb performance by relative newcomer Corrin, while also going to great lengths to humanize Diana by leaning into her imperfections, including her struggle with bulimia, as well as marital infidelity. At the same time, the show highlights the suffocatingly staid nature of the family she married into.
In a trailer released earlier this year, the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey), while breaking bread with her daughters, the Queen (Olivia Colman) and Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), as well as her granddaughter, Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), tells the women, “In time, [Diana] will give up her fight and bend, as they all do.” The Queen then asks, “And if she doesn’t bend, what then?” To which Margaret replies, “She will break.”
But instead of breaking down, Princess Diana broke through. Her defiance of a system hellbent on dimming her light is effectively illustrated in the prestige drama, and undoubtedly echo the present struggles of Meghan Markle, who is married to Princess Diana’s son Prince Harry, and who has been pilloried by British media. Still, what the show makes abundantly clear is that Diana’s complicated legacy and celebrity is too colossal to ever be contained — in a Netflix series or otherwise.
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A selection of British magazines and Sunday newspapers, Nov. 7, 1993.
A mainstay in tabloids and magazines of the time, Diana immediately became the most interesting person in the royal family. A 1981 illustrated cover of Time ran the headline “The Prince’s Charmer,” alongside the claim, “Lady Diana is wowing Britain.” In a 1985 cover story by then–Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Tina Brown titled “The Mouse That Roared,” Diana is presented as difficult and dim, yet somewhat calculating, and a little image-obsessed. “She spends hours studying her press clippings — almost as if she’s trying to figure out for herself the secret of her mystique,” Brown wrote. The gossip landscape was saturated with stories of the princess, who, as a 1990 People magazine cover said, was “nudging the royal family into the modern world.”
Integral to the purported fairy-tale romance sold to the public is that Charles and Diana met only 13 times before they married. Unsurprisingly, as is highlighted in the show, the flimsy bond between them had begun to unravel before they even reached the altar.
Though Diana was in it for love, Prince Charles, who was 12 years her senior, is presented on the show as someone who only went through with the charade in order to fulfill an obligation to the monarchy. One of the couple’s first joint interviews together is re-created, where Diana says that the couple is in love and Charles says, “whatever in love means.” Diana doesn’t object to the statement on camera, but the prince’s cavalier comment is later scrutinized by the princess when she calls her friends, who reassure her that he was “probably just a bit embarrassed.” But, unbeknownst to Diana at the time, he was in love with another woman, Camilla Parker Bowles.
In Episode 3, ironically titled “Fairytale,” Diana’s excitement about the royal engagement is gradually diminished as she finds out, little by little, how small she must make herself in order to get by in the royal family. The loneliness Diana experiences is palpable. It’s here that we also start to see signs of Diana’s fire and her attempts to exert some sort of control over her circumstances. She starts to binge and purge, a detail disclosed in the 1995 interview on Panorama. She told journalist Martin Bashir that the act was a form of escape, and a source of comfort, even though she was hurting herself. “It’s like having a pair of arms around you, but it’s temporary,” she said at the time.
In the same interview, the princess said, “I was compelled to go out and do my engagements and not let people down and support them and love them. And, in a way, by being out in public they supported me, although they weren’t aware just how much healing they were giving me, and it carried me through.”
During a phone call last week, Elaine Lui, creator of the celebrity blog Lainey Gossip, talked to me about our lasting fascination with the princess, more than 20 years after her death. “Here was a woman who was a princess who was truly the embodiment of complicated and multidimensional,” she said. “In the past, when we think of what princesses were presented as, they were perfect, they were kind, they always made the right decision, they always said the right thing, and they were essentially flawless. Then we have this real princess, the most famous woman in the world. She is vulnerable, she openly admits to her mistakes. She is kind and compassionate, but at the same time petty.”
Charles Rae, now 72, began working at the Sun as a royal correspondent at age 39, during the height of the Diana craze. “To be quite blunt about it, this was a woman who was selling newspapers,” Rae told me in a recent phone conversation. “All you had to do was put a picture of Diana on the front page and sales [went] up and people in this country lapped [it] up, I mean, they loved royal stories.” But over his time as a correspondent, Rae said he actually got to know Diana and developed a rapport with her. He characterized the princess as a “fantastic” member of the royal family and a “complex” person.
“She was able to speak to normal people in a very plain and direct way. She had great compassion for them,” Rae said. “But she was also a very complicated woman and at times could be quite manipulative in order to try to get her way.” He added that there were times when the princess wasn’t the “nicest person,” which didn’t surprise him given how she and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, were treated. “They were basically thrown into the lion’s den,” he said about the famous sisters-in-law.
On the show, Diana’s connection to and with the public, as it was in real life, is portrayed as growing organically — and exponentially. The Crown’s sixth episode, “Terra Nullius,” which follows the royal couple’s 1983 tour of Australia, captures the princess’s extraordinary impact on everyday people. In one scene, people peer over rooftops to get a glimpse of her. In another, hundreds gather around to shower the princess with flowers and praise. “I love your dress,” an excited fan tells the princess. “I like yours!” she replies. All the while, Charles, who was supposed to be the main draw, is overlooked. His fragile ego can’t handle it, and we see him take his frustration out on Diana.
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Diana, Princess of Wales as she greets her public in Perth, Australia in March, 1983.
“I don’t think at the time when she was alive, [the royals] were ready for her popularity. So they definitely had to adjust — and badly — in real time over the fact that she was the superstar of the family, and they didn’t handle it very well,” Lui told me. “She made them realize that a person who was marrying into the family could eclipse the actual blood members of the family, and how they have managed that realization — or mismanaged it — continues to be a narrative thread now, as we’ve seen from Meghan Markle.”
On the show, Diana’s beauty and enchanting spell over the public are perceived as threats by the royal family. And her refusal to harden herself and reject the need for genuine human affection are traits that supposedly make her “immature,” at least according to the show’s rendering of the Queen Mother.
But Diana’s humanity and caring nature are exactly what resonated so deeply with the public. Stuck in their narrow mindset of how members of the royal family should conduct themselves, Charles, his sister, Anne, and Margaret are depicted as being jealous of the warm reception she receives from strangers, and their real-life animosity is amplified on the show. After the Australian tour with Charles ends poorly, Diana desperately tells the Queen: “All I want is to play for the team.” She then unexpectedly hugs the sovereign, who stands in place, shocked by the gesture, neglecting to embrace Diana in return.
Even as the series has attempted to humanize the royals in a more layered way, the introduction of Diana undoes some of that work, because they often come off as just straight-up assholes. Their treatment of Diana, which is obviously dramatized, simultaneously grounds the princess and elevates the myth of her tragic fairy tale.
Though they separated in 1992, Diana had only been divorced from Charles for about a year when she died in 1997. And because of the misfortunes Diana endured, it’s difficult to let go of the promise of what could have been. As Rae told me, “We hadn’t had anyone like Diana before, and I don’t suppose we really will have another Diana.” The tragedy of her death, as well as that of her partner, Dodi Fayed, in a car crash while being hounded by paparazzi, isn’t covered this season. It’s likely to be addressed when Elizabeth Debicki takes on the role for the final two seasons of the show.
Many people still hold the paparazzi responsible for the couple’s death. Nine photographers were charged with manslaughter before the charges were ultimately dropped. Three, however, were charged with invasion of privacy and later paid a fine. But Rae said we shouldn’t look at the circumstances of her death through such a narrow lens, especially as it relates to the paparazzi and press. “We have to remember that Princess Diana was unfortunately killed by a drunk driver,” Rae told me. Plus, the Sun reporter said, “you have to differentiate between the paparazzi and the people who actually work on the newspapers.” He said there are things he never would have done that the paparazzi did, like opening the door of a taxi the royal was riding in just to snap a photo.
Lui also believes that criticizing the paparazzi isn’t necessarily painting a “complete picture” of the tragedy, but she said it’s important to remember who they typically worked for. “You forget that those pictures that the paparazzi took, after pursuing her for essentially half her life, were sold to certain publications,” she said. And these were outlets that wanted to tell a particular narrative. “We can talk about the paparazzi and their aggressiveness in pursuing Princess Diana, but we also have to talk about the British tabloids and the British media, and perhaps even some of the world’s media, for their aggressive pursuit of Princess Diana — and now Meghan Markle.”
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Lady Diana Spencer, surrounded by press photographers shortly before the announcement of her engagement to Charles, Prince of Wales.
Mariah Carey shares an anecdote about Princess Diana in her recent memoir, saying the two locked eyes at an event but didn’t speak. “She had that look — the dull terror of never being left alone burning behind her eyes. We were both like cornered animals in couture,” Carey writes, adding that she wished Diana had lived long enough to have seen how celebrities today are more able to control the narrative around how they’re perceived in the public, especially with the rise of social media. “We are the media,” Carey says. “I only wish Princess Di had lived long enough to have Instagram or Twitter. I wish she had lived to see the people become the press.”
Instead, because of the archaic institution she married into, Diana had to go through different channels — like secret recordings with journalist Andrew Morton — in order to tell her own story. And now, we only have the stories of other people to go on, which will never provide the whole picture.
Still, The Crown does an exceptional job of telling Diana’s story capturing all the contradictions and quirks that made her so popular without sanitizing her image. The show forces you to place yourself in Diana’s shoes, with all her anxieties and shortcomings. Is it OK to cheat if your husband is purposely neglecting you and having an affair of his own? Would you too develop an eating disorder just to exert a modicum of control over your life? Wouldn’t you bask in the attention you get from millions of fans if validation were as scant as it had been for her in Buckingham Palace? The show complicates her narrative, effectively making the royal, already highly cherished, even more relatable.
What people will always connect with, Lui told me, is Princess Diana’s perceived authenticity. “Like a real realness, not authenticity as a buzzword” — a genuine, imperfect figure that people can relate to. “‘Yeah, sometimes I’m an asshole, but I also think I’m a good person. I’ve made bad choices, but I’m intelligent,’” she said, explaining Diana’s complexities and the everlasting hold the “people’s princess” had on the public’s attention. “And I think that that is, to me, timeless.” ●