Diana: Saint or Slut?

The Globe and Mail


Diana: saint or slut? A year after her death, ghouls of various stripe keep digging at the grave of the late, and moistly lamented, Princess of Wales. For some, like Lady Colin Campbell, she was a deceitful nymphomaniac; for others, like Julie Burchill, she exposed the hypocrisy of the upper class. 


Elizabeth NicksonThe Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.


Abstract (Summary)

Lady [Colin Campbell] then launches into her main thesis, concerning [Diana, Princess of Wales]'s gluttonous sexual appetite. The first shibboleth she goes after is Diana's much-reported virginity at the time of her marriage. Rubbish, says Campbell, and she serves up some whooshy reporting to "prove" her point, though how a 19-year-old in 1989 could manage to stay virginal and hold up her head in Sloane Ranger society in Central London is beyond me.

A year after her death, ghouls of various stripe keep digging at the grave of the late, and moistly lamented, Princess of Wales. For some, like Lady Colin Campbell, she was a deceitful nymphomaniac; for others, like Julie Burchill, she exposed the hypocrisy of the upper class. 




IF there is anything more craven and grotesque than these two dismal crows -- Julie Burchill and Lady Colin Campbell -- feasting on the corpse of Diana Windsor, I pray you not to show it to me.

Julie Burchill, a youngish tabloid columnist, trashy novelist and major mouth with permanent dyspepsia, who formerly spent much of her career hurling insults at Diana in her column in The Mail on Sunday, has now, upon Diana's canonization by "the people," climbed on the anti-monarchist bandwagon with slavering unctuous prose wrapped in the form of a coffee-table book, filled with lush photos, and called, unimaginatively enough, Diana .

Lady Colin Campbell, in direct contrast, is almost certainly in the pockets of Prince Charles's cronies and if you want to read the Windsor version of what Diana did to them, then The Real Diana is for you. Neither work serves up a pretty picture. Furthermore, it is certain that neither book has the faintest relation to any truth but the one that will best serve the author's own advancement. Burchill is after the hip young readerette who is secretly fascinated by Diana; Campbell is after the one who wants the dirt. Both admit they have big central-London mortgages to pay and school fees that would blanch the face of any Forest Hill or Westmount resident.


Another late-summer book, Dressing Diana , by one of her long-time tabloid photographer-pursuers, Tim Graham, and a fashion reporter for the Independent, Tamsin Blanchard, is all about her clothes -- engagement to grave, as it were. A fourth, After Diana ,is a collection of essays by British left-wing academics and essayists attempting to grapple with a phenomenon who (as most of them thought throughout her life), if she had had an IQ five points lower, would have had to be watered. This perhaps is the most amusing of the four summer Diana books: its sub-text being the outright flummoxing of much of the British left, who had dedicated their lives to protecting "the people" and were pretty much horrified by "the people's" dedication to Diana.


Reassuringly, sense of a sort prevails in the keynote essay, by Oxford modern-history don Ross McKibben, who soothes us with "a democracy which admired her with such intensity is both incomplete and immature and will always exclude those who apparently made up her 'constituency.' " Phew! Glad we've got that straight, Ross.

All kinds of people were bouleversé by the Diana phenomenon, not just left-wing academics and right-wing pundits furious about emotion leaking into their tidy worlds. Diana managed to insinuate herself into just about everyone's world, as these books make clear, and no analysis could make her go away.

Her appeal was largely visual, not textual, nor even contextual. She was eye candy of the first water: It took $7,500 a week in beauty treatments (her hairdresser, Sam McKnight, charges $5,000 a day, though presumably she only used an hour of his time each morning) to maintain her by the end of her life, according to a story leaked to the tabloids in 1994 by Prince Charles, and picked up by Burchill. She needed colonics, acupuncture, aromatherapy, astrologists, manicures, pedicures, hypnotherapy, holistic massages and one of the top make-up artists in the world to make her glow the way she did. And by the end of her marriage, it was a necessity, her job, and the only way we would allow her to be.

She was also a black hole of attention. No matter who you were, if you were within her orbit eventually you had to pay homage. Her lust for admiration and love was unquenchable and it did eventually kill her.


In the meantime, she feathered a lot of pockets, inspired the shifting of a lot of tax dollars from education to couture clothes, and sucked press ink like smack. What it says for our own capacity for self-delusion is quite another thing. Diana was a spoiled aristocrat who lived among other spoiled aristocrats who did just about anything for public money, corporate money, newspaper money, foreign money, Arab money, mob money, just as long as they didn't actually have to do anything boring like work. Lunch? In those lives, it's huge. But she was our real-life Truman. We knew so much about her and in such amazing amounts of detail, that she was more than a sister, daughter, best friend, and when we lost her, we lost a member of our own family.


Let us, for fun, turn the tables on Lady Colin Campbell, match her, as they say, stroke for stroke. Everyone in London society says that Colin Campbell is a sex change. She is famous for it; however, no one will go on record saying such a thing, because everyone is far too well bred. Besides, she has powerful former in-laws and is rather powerful herself, having written three books trashing the reputation of the late Princess of Wales. However, I can tell you personally that she has a suspiciously deep voice. In fact, my former social secretary, Anne Hodson-Pressinger, whose mother, Lady Torphycan, is the best friend of the Queen Mother, says "Lady Colin has always had something very peculiar about her," while demurring that she doesn't want to hurt her feelings. But hypothetically speaking, Anne continues, everyone knows that all sex changes are deeply jealous of successful real women. So therefore her biography is bound to be poisonous.


Lady Colin writes 308 pages of just such slander, in precisely the same manner, with almost no attributed sources for the worst of her accusations; many fancy attributed sources on other points, all of whom say completely anodyne things; and lots of flat-out fantasy writing, much of which could only have been fed to her by the self-libelling dead princess (channelled no doubt), the Queen or the Prince, detailing Diana's pre-marital lovers, her sexual voracity, her dozens of postmarital lovers, her psychosis, her clinical depression, her vengefulness, her self-centredness, her competitive streak, her luxury-loving, her crying jags, her constant screaming at the Prince of Wales, her wild mood swings, her calculation and manipulation of the press and public, her lying, deceit and her "if not fully fledged paranoid-schizophrenia, then her borderline personality disorder."


If you can stand such flagrant character assassination of someone not even dead a year, then this book will ring your bell.

The first victims of Campbell's venom (and one suspects Prince Charles's revenge) are the Spencers. Diana's father, Earl Spencer, is established as being stupid and venal (based on nothing but unattributed gossip): He beat Diana's mother, which is why she left him, and then proceeded to steal her children using the courts. Diana, apparently, in one of her many irrational opinions, never forgave her for leaving, even though she knew that her mother Frances was being hit and humiliated regularly.


Lady Colin then launches into her main thesis, concerning Diana's gluttonous sexual appetite. The first shibboleth she goes after is Diana's much-reported virginity at the time of her marriage. Rubbish, says Campbell, and she serves up some whooshy reporting to "prove" her point, though how a 19-year-old in 1989 could manage to stay virginal and hold up her head in Sloane Ranger society in Central London is beyond me. She then launches into descriptions of Diana's extramarital lovers, who include the King of Spain, men-about-London Phillip Dunne and David Waterhouse, along with the usual suspects, James Hewit and James Gilbey. The 17th Earl of Pembroke, claims Campbell, was her first lover -- older, sophisticated and virtually chosen by the court in 1983 to tame Diana's lustful needs. Campbell has no one reputable on the record to bolster this particular strand of her story.


After her separation, according to Campbell, Diana bedded everyone not nailed down, and quite a few who were (by virtue of marriage). She liked them "hunky and chunky" and loved to compete against other women, though she pretty much always lost. She was desperate for love, or attention, and when she didn't get it, she hurled herself into mental illness, which was almost always triggered by bulimia and solved by more holidays, more therapists, more shopping and another dive into on-site, first-hand charity, where she was admired and loved just about the way she wanted to be, as a saint, goddess and supermodel combined.


Campbell asserts that Diana was mentally ill, to the point of psychosis, and the court was pretty much under her control, because essentially no one knew what she would do next and therefore tiptoed around her like she was the time-bomb she turned out to be. Campbell's prose and world view owes a great debt to Jackie Collins.


Burchill's Diana , in sharp contrast, is occasionally well-written, often witty and only periodically scum-like. She errs only in idealizing the late Princess, for the seeming purpose of advancing the anti-monarchist cause. For Burchill, the Royal Family is a "dirty great con," Charles is a "Graeco-German brigand," the Queen "cruel and hypocritical." She wants them gone, and eulogizing Diana, and bolstering her story of being a victim of a cold and uncaring courtier class, is the way she has chosen to fight. It is probably safe to say that Burchill reflects the opinion of many educated Brits under the age of 35.

Her main thesis is that the society surrounding Diana was and is corrupt, and that Diana, by being honest and emotional and vulnerable, exposed them for what they are and sent them barking for the hills. She writes, as few have convincingly, about the unique oppression of upper-class women, who are used as brood mares then, knee-hobbled, put out to pasture, while their husbands frolic. These women, claims Burchill, are punished with the full weight and power of their class if they step out of line and she admires Diana's bravery for so doing.

Burchill, however, does not admire what perhaps "the people" found most attractive about Diana (aside from her beauty), which was her addiction to psychics and caring and confessing and all the blandishments of the New Age. To Burchill, once Diana found God, she "became an adulterous spiritualist with a nice line in wasting public money."

It is the left's argument that millions of disappointed women have always taken refuge in the idea that there is some other world better than this, that they have always been prey to fortune tellers. It comes with the territory of "Is that all there is?"


However, without the bolstering of university, newsroom, laboratory or, alternatively, wealth or privilege, it is pretty much impossible for the average powerless soul to bear the world's cruelty and unreason without some sort of faith. Faith is rarely found through reason or privilege.


It is certain that those Diana helped, the maimed and dying, pinned their hopes on a Reason for All This, and a benevolent Great Spirit overseeing all us little sparrows. It was Diana's gift to them that she acknowledged this in public and often.


Dressing Diana is the least offensive of these four summer books on the late Princess and a relief after the performance of the grave robbers. A detailed description in back-of-the-cereal box prose and recycled photographs of her dresses, suits and ball gowns, shoes, handbags and jewelry, it's glossy, comprehensive and one closes it thinking, how in God's holy name did she manage to force herself to wear all those dreadful colours? It does raise a question however: If Diana had packed on a comfortable 20 extra pounds, let her hair revert to its original mouse-brown colour and worn dumpy tweedy suits, would she still be alive? And would we have wanted that?


Elizabeth Nickson is a writer who lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C.


In my first year at the London bureau of Time Inc., I ducked, dodged and weasled my way out of Royal stories with the best of them. I even was given to hiding under my desk when one was going around. But 18 months later, when the mantle of European bureau chief of Life magazine was laid about my shoulders, I was truly stuck. Saddled with a clothing allowance for Ascot and the lunches that made up Diana's days, a social secretary to introduce me into Royal circles and an expense account that included a dining room and chef, I was put on the scent of the fabled quarry of nineties journalism: the exclusive interview with Diana, Princess of Wales.


Needless to say, we were all aware we were throwing money away, but it had to be done, everyone else was doing it and it would be a sad, sad editor-in-chief who had to explain to his boss why we'd missed it if someone else nailed her.

Being Life magazine, we would take the high road (the low road being stalking her, bugging her, paying palace staff for info), trying to prove to her and the court that a) Life was the ideal forum for her, and b) I was a sympathetic and impartial listener.


That meant that on far too many nights, I would go home, take a bath and wearily climb into another (borrowed) ballgown to be steered around the dance floor at some Royal's patronage thrash by aging bankers in search of trophy females and plastered lords whining that their wives refused to come to London to drink themselves into an early grave. All of them, it was promised, had some crucial Royal connection.


I dozed through a lunch in the House of Lords with the 80-year-old Earl of Bessborough (his wife was Diana's favourite aunt), only to wake up in a private elevator when he plunged his hand down my dress. I agitated to give parties for Diana and did. I donated to her charities, I ate endless lunches in her Presence, I courted her grandmother's and the Queen Mother's best friend, Lady Torphycan.


I lined up to shake her hand, I took her ladies-in-waiting, hairdressers, make-up artists, decorators and boyfriends to lunch, and every month I'd hie myself down to Buck House to fend off the advances of the press secretary to the Prince of Wales (Diana did not have her own at the time), and listen to him slander the Princess. Remember the touching photo where she threw out her arms to welcome her boys on Britannia in Canada? "Staged!" hissed Dickie Arbiter across the lunch table giving my knee a squeeze. Then he'd offer me the Prince of Wales if I could get HRH the cover of Time.


I was truly truly all the way through the looking glass. For a few very long years, many of the people I spoke to were titled and most of them (not all) made me feel as if I'd scraped my fingernails against a wall in an underpass on King's Cross.