Netflix’s Season 4 of The Crown has stirred bittersweet nostalgia for all things Diana. Twenty-three years after her death, what is it about Diana that continues to fascinate us? No modern-day royal has earned a modicum of her celebrity.
Diana made a spectacular entry onto the world’s stage. She emerged from a glass coach in a frothy ivory bridal gown with a twenty-five-foot long trail to marry her Prince Charming. As she glided down the carpeted aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral, little girls with princess dreams swooned. So did millions of grown men and women who watched the live telecast in seventy-four countries across the world. Without a doubt, Diana fitted the universal mold of a fairy princess.
After the ceremony, the Archbishop of Canterbury commented: This is the stuff fairytales are made of. On that fateful day in 1981, when the Prince and Princess of Wales stepped out into brilliant sunshine to the pealing of bells and cheers of ecstatic crowds and rode off in a waiting landau, not even the most hardened cynic could have foretold this fairytale’s tragic ending. The tragedy of Diana’s life was that although the entire world was in love with her, her husband wasn’t.
In the early 1980s, Diana propelled to global superstardom while battling depression and bulimia in private. Camilla’s shadow loomed over Charles and Diana’s marriage like a sinister black cloud—even on their honeymoon. The Crown portrays Diana’s desperate attempts to win over her husband. We now know his heart simply wasn’t in it. Yet, the sight of the fictitious Charles and Diana spinning around on a dance floor in Australia makes us wish all had worked out for the pair. Human beings crave happy endings as a means of emotional satisfaction. If Diana never found hers, what hope exists for us those less luminous, more ordinary?
Those born after or too young to remember the Diana years might not be aware of Diana’s troubled past. Her parents divorced when she was six, her father, the Earl Spencer gained custody of Diana and her three siblings. Although bewildered by her mother’s absence, she assumed a maternal role with her younger brother and comforted him at bedtime when he wept for their mother.
Consoling the broken-hearted became Diana’s raison d’être. She shook hands with AIDs patients and hugged lepers, shattering the stigma associated with the diseases. A child suffering from cancer remarked that when he saw Princess Diana on his bedside, he thought an angel had paid him a visit. Before her death, her stature as humanitarian equaled Mother Teresa’s.
But Diana’s personality was dichotomous, part saint, part femme fatale. While she lamented Charles’s relationship with Camilla, she embarked on a string of affairs herself. Nonetheless, she clung onto the hope that her marriage would work. She described the day she signed her divorce decree as the saddest of her life. After her turbulent childhood, she vowed never to get divorced, but destiny willed otherwise.
Towards the end of her life, Diana became reckless—she baited the paparazzi, and refused police protection. A summer fling with Dodi Fayed led to both their deaths in a horrific car accident in Paris. We ought to have seen it coming. Stars that shine too bright burn out the soonest. If Diana had been a literary character, her creator would have to write in her early demise. To sustain a character arc as volatile would be impossible. Diana died on the 31st of August, a date that marks the end of summer in the Western Hemisphere. To a generation who grew up idealizing Diana, her death symbolized the end of youth and the end of innocence.
The reason we’re still fascinated by Diana is that her suffering mirrors our own. Which human being doesn’t long for unconditional love? Who hasn’t experienced abandonment, betrayal and self-doubt? Too many of us find ourselves navigating uncharted waters in hostile territories. And who is fortunate enough to attain the perfect ending? As The Crown regurgitates Diana’s many trials, we’re all privately reliving our own, and that is why Diana’s story will tug our heartstrings until the end of time.
Zeenath Khan is a Mumbai-based writer and columnist