The former editor of Vanity Fair remembers when The King and I met Rebecca
The Diana Chronicles. By Tina Brown. Doubleday, 542 pp., $27.50.
By Janice Harayda
Diana Spencer was nine years old when her father sent her to a boarding school where, Tina Brown tells us, she won “perhaps the most endearing airhead award ever: the prize for best-kept guinea pig.” Her next school didn’t seem to do much more to develop her mind – the only admissions requirement was “neat handwriting.”
With sharp observations like these, Tina Brown comes close to pulling a rabbit out of a diamond tiara in this biography of the Princess Diana. She tells us little that hasn’t been said by others about Diana’s overall character and motivations. And what she does say often comes from sources that are unnamed or so dubious that they might not have made it past the fact-checkers at Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, magazines she used to edit. But The Diana Chronicles is miles better than earlier biographies by Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell and others – not just because it is livelier and more comprehensive but also because it finds the middle ground between axe-grinding and hagiography.
Each chapter reads like an article in Vanity Fair – sleek, glossy and full of higher gossip. Brown tends to focus on style instead of substance, even when writing about people like prime minister Tony Blair. In a typical passage she says that Cherie Blair hated the couple’s visits to the queen at Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands and ascribes this to an allergy to “the fur and feathers of the stuffed animals and hunting trophies” on the castle walls. She doesn’t mention the larger reason why the prime minister’s wife may have loathed the visits: The Highlands are a hotbed of anti-Blair sentiment and a place where, even at the height of his popularity, her husband could be expect to be booed. Brown writes much more persuasively about the Diana’s relations with the press and shows that these were more complex and less worshipful than is generally assumed, especially after the princess worked with freelancer Morton on Diana: Her True Story instead of one of the newspaper reporters who had covered her regularly.
What did all of it mean to Britain? In her last chapter, Brown says that Tony Blair told her, “Diana taught us a new way to be British.” Brown agrees, calling the change a “gift” that reflected Diana’s “emotional intelligence.” But the rest of her book undercuts this conclusion. Again and again, Brown casts Diana as a woman who was at times warm and compassionate and at other times needy, dishonest, self-absorbed and so flaky that she was an easy mark for New Age charlatans with crystal balls and astrological charts.
No doubt there is truth in both images. But if Diana exemplified “a new way to be British,” it is hard to know which version of her the country absorbed. And it is easy to see why some people might long for the “old way” exemplified by women like Victoria Liddard, who died at the age of 102, just before the Waleses separated. After demonstrating for women’s suffrage in 1912, Liddard was sentenced to two months of hard labor and kept in a cell that contained only a straw mattress on a board. She was undaunted, according to an obituary in the Telegraph. “She kept her spirits up,” the newspaper said, “by singing at the top of her voice through a high cell window.”
Best line: “While the world was thrilling to the spectacle of Diana’s life as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, her home life was becoming more like something out of Hitchcock. Under a King and I façade lurked a Rebecca–like sinister melodrama.” The Diana Chronicles has many memorable phrases like this one that, given how things turned out, seem less overheated than they might in another biography.
Worst line: “Paul Burrell’s two memoirs, too, have much touching detail to commend them.” Entertainment Weekly summed up the most recent in five words — “smarmy butler dishes more dirt” – and named it one of the five worst books of 2006. And many things that Brown asserts as fact are neither believable nor supported by end notes that would have bolstered their credibility. One example: She tells us while discussing the birth of Prince Harry that the Windsors typically had first a boy and then a girl: “Diana was so reluctant to be different that, even though she knew after her amniocentesis test in 1984 that she was carrying a boy, she had failed to share that information with her husband.” She doesn’t offer a clue to how she knows this.
Editor: Phyllis Grann
Published: June 2007
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.