Princess Diana Remembered, 20 Years after Her Death
Historian Arianne Chernock on Diana’s legacy and why Americans are so fascinated by the British Monarchy
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Britain’s Princess Diana, who was just 36 when she was killed in a high-speed automobile crash in Paris. The car she was riding in slammed into a tunnel during an attempt to evade paparazzi. Diana’s death elicited a global outpouring of grief in the days that followed: two billion people around the world tuned in to watch her funeral in Westminster Abbey, making it one of the most viewed events in history.
The glamorous princess was the first wife of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and the mother of their two sons, William and Harry. Charles and Diana made headlines during their tumultuous marriage and subsequent messy divorce, which led to her estrangement from the royal family.
Despite the frequent lurid tabloid headlines about Diana, many people were drawn to her by her sense of vulnerability and commitment to humanitarian causes, such as her support of AIDS patients and her campaign to ban landmines. She was often referred to as “the people’s princess.”
As the world commemorates the anniversary of Diana’s death with a slew of books and TV specials, BU Today spoke with modern British history expert Arianne Chernock, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of history, about the princess’ legacy, her impact on the British monarchy, and Americans’ ongoing fascination with her.
Chernok’s first book, Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism (Stanford University Press, 2009), received the John Ben Snow Prize from the North American Conference on British Studies. She is currently at work on a second book, The Right to Rule and the Rights of Women in Victorian Britain, which explores Britons’ responses to queens who reigned during the 19th century.
BU Today: Why are Americans still fascinated by Diana 20 years after her death?
Chernock: Americans have a fairy-tale relationship with the British monarchy. That has been a long-standing relationship, and Diana really captured the mood of that moment. She was a person who really allowed Americans, Britons, and the world to see some of the vulnerabilities and the human side of the royal family in a way that people really responded to. She was a woman who lived out a complicated life on the world stage, who emerged young and uncertain when she was married.
But she found a role for herself in the world. She died midlife, so there’s so much of her story that remains unwritten, a question mark. That’s part of the continuing allure, that we don’t know how the rest of her story would have played out. But certainly, by the end, she had come to use her role as a platform for important causes and issues.
How did her death affect the royal family?
The impact continues to play out today. It really, I’d say, was a low point. There are movies, like The Queen, that capture the moment with drama, but there is some truth in it. I think it was a moment of reckoning for them, in terms of how they might need to update their image, their strategy, their public image. Diana was very savvy in that regard. She had a complicated relationship with the media, but she was savvy in terms of realizing that people wanted to know more, they wanted more of an emotional connection. In the wake of her death, the royal family had to respond and kind of adjust their roles and their strategies.
You can see the effects playing out in the way that William and Kate approach their roles, and Harry as well. They are cautious, but they give so much more of themselves. They are much less at a remove. It seems important to them to be engaged with social issues that have meaning and to present a modern version of themselves.
Does this mean we should expect to see selfies on their Instagram accounts?
Well, they have a YouTube channel. Sure, they could have Twitter, because they would have a controlled way of approaching it, but it would fit, I would think, within their framework, for a monarchy as of 2017. I think Diana was a real catalyst for that.
Diana was active in causes such as AIDS awareness and the arts. Are Harry and William taking after her?
Royals before Diana have long been engaged in charitable efforts, and philanthropy has been central to the monarchy for centuries. Diana did take that to the next level by pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable. The transformative effects of her work became really clear — the fact that she was willing, very early on, to shake hands with AIDS patients was transformative in terms of removing stigma from the disease. Today, William and Kate have made a huge campaign around bullying and have extended that to include the gay community. These are the kinds of things her children do not do simply because of Diana, but she is certainly an inspiration.
How has the public perception of royalty changed in the last 20 years?
She encouraged the royal family to present themselves as more human. The monarchy reached a low point after her death, and recently there has been an incredible resurgence in its popularity. I lived in Britain, and I would say that most people have an affectionate relationship with the monarchy now. They see it as good for tourism. Britain, as you may know, is at a moment of national crisis in terms of its identity.
Through this period, the monarchy has provided a constant reassuring presence in a country confronting a lot of fundamental divisions. The fact that Elizabeth has had the longest reign to date is a reassuring constant. It will be interesting to see how the monarchy continues once she is no longer on the scene. To prepare for it, I think she is trying to cede more and more responsibility to the next generations.
What do you believe Diana’s legacy is?
First and foremost, I think she forced the modernization of the monarchy, and certainly she’s responsible for shedding the illusion that it’s a perfect family, if anyone believed that. They have their own challenges, their own struggles, and she really made that human struggle central to the story. I think the media’s relationship to the monarchy has changed in her wake. I’m not going to say the press is more responsible now, but I think there is more respect for distance, a less intrusive, more savvy relationship to the media. The family is more strategic and purposeful in how they release information, like the creation of the YouTube account. These are all ways to create the illusion of openness and accessibility, while still owning the story. And I think that is one of Diana’s legacies, maybe from a fallout of her untimely death.
Most importantly is her use of the monarchy, the royal family, as a platform to shed light on important social issues. Even though the monarchy is a largely ceremonial institution in Britain, she helped inform the ways royals can create purpose and meaning in the world, a way they can be engaged and not just decorative.
Originally published at www.bu.edu.