Let me begin by admitting that I am something of a “royal watcher.” Perhaps it is my training as an English historian. Perhaps it is because I share a birthday with Queen Elizabeth. But I distinctly remember getting up very early one morning in 1953 to listen to her coronation on the radio. And like millions of others, I watched raptly
as Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in “the wedding of the century.”
Let me continue by admitting that I have never been particularly fond of Diana, at least not since it became apparent that all was not well with the Wales’ marriage. Oh, I felt some sympathy for her difficult position. But I never felt that she was the wronged heroine as portrayed particularly by the American press and embraced by the American people. Indeed, when I appeared on a local TV show (as a purported expert on British history) after her death, I was chided by one caller for actually suggesting that Diana was not a saint.
Let me conclude this lengthy introduction by stating that I have never until now read a single book about the tragically short life of this woman who was perhaps the most famous woman in the world. But a brief review of Sally Bedell Smith’s new biography in Newsweek caught my attention and I picked up the book yesterday. I began reading the introduction and found myself unable to put the book down. Diana in
Search of Herself is without a doubt one of the most compelling portraits of mental instability that I have ever read.
Smith begins and concludes her book with the strong suggestion that Diana suffered from a borderline personality. This is a widely recognized mental illness that I never quite understood before. Such a person exists on the border between neurosis and psychosis.
Diana was certainly a very disturbed young woman. She herself admitted that she was bulimic and engaged in self-mutilation. She was volatile, often untruthful, frequently depressed or hysterical and extremely insecure. She needed constant reassurance of her own worth, reassurances that were never enough. Her behavior cried out for help,
but both her position and her personality made it difficult for her to get the help she needed. Had she led an “ordinary” life, she would have had trouble. But she was the Princess of Wales and the pressures simply overwhelmed her.
Smith has done a masterful job of recreating Diana’s life. She read the voluminous public record and interviewed nearly 150 people who knew Diana. She examines Diana’s childhood, placing the trauma of her parents’ divorce in context. She describes her relations with her family, her school days, her short life on her own, and the courtship
that was carried out in the glare of publicity and constant coverage by the rabid tabloid press. She dissects Diana’s behavior after her marriage, her fixation on her husband’s previous relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowes, her relations with the royal family, her
adulterous love affairs, her public triumphs and her private disasters.
Ever present in Smith’s account is the press, from the earliest pressures on Charles to marry Diana, through the alternating praise and blame, to the final tragedy. After reading about the British press’s relationship with the Princess, I can only say that they should be
ashamed of themselves. But, of course, Diana played with them as they played with her. It was a mutually disastrous relationship, but while they sold papers, she suffered.
Charles comes across as a man who was originally charmed by the young woman he chose to wed, who hoped that they could forge a good and loving marriage, but who was simply incapable of dealing with the emotionally unstable, exceptionally needy and immature woman whom he married. They had nothing in common at the outset, and Diana did not have the internal or the intellectual resources to grow into the kind of woman who could share the prince’s life and interests. There is every evidence that he
tried continually to help his wife, but he couldn’t give her what she needed -- his undivided attention, constant admiration, unwavering support.
For me at least, Charles emerged as a sorely tried man who was simply incapable of dealing with the emotional storms his young wife created. Could he have done more? Probably. Certainly his resuming his relationship with Camilla did nothing to help the situation. But I also understood why his mistress’ calm good sense, support and love became so necessary as a haven of calm amid a continual storm.
Diana comes across as her own worst enemy. She decided herself to undertake the acts that led first to the separation (the Morton book) and later to the divorce (the TV interview). She kept these projects secret from those who might have warned her of the dangers of the course she chose to follow. She was sometimes canny, but in the end, her
inability to analyze the probable consequences of her actions led to one disaster after another.
Smith reminds us that at the time of her death, Diana had embarked on a course which might well have lost her a great deal of her popularity. Her relationship with Dodi Fayed had the makings of another disaster. But the accident in that Parisian tunnel intervened, and over night she became for once and all “Saint Diana.”
I said above that I previously had “some sympathy” for Diana. Smith’s book certainly increased that sympathy. I feel genuinely sorry for this troubled young woman. But I also feel sorry for her husband and for the royal family who were so ill equipped to cope with her emotional instability. Diana may well have been “un-copable” by any husband or any family.
Diana in Search of Herself probably provides as clear a portrait of the Princess of Wales as we are ever likely to have. Smith’s research is impeccable, her writing is excellent and her conclusions are judicious and compelling. If you want to truly understand the Diana behind the glamorous image, then this is the book to read.