Belfast Telegraph

Princess Di: Iconic, wronged and dead at 36 - how trashing of Diana could turn tide against Queen Camilla

The Duchess of Cornwall is accepted, if not loved. Why risk everything by attacking a memory, asks Gail Walker

A new book by royal biographer Penny Junor reports to tell Camilla's side of the story of the Diana-Charles-Camilla triangle which gripped and - to a small extent - shaped the nation as we know it today.

As is the form for such publications, The Duchess: The Untold Story cites the stories and views of "close friends", "associates" and "royal insiders".

A pre-publication serialisation in a national newspaper is brimming with revelations aimed at making us think again about Camilla and - by extension - the Prince of Wales and Diana.

The idea will make many feel uneasy. Some - cynically perhaps - will view it as a blatant attempt to imprint a different kind of Duchess of Cornwall on the imagination of the public. Gone would be the "third person" in Diana and Charles' ill-fated marriage. And in her place would be a misunderstood woman placed in an impossible position by love, fate and history.

In other words, the book is a plea to the public which, if successful, could pave the way for Queen Camilla as opposed to merely being the King's consort.

But, of course, it is a high-risk strategy which could undo a lot of the good work of the last few years in winning hearts for Camilla, a woman who at the height of the royal marriage fall-out had to live as a recluse such was the opprobrium heaped upon her.

Camilla is in a very ambiguous position. As the years have passed following the hysteria of the Diana era, we have largely accepted the fact of Camilla. After all, she is the wife of the Prince of Wales - and has been for 12 years. And during those years she hasn't put a foot wrong, carrying out her public duties with good grace and supporting her husband. In other words, just getting on with it.

On the whole, it has been a smart - and winning - strategy. Her old-fashioned stiff upper lip stoicism is a refreshing change from the high drama and emotional incontinence of the Charles and Di soap opera.

The antagonism to Camilla has largely waned. She may not be loved in the same way as Diana, but she is accepted. So why go grubbing about in the past, a past that has been raked over enough?

It's 20-plus years ago - a narrative wrapped around the Major/Blair years, Britpop and peace breaking out in Northern Ireland. In other words, it is history.

But not dead history. If the book is seen as an exercise in thrashing Diana's reputation - and it clearly is setting about that task - then the public impression of the Duchess of Cornwall may begin to turn yet.

One of the main mitigating props in defence of Camilla would appear to be that her husband was unfaithful to her - and so she was unhappy, too. The problem with that is that Camilla then inflicted similar pain on another woman, much younger and much less wise to the ways of the world.

And badmouthing the People's Princess will always summon up those images again - the innocent fairytale princess betrayed by her husband (and, yes, his mistress) ... a seemingly unfeeling royal family ... that mangled car in a Paris underpass ... the national outpouring of grief and the young princes forlornly following their mother's coffin on a bright sunny day through the flower-strewn streets of London.

These are dark, primeval feelings and memories. They may lie dormant for many. Some may even laugh, embarrassed by the intensity of them. But they will never die.

For Diana remains frozen in time, beautiful - and dead. She doesn't grow old. Her story cannot evolve. She never went on to find new happiness, a new husband that went a great way to assuaging the hurt of the past.

She is forever looking on, doe-eyed and head cast down in that shy Di manner, wounded and hurt - and dead at 36. In some ways, no matter what Charles and Camilla do, they can't compete.

Regardless of what "tell all" books, films and documentaries say about Diana, she remains fixed in our imaginations. We know that she was flaky, neurotic and capable of huge miscalculations. But this knowledge matters not a jot.

On the contrary, it adds to the myth: a wronged woman forced to the very edge. She is a modern morality tale. An icon on which we project meaning.

And core to that myth is one cold fact: Diana was wronged. Picked primarily to provide heirs to the throne, her husband cheated on her. That cannot be got around easily.

So, instead of proxies and friends revisiting the Nineties, picking at scabs and generally stirring up memories, "Camillians" should draw comfort from the fact that this isn't the world of 20-odd years ago.

We see things as shades of grey - not the moral starkness of black and white. We are more willing to acknowledge emotional complexity, more tolerant of people failing.

We live day and daily where marriages break down, loves goes awry and the ideal seems very far away. Divorce and estrangement are brute facts of life - why should the Windsors be exempt?

We look at people more generously and empathetically than we used to, we see the bigger picture. Prince Charles is no longer typecast as the heartless cad. Most see him as a good man doing his best. A bit self-regarding, perhaps, but profoundly well-meaning. You hear little now of the idea that Charles should renounce his claim to the throne in favour of Prince William.

And that is only right. He has - in a substantial, if not total way - regained the trust and affection of his people. He has been a hard-working royal, doing charity work for the young, the underprivileged, contributing to public discussions on green issues, architecture and public spaces.

In Northern Ireland, he is well-regarded by many for his courageous work encouraging reconciliation - despite he too being a victim of our bloody conflict.

And the same goes for Camilla. She, too, has earned our respect. Like that of Charles, though, it is not without its limits. We accept her and we accept her past - in all its flaws and failings. But that does not mean that we think she should be Queen Camilla, or will accept some kind of trashing of Diana's memory.

When you consider how disliked Camilla was at the height of Diana-hysteria, this cautious acceptance is a rather great victory. Why endanger it by what could be perceived as petty sniping at someone who can no longer defend herself.

Sometimes it's best to let the past lie.

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