Sentiments of Jane Austen echoed in loveless relationship of Charles and Diana
It would be an exaggeration to say that I knew Diana, Princess of Wales, but I met her, and it later transpired that she read what I wrote. Or maybe she just read the reports about herself, for she said to the editor of The Daily Telegraph (as he recounted subsequently), "Why can't you write nice things about me, like Mary Kenny?" I suppose I did write positively about Diana because she was a very winning personality, and seemed so unstuffy: she spoke rather simply to me about how she really would have liked to be a nurse, and how rewarding it was to look after people who were ill or afflicted.
Subsequent events have, of course, revealed so much more about her life, and divisions of opinion about Diana intruded into my own home life: my late husband disliked her intensely, or disliked the type of woman she was - "manipulative", he called her. The type of young woman who must always draw attention to herself, making trouble. And so divided opinions reigned at home and abroad.
What became clear was that Diana was a damaged young woman - damaged by the circumstances of her own parents' catastrophic marriage. Her father was, it seemed, physically abusive, and her mother was what the aristocracy call "a bolter". Poor Frances, Diana's mother, did leave home - after four children and much misery - and, in her own later years, suffered much remorse.
The recent Channel 4 broadcast of the documentary Diana: In Her Own Words was widely judged to be tacky and intrusive. Disclosing the intimacies of the marriage bed always looks demeaning (Diana's sex life with her husband was described as "very odd … sort of once every three weeks" before it "fizzled out") and the replaying of the famous Panorama interview with Martin Bashir did indeed look manipulative. But the moral of the story - with the perspective of 20 years after Diana's death - emerged like a Jane Austen narrative: do not marry the wrong person, for disaster follows.
Marriages can be dissolved these days - as was the marriage of Diana's parents - but the damage may be done, as it already was in Diana's case. Charles was clearly pressed into marrying Diana largely because it was time he was settled, and the Queen Mother, and Diana's grandmother, Ruth, Lady Fermoy, hatched up the Charles and Diana match between them. Charles didn't love his fiancée, and that is never a good start.
The two grandmothers should have had more sense, and turned back to the wisdom of Jane Austen, whose bicentennial is currently being celebrated (and who will, next month, replace Charles Darwin on the new £10 note). Jane Austen's novels are famously focused on love, marriage - and money - and describe how couples finally pair up in the mating game. Her letters show that she saw marriage as the ideal state - but only in the right circumstances.
There was immense pressure on women to marry at that time (she died in 1817, aged only 41) and the state of spinsterhood was pitied. But Jane thought spinsterhood preferable to a bad marriage - provided that a woman had financial means. "A single woman of good fortune is always respectable and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else," she writes in Emma.
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Jane herself had accepted a proposal of marriage to a man who was considered a highly suitable candidate - heir to a fine domain. But she revoked her decision, simply because she did not love her suitor, and she never regretted her decision to stay single. She wrote to one of her nieces that "nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love, bound to one and preferring another". In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price reflects "how wretched, and how unpardonable, how hopeless and how wicked it was, to marry without affection".
Not that Jane endorses foolish or ill-considered romance: Lydia, the youngest of the five Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice, almost ruins herself eloping with a disreputable young officer. But then her motives are those of the headstrong rebel - "to disoblige her family", and it is Darcy (immortalised by Colin Firth) who concocts a rescue plan. Despite her renowned eye for the financial practicalities of wedlock, Jane Austen extolled romance and she knew that marriage would not be happy without true attachment. And good character too.
It is always easy to see where others have made the wrong choices in their lives, and Pope Francis' kind words - "Who am I to judge?" - should spring to mind when we consider the sad fate of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the way her unhappy marriage led her to that fate. Given the same circumstances, would we have done any better? Who knows? But the saga of Charles and Diana is laid out before the world, repeatedly, and is continued, too, when their sons speak about the sadness of their loss, and the episodes of depression they have both suffered in its train.
The most revealing aspect of the recent Diana documentary, for me, was her reflection that the happiest time of her life was as a single young woman, sharing a flat with three girlfriends in Chelsea. From this blithe ambience she was selected mainly on grounds of category: she had the correct background, was young, pretty and had no "past".
But Jane Austen was surely right: it is a misery to bind one to another where there isn't love.