The Wolf Hall novelist on the 20th anniversary of the death of the Princess of Wales, an icon only loosely based on the young woman born Diana Spencer
Royal time should move slowly and by its own laws: creeping, like the flow of chrism from a jar. But 20 ordinary years have jog-trotted by, and its possible to have a grownup conversation with someone who wasnt born when Diana died. Her widower is long remarried. Her eldest son, once so like her, shows signs of developing the ponderous looks of Philip, his grand-father. Diana should be as passe as ostrich plumes: one of those royal or quasi-royal women, like Mary of Teck or Wallis Simpson or the last tsarina, whose images fade to sepia and whose bones are white as pearls. Instead, we gossip about her as if she had just left the room. We still debate how in 1981 a sweet-faced, puppy-eyed 20-year-old came to marry into the royal house. Was it a setup from the start? Did she know her fiance loved another woman? Was she complicit, or was she an innocent, garlanded for the slab and the knife?
For some people, being dead is only a relative condition; they wreak more than the living do. After their first rigor, they reshape themselves, taking on a flexibility in public discourse. For the anniversary of her death, the princesss sons remember her for the TV cameras, and we learn that she was fun and very caring and a breath of fresh air. They speak sincerely, but they have no news. Yet there is no bar on saying what you like about her, in defiance of the evidence. Private tapes she made with her voice coach have been shown in a TV documentary, Diana: In Her Own Words. They were trailed as revealing a princess who is candid and uninhibited. Yet never has she appeared so self-conscious and recalcitrant. Squirming, twitching, avoiding the cameras eye, she describes herself hopefully as a rebel, on the grounds that she liked to do the opposite of everyone else. You want to veil the lens and explain: that is reaction, not rebellion. Throwing a tantrum when thwarted doesnt make you a free spirit. Rolling your eyes and shrugging doesnt prove you are brave. And because people say trust me, it doesnt means theyll keep your secrets.
Yet royal people exist in a place beyond fact-correction, in a mystical realm with rules that, as individuals, they may not see; Diana consulted psychics to work out what was going on. The perennial demand for them to cut costs and be more down to earth is futile. They are not people like us, but with better hats. They exist apart from utility, and by virtue of our unexamined and irrational needs. You cant write or speak about the princess without explicating and embellishing her myth. She no longer exists as herself, only as what we made of her. Her story is archaic and transpersonal. It is as if, said the psychotherapist Warren Colman, Diana broadcast on an archetypal frequency.