Good night, Lady Di

Courtesy of queen-to-be Catherine, ‘Diana’s frail spirit at last may cross the Styx.’

Good night, lady

Anwar Hussein/Wireimage/Getty Images

The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton is warmly welcomed in Britain and elsewhere. A young couple deeply in love, a much-needed fillip for the royal family, a handsome prince, a stylish young bride and, in time, the patter of tiny feet—what’s not to like? In corporate terms, the Windsors are refreshing the brand. And everybody wants in.

Gossip columnists from Lake Louise to Louisiana are buzzing about who’s been invited to the wedding, and who’s not. Leaks have revealed old lovers of both groom and bride, new staff discreetly supporting both, and various chums of various older royals, present for various reasons, don’t ask why. One name did not appear on any list, or any roll call of the living for the last 14 years. But she’ll be there, invited or not. Who’d be more welcome than a mother at the marriage of her elder son? Hence the need of the young couple to call up Diana’s shade, and honour her plangent absence at the feast.

And hence the brilliant and simple idea to bring her back into the fold—by recycling the ring. Someone in royal circles foresaw this as a major part of the story—even in the “informal” Mario Testino snaps, the ring takes centre stage, almost eclipsing the two lovers. Formerly one of the most famous sapphire rings in the world, it had lain unseen and forgotten for a decade and a half. Bringing it to light was a startling and unexpected PR coup, which officially launched a new season of Diana marriage coverage. It gave the media royal permission to revisit every detail of her wedding preparations from the gown to the honeymoon, thereby recalling and enshrining Diana, princess of Wales at the highest point of her value to the monarchy, when she’d attracted huge affection as Charles’s bride, and before she undermined it by upstaging him.

As a strategy, it has worked spectacularly. Diana has been everywhere since the announcement, endlessly lauded. She was “inspirational,” Kate loyally declared, though what was left unsaid was why—one of the most uneducated women in the Western world, Diana left school with no qualifications but a fondness for romantic fiction, and her “fairy tale” story of marrying a prince set the cause of women back about 200 years.

Perhaps Kate meant what Diana called her “work.” Work is what you do when can’t get out of it. The Queen works, cutting ribbons, christening battleships and bleak housing estates, touring paint factories and opening motorways. She’s done it since she was 10, and nowadays Camilla does it, too. Whatever Diana did, it was not this.

But whatever Diana did, it’s not over either. Unassuming as Kate is, and graced with William’s full blessing, she has subsumed her unknown mother-in-law. The happy couple combine to evoke the best of Diana’s adult achievements; together, they recast her as the hopeful do-gooder, the ardent young bride. It’s enough that Kate joins the alleluia chorus with her own Diana hosanna, singing from the same hymn book as her prince. It’s noteworthy, too, that wherever Kate has appeared since the engagement, those who’ve turned out to greet her want to see both her and the ring. Photo op by photo op, she’s making the oversized and unchosen sapphire ring her own. The fact that it had to be resized to fit her hand made global news and shifted the focus—it’s her ring now.

So what follows? It’s all about laying Diana to rest. Her disordered life and dreadful death inflicted on “the Firm” a wound that has never healed. Her ghost has haunted the royal family ever since with its undying reminder of their fatal flaws and casual yet catastrophic cruelties.

For their part, the royal family doesn’t understand how Diana’s hold on the public has lasted so long. The raw elements of her life still exert a mythic power—the Cinderella, despised by her sisters, who becomes the Princess Bride, the Little Mermaid who denies her true nature at any cost, dancing on knives to win her prince and dying so he could be happy. Add to these poignant archetypes a face the camera loved—nobody fed the world’s pictorial fodder as Diana did—and the Princess Bride becomes an international star. Stir into this hectic mix her compulsive courting of the common people to create her peculiar constituency of the despised and dispossessed, a worldwide clan of wounded narcissists like herself, and it’s no mystery why the fascination with her persists.

The media in particular won’t let go, reflecting that section of the British public who can’t forgive Charles and won’t let him forget. Why should he be happy, when she was so sad? How dare he marry again, when the only second chance she had in life was death?

Charles and the Firm are acutely aware of this—overly so, some traditionalists feel. A groundswell of resentment still attends the downgrading of Camilla to “duchess of Cornwall” in order to preserve the title of “princess of Wales” for Diana. But at the time, it was seen as a key plank in rehabbing Charles and the monarchy.

Diana was still the elephant in the room at that wedding. But if Kate replaces Diana in a carefully orchestrated manoeuvre, who’s the conductor? Not Charles or William, they’re not calculating enough. Certainly not the Queen, who’d be happy never to hear Diana’s name again—initially sympathetic to the gauche girl selected as a royal brood mare, she came to regard her as a virus that made men lose their minds, including Tony Blair, fatuously claiming ownership of “the people’s princess.” Nor can the Queen forgive the harm Diana did to the monarchy just like that other blond and shallow charmer, Edward VIII. The Queen and her father dedicated their lives to repairing the ravages Edward caused because, like Diana, he never understood that the British monarchy stood for more than fashion and high living, cash and dash.

The monarchy got over the abdication crisis, as they got over Diana, too. But she’s still unfinished business, too long undead. Some unsung royal handler saw a chance to call up that dangerous shade and lay it to rest. Only then can the royals old and new truly relax.

One above all. Diana needs to be sweetly swept away to smooth the way for Camilla to be queen. She will be anyway, if Charles accedes—the wife of a monarch can be nothing else. Britain has no tradition of morganatic marriage, in which a woman is recognized as the king’s spouse without becoming his full partner of state. Edward VIII raised it as a solution to his problem with Mrs. Simpson, and the very idea was instantly squelched. Camilla is married to Charles by the law of the land and only another divorce can alter that.

Will the public accept her? Who cares? More than one English queen has been detested in her day. In the Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth Woodville was so loathed as the wife of Edward IV that the king’s most powerful ally, “the Kingmaker” earl of Warwick, deserted him. Three hundred years on, the prince regent, later George IV, felt such a violent aversion for his wife that he nearly fainted with disgust when they first met, and spent his wedding night in a drunken stupor. Poor Caroline of Brunswick became the ultimate non-person, scorned and written out of national life. A similar fate could have befallen Camilla if Charles had married her soon after Diana’s death. But Camilla is now accepted as Charles’s true wife, happy to play second fiddle as Diana never could.

A happy ending, then? Not yet. For the final act, the crowning of Queen Camilla, Diana’s memory must be exorcised. If Catherine can be Diana’s born-again proxy, her new doppelganger, happy in her role, the world can draw a veil over Diana’s last lost and unhappy years, the sexual antics with lovers like England rugby captain Will Carling (he denied it) and Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, smuggled into Kensington Palace in a bread van the staff called “the f–k truck.” That at least was in private. The deranged, possibly criminal carryings-on in the public domain (the harassing phone calls, the attack on the passing amateur photographer) were a darker stain, which would have landed anyone else in court.

Forget all that. Diana has been brought back into the royal fold, reincarnated as the blushing bride, and simultaneously recast as the loving mother who’d approve of Kate as William’s wife—the ring says as much. By playing her part in this masquerade, William’s future queen is helping to harmonize painful memories, and weave the best bits of Diana’s life into the ongoing royal narrative. Courtesy of queen-to-be Catherine, Diana’s frail spirit at last may cross the Styx. From beyond the grave, Britain’s Queen Diana who never was opens the door to her most hated rival in life, Camilla, the next queen.

It’s a neat trick, no? To see Diana reborn as the beautiful young bride (will Kate copy her hair!? her shoes!? her gown!?) and also as William’s beloved and loving mother, while leaving out all the grubby bits in between. And for the sake of King Charles III, Queen Camilla and King William V, why not? Raise a toast to the young couple, if you will. History belongs to the victors, and an enduringly ancient monarchy knows precious little about defeat.

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