Painted, young and damned and fair

Charles 3 Comments

Posted by Vole

When I think back to the days after Diana’s death I remember a strange time: hot days and a sense of shared grief lying like a miasma over the whole country. I was working for a council in those days and the queue of people, waiting to sign the book of remembrance in the lobby of the library, stretching out of the doors and into the square, seemed then and seems still quite extraordinary.

Writing about royalty and royal women in the London review of Books, Hilary Mantel describes Diana’s short life and terrible death as a sort of mythic drama. Diana was, she suggests, more royal than the royals; her life an enactment of a ritual progress. She writes that Diana:

passed through trials, through ordeals at the world’s hands. For a time the public refrained from demanding her blood so she shed it herself, cutting her arms and legs. Her death still makes me shudder because although I know it was an accident, it wasn’t just an accident. It was fate showing her hand, fate with her twisted grin. Diana visited the most feminine of cities to meet her end as a woman: to move on, from the City of Light to the place beyond black. She went into the underpass to be reborn, but reborn this time without a physical body: the airy subject of a hundred thousand photographs, a flicker at the corner of the eye, a sigh on the breeze.

For a time it was hoped, and it was feared, that Diana had changed the nation. Her funeral was a pagan outpouring, a lawless fiesta of grief. We are bad at mourning our dead. We don’t make time or space for grief. The world tugs us along, back into its harsh rhythm before we are ready for it, and for the pain of loss doctors can prescribe a pill. We are at war with our nature, and nature will win; all the bottled anguish, the grief dammed up, burst the barriers of politeness and formality and restraint, and broke down the divide between private and public, so that strangers wailed in the street, people who had never met Diana lamented her with maladjusted fervour, and we all remembered our secret pain and unleashed it in one huge carnival of mass mourning… none of us who lived through it will forget that dislocating time, when the skin came off the surface of the world, and our inner vision cleared, and we saw the archetypes clear and plain, and we saw the collective psyche at work, and the gods pulling our strings. To quote Stevie Smith again:

An antique story comes to me
And fills me with anxiety,
I wonder why I fear so much
What surely has no modern touch?

is there any other modern death that has gripped us so tightly or affected us so much? The full article – well worth a read – can be found here.


  1. Charles

    Thanks, Vale. At one stage in Hilary Mantel’s long article, she describes Diana as ’emotionally incontinent’. Do you think the outpouring at her death was a sign of a nation loosening up in positive way?

    As for other modern deaths gripping us in the same way? I think Diana’s triggered an unprecedented response. Kennedy’s had a massive impact in the 1960s, and the death of big stars such as Elvis and John Lennon affected certain fans.

    As the first major silent movie star, Rudolph Valentino’s death resulted in a few suicides as well as riot police having to control mourners on the streets of New York.

    Giuseppe Verdi caused quite a stir in Italy in 1901, him being a national hero as well as a popular composer. “VERDI” became an acronym for “Vittorio Emmanuele, Re D’Italia”, scrawled on walls as the slogan of those supporting the future Italian monarch in the war of independence.

    1. Charles

      I don’t know the answer to your first question, Richard but my instinct is that it lies in the examples of extravagant mourning that you list. It’s clear that Diana’s example is particular but not unique and that the possibility of these outpourings of grief are latent in us, waiting to be triggered by the right combination of glamour and tragedy.

      It’s not surprising that most of the grief-fests are for celebrities. You need to feel you have participated in a life to be stricken in this way. It’s why Diana and JFK have, perhaps, an edge over the others by having a national association as well as their own special attractions.

      Actually now that I have written the above, I’d hazard that one of the factors that gave the mourning for Diana such an intensity wasn’t her ’emotional incontinence’ but our complicity in her hounding: all those prurient stories, the intrusive paparazzi, the voyeurism were justified at the time because we bought the newspapers, books and magazines by the barrow load. were hungry for news of her. When she died I think we mourned extravagantly to distract the Fates from our guilt.

  2. Charles

    I agree completely with Hilary’s sentiments. My first thought on hearing that she had died was “Of course, she wasn’t really real, she’s an archetype.”
    As for what was described by so many snooty commentators at the time as an unbridled display of sentimental hysteria, well, I was 27 at the time, my own mother had died a little over a year before, and I was in a state of frozen shock, unable to cry, almost unable to feel. Diana’s death allowed me to grieve for my mother by proxy. I was completely aware of it at the time, and profoundly grateful. We were all mourning our unmourned. That’s what our archetypes made flesh are for.

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