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The personal history of Diana before the Windsors was, of course, a premonition of the life of Diana the princess. In 1982, the year after the royal wedding, the journalist Penny Junor was almost apologetic about writing the biography of a 20-year-old "who has spent 19 of those years in almost total obscurity." What kind of life could possibly be told? And yet the details she related then possess a fatalistic glow now, hinting at the troubled Diana who would emerge over the next 15 years. While admiring of its subject, Junor's book nevertheless draws attention to Diana's imperfect virtues. "Diana was a compulsive washer," Junor wrote matter-of-factly, before cataloging how, in boarding school, Diana would not let a day go by without bathing, no matter how late it was, sneaking into the bathroom after lights were out even though it was strictly forbidden by the school, which allowed the girls to shower only three times a week. "She also had a compulsion for washing clothes" and did more washing than any other student at school When she had time to visit her sisters, Diana would do their laundry too. After her marriage, she would write to an ex-nanny saying, "I do get annoyed at not being able to do my washing and general ironing." At nine years old, she was dusting the nursery to keep a less than thorough nanny out of trouble when her father came to check the room. Goodness may explain some of this fastidiousness. But only some. After all, this girl became the woman who admitted to bulimia and a regular program of colonic irrigation.
The child Diana, like the adult princess, had a capacity for drama and a penchant to seek comeuppance locking a hated nanny in a room where she would not be discovered till evening, throwing the underclothes of an au pair onto the roof of the house and watching with glee as the items were rescued. She was an indifferent student: she froze at exams, was terrible at French, even did badly at needlework. But her limitations would serve her well. A penchant for popular culture and romance novels cultivated what many would later praise as her "common touch," her ability to talk to ordinary people about things they cared about. In school she was recognized as a do-gooder and received seldom-awarded prizes for helpfulness. As a teenager, she learned quickly that loving children was not the same as being able to care for them. She took her training as a kindergarten teacher very seriously.
She was aware of how things failed to work even things inspired by love. The infidelities and disappointments that befell her family were proof enough. Her mother lost custody of her children because the court saw fit to punish her for adultery. Her father chose to marry a woman his children detested. Diana knew what it was like to be six years old and unable to explain to her friends why her mother was no longer around, how even her most courageous front could snap in a fit of anger. She knew what it was to be caught crying in secret. But she wanted to get family right. And when, one day, her prince came, she believed she had her opportunity, risked all, stumbled into the very nightmare she had sought to escape and lost.
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." that declaration comes down to us from the magisterial heights of Tolstoy. But it is a false one. The happy family is a protean myth, shifting shape with the fashion of the times. The reality is that every unhappy family is alike. And, alas, unhappy families abound, trapped in cycles of aspiration and disappointment, of love and loss. The most augustly unhappy family in the world thus becomes a spectacular mirror for us all.
That is what is at the heart of our grief: simpler and yet more profound than a fascination with splendor; cosmic and yet as close to us as our parents, our brothers, our sisters, our children. In the ruins of Diana's life, we see the shadows and anxieties of the lives we are trying to build together as husbands, as wives, as sons, as daughters. We shudder over our sorrow for Diana as if we were caught in paroxysms of self-pity. In embarrassment, we deny. In truth, we recognize.
Gerard Manley Hopkins voiced the emotion perfectly:
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed ...
It is the plight we were born for. It is ourselves we mourn for.