In the late summer of 1997, I fled Washington with twenty linear feet of files, a Toshiba laptop, and two magnums of Kentucky’s finest, and hightailed it to Divine Redeemer rectory in Hanahan, South Carolina. There, for a busy week, Father Jay Scott Newman generously provided southern and Catholic hospitality while I tried to figure out how to fit the extraordinarily busy life of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, inside the covers of a publishable book. The result was a 124-page outline that stood up well when I got to writing Witness to Hope. My keenest memory of that period, though, is of sitting with Father Newman at night, sipping a meditative bourbon, turning on the news, and watching an entire country — Great Britain — have a nervous breakdown in the wake of the death of the Princess of Wales, killed in a Paris auto accident.
Some of the essential background to that staggering week in September 1997 comes into lurid, fascinating focus in Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles (Doubleday). I’m not usually an admirer of Ms. Brown’s buzz-driven style of journalism, with its combination of salaciousness and archness. Yet, despite salaciousness in spades, The Diana Chronicles is full of genuine insight into the wreckage caused by dysfunctional noble families in an age of media prurience, an age in which the only real aristocracy is what Ms. Brown neatly dubs “the aristocracy of exposure.”
In the Victorian 19th century, English editor and political theorist Walter Bagehot wrote that “a princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and, as such, it rivets mankind.” That Bagehotism, endlessly repeated when the Prince of Wales married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, now seems an indictment of gullibility. For as The Diana Chronicles makes painfully clear, Charles-and-Diana was a disaster-in-the-making long before Earl Spencer walked his youngest daughter up the aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Emotional immaturity, intellectual incompatibility, false expectations, and adulteries on an epic scale combined to send the wheels flying off Cinderella’s carriage, quickly; the outcome ultimately proved as lethal to one of the parties as the marriage was wretchedly unhappy for both.
Bagehot, dedicated servant of the monarchy, was also a successful magazine editor. Yet this accomplished journalist warned his fellow-scribes that “we must not let daylight in upon the magic” — lest the monarchical magic shatter. That, Tina Brown suggests, is precisely what a desperate Diana tried to do: to shatter the monarchy by letting in, not just daylight, but the harsh floodlight of tabloid publicity, aimed at all the royals she felt had betrayed her. She could try, because, as Brown notes, the British monarchy had “changed from an institution of power to one of representative virtue” — and was thus far more vulnerable to tales of tawdriness. Diana’s revelations of Life Among the Windsors didn’t destroy the monarchy in her lifetime. But they helped create a media climate that blasted the public reputation of her ex-husband into smithereens, with consequences that can’t be foreseen.
So now the whole nasty story is out — or is it? For, while reading The Diana Chronicles, I kept remembering those nights in Hanahan, and the British national nervous breakdown. What was that all about?
That’s not a question Tina Brown satisfactorily answers, perhaps because she doesn’t explore the spiritual emptiness of so much of contemporary British life. That emptiness helped wreck the Wales’ marriage; it was embodied, with unintentional irony, in the decision to have Sir Elton John sing at Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, scants yards from the mortal remains of Edward the Confessor. A historic Christian nation that has abandoned, culturally, its biblical heritage confronts a public tragedy, and what happens? The quiet courage of the Battle of Britain — “England can take it” — gives way to mass hysteria. An entire country becomes, for a week at least, a front-page tabloid wail.
Diana’s cultural revolution continues, as does the prurience of the British press; both previously played important roles in shaping the post-Christian society of 21st century Britain. The long-term effects on that sceptered isle are not likely to be happy ones.