Roaming in the graves of academe

August 28, 1998

In life she was chased by the paparazzi and hounded by the media. In death academia is picking over her bones. Kate Worsley reports on the growth of Di-ology.

Whatever happened to that cocktail of instant emotion and kneejerk punditry created by the death of Princess Diana a year ago? The anniversary supplements industry is predictably cranking into action, but while the ghoulish Eurotourist now heads for the Pont d'Alma in Paris, a Diana tour round London has been cancelled due to lack of interest. In Britain at least, that mad week is long gone. Diana has not faded away, though. She has moved onto a higher plane. Academia has claimed her.

To Diana fans this transubstantiation from the tabloids via the broadsheets into the rarified realm of scholarly analysis must seem long overdue. But while in life the media fed well on Diana, academia will now pick her bones clean. Her death preserved her unique position at the intersection of crown and commoner, princess and outcast, victimised and virtuous - even, taking Dodi into account, West and East - at a moment of tantalising mystery. Her over-exposed vacuity has become a deep well of potential meaning for scholars engaged in cultural analysis of everything from the constitution to dreams. Theories are pinned on and measured against her figure, flights of fancy improvised from a simplified tracing of the real woman. One icon fits all.

Crudely put, Diana is now a teaching tool. "Bugger," said one young psychology researcher when she learned of Diana's death. "I'll have to postpone my article on her." But she now uses Diana to illustrate methodology and theoretical issues. "It's something the students enjoy and latch onto."

What is surprising, though, is that, apart from hardcore fans such as Camille Paglia and Elaine Showalter, academics until recently ignored Diana as a public phenomenon. British feminists' socialist streak made it hard for left-of-centre academics to believe that ordinary women could really identify with Diana, or vice versa, in a way that was not simply a form of false consciousness.

The reaction to her death took many in cultural studies by surprise, and much of the subsequent activity has been to do with acknowledging that royalty is as much a part of the nation's psyche as raves and football.

Global reaction - one in three people in the world is reported to have watched the funeral on television - was even more noteworthy. Kent sociologist Mary Evans was on holiday in Spain when Diana died. "The reaction there was extraordinary. Her death dominated the TV in bars, everywhere." She came home the day after the funeral and co-organised Kent's "New sensibilities?" conference, which looked at whether culture had become feminised, and people were indeed more willing to express their emotions publicly.

By the time the conference came around, in February, consensus was that the reaction was a form of mass hysteria. "No one was prepared to say 'I myself mourned'," says Evans. "Everyone talked about issues of projection and women in particular mourning a loss of possibilities. On the whole the audience shared the views of (the speakers) that were very critical of Diana herself and of the idea there had been a real shift in attitudes."

But the scholarly tributes continue to pile up, the latest being a commemorative conference at Goldsmiths this week featuring kindergarten essay tributes from the United States. It is not clear whether Diana can bear the weight of so much scholarly analysis and survive as a serious subject for analysis. The main task now is to work out her place in the larger scheme of things.

Some have attributed the deflation of Diana's public profile to the power of the royal family. "It was always going to be this way, the royal family has won it," says Evans. Others are amassing evidence to support the view that Diana's death was just another socially significant moment.

Bereavement specialist Tony Walter, from Reading University, believes that the nation took part in "fairly standard mourning behaviour. But this is not easily understood by late 20th-century people". His forthcoming book on the mourning for Diana includes a chapter from researcher Doris Francis, who was observing behaviour in cemeteries at the time. "Virtually everything you saw at Kensington Palace goes on every single day in every cemetery in London," says Walter.

"Every 20 or 30 years someone dies who creates this sort of response. Look at Kennedy, Princess Charlotte... (George IV's daughter who died in childbirth in 1817). We have to look at previous mega-mournings before the age of TV. My view is that there is an evolving folk tradition of responses to tragic death and TV is a part of it.This is not something out of the blue."

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