Temple of Diana

August 28, 1998

Elaine Showalter joined the pilgrimage to Diana's grave at Althorp, where the Spencer family has reclaimed the princess as one of its own.

I was in the United States when Princess Diana was killed and, in the following week, despite a flood of coverage from the American media and the accessibility of British newspapers on the Internet, I often wished I could be back in London to witness at first hand the extraordinary scenes of mourning and to be present at what seemed a historic occasion. Because I have written about hysterical epidemics, The Guardian asked me to write about whether the "Diana effect'' was a case of mass hysteria. The quiet crowds in the Mall and at Kensington Palace did not look hysterical to me; they were not fainting, trying to grab relics or tearing up the grass.

But what did seem uncanny was that Diana should have died at the Salpetri re - the Paris hospital where hysteria was first diagnosed and publicised in the 1880s and 1890s, and where Freud had studied under the direction of the great neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. The most celebrated hysterics of the Salpetri re were beautiful and unhappy young women, some suffering eating disorders, whose body language Charcot charted, photographed in a special atelier, and displayed at weekly public demonstrations. Parisian artists, journalists, and intellectuals come to watch the "Queen of the Hysterics", Blanche Wittman, the star and the prisoner of the Salpetri re. Now Diana had become the prey of the paparazzi, celebrity and victim, a figure as controversial and cathartic as Sylvia Plath.

I welcomed the opportunity this summer to see the memorial to Diana at Althorp. A year after her death, the atmosphere was very different from the solemn emotion of the funeral procession, when Diana's hearse travelled to Northampton on a road of flowers. The train was almost empty; the taxi driver who took us out to the estate said that there had been a steady flow of visitors of all nationalities during the summer, but mostly arriving by car or coach. And in contrast to the spontaneous ritual and populist mood of the Mall, Althorp is a carefully planned and controlled environment, where security staff, looking like they'd stepped out of ads from Country Life in their Barbour jackets, carefully checked out credentials with the main office over walkie-talkies, and warned me not to interview any visitors or staff. Inside Althorp House, a tourist taking a video was stopped and asked to erase the tape.

Visitors to Althorp were reserved and decorous; as at any stately home, they kept themselves to themselves, without the communal exchange that was so striking in the week before the funeral. Any unusual display stood out; as we entered, a group of six women, bedecked with heavy jewellery, gold handbags, and that great British footwear classic, the Marks and Spencer Footglove in gold, showed their tickets too. "Here come the Golden Girls,'' said a voice on the walkie-talkie. Most of the visitors appeared to be British; tickets for July and August were sold out long ago. There were family groups with young children, elderly couples, teenagers. Many carried bouquets of flowers to leave at Diana's grave.

The Diana exhibit, with its childhood memorabilia, home and professional videos, and gowns, is housed in the Italianate stables, described by Nicholas Pevsner as "the finest pieces of architecture at Althorp''. Then the route goes on to Althorp House, and from there through an arboretum to the Round Oval, with a large urn marking the burial place on the tiny island. At the far end of the lake, a little temple, dating from 1901, has been transformed into a Diana shrine. On both sides are heaped the summer's floral offerings, in various stages of colour and decay; and here, too, are notes and pictures.

Unlike the unscripted events of the funeral week, the Diana memorial, like other monuments, museums and commemorative sites, reflects a particular vision of history. The message of Althorp is that Diana has been wholly reclaimed by the Spencers, returned, as Earl Spencer writes in the guidebook, to the "most beautiful of settings, where she is most truly in context''. In his family narrative, the Windsors have been almost edited out, and Diana is represented as an embodiment of the independence, nobility, and beauty of the Spencer women. Spencer's key term for the effect he desired seems to be "peacefulness". Indeed the turbulence of Diana's life - unhappy childhood, the marriage, bulimia, infidelity, divorce, recovery - is represented only metaphorically through images of her charity work.

Earl Spencer's elegant interpretation of Diana's text and context has been praised even by the irascible Brian Sewell, but to many British intellectuals it will seem like sentimentality masking exploitation. Competing narratives about the meaning of mass mourning and its significance for the nation began to appear in the press almost immediately after Diana's death, and have multiplied ever since. In Granta, dissenters sniped at "recreational grieving", "grief-lite", "floral fascism", "a feeding frenzy''. In The New Yorker, Julian Barnes sneered at the "truly dreadful poems'' pinned to bouquets and Adam Gupnick mocked the "Jeff Koons-style kitsch'' of the improvised shrines. While some observers were struck by the heterogeneity of the crowd, others insisted they were all tourists, tabloid readers, or the British equivalent of trailer trash. "Nobody I knew bought flowers, wrote a condolence message, or joined the crowds in the streets,'' reported Dorothy Thompson. "Few watched the televised funeral.'' In The Nation, Alexander Cockburn extended the "Not One of Us" test to the "appalling'' Al Fayed family and Diana's "awful father".

By November 1997, academics had joined the business of placing Diana in context, through symposia, conferences, lecture series, and special issues of journals. Inevitably, these analyses would be sceptical and critical. As Oxford historian Ross McKibbin noted in the London Review of Books, academics were "taught not to be able to understand such 'irrational' phenomena as the reaction to Diana's death''. I heard much indignation from British academics about what they perceived as the emotional tyranny of the mass media. As Elizabeth Wilson (cultural studies, University of North London) writes: "There was something very unpleasant about the way in which the Royal Family was bullied and hounded for not displaying emotion in the way in which the tabloids approved (and I say that as a convinced Republican)." But surely the monarchy is a symbolic institution, expected to display emotion in a stylised, public way.

Moreover, academics were likely to see Diana as tainted by privilege and politically incorrect. At a feminist conference in London in January 1988, I was booed when I cited Diana and Margaret Thatcher as under-rated feminist heroines of our era. Now Diana-bashing seems to be the cool style, and even stand-up comedians at the Edinburgh Festival have got into the act. After Diana: Irreverent Elegies, edited by Mandy Merck and published by Verso, is somewhere between academia and alternative comedy. The publisher's press release aims for irreverence, emphasising "the vast slew of schmaltz that surrounded Diana's death'' and the "mawkish and maudlin sentimentality of the Diana cult''. Indeed, the essayists' quips about Dianology, Dianists, and even Diarrhea confirm this mix of prejudice, laddish defiance and cheap shots. Glen Newey (philosophy, University of Sussex) calls Diana a "world-class airhead''. Christopher Hitchens, in "Princess Di, Mother T., and Me", happily describes his own 15 minutes of fame as a TV talk hitman.

But not all of the 22 essays are as silly as the publicity implies. When academics are using their intellectual skills of close reading rather than parading their narcissism or opinions, the matter of Diana offers fresh insights and connections. Naomi Segal (French studies, University of Reading) makes a brilliant, attentive start in psychological understanding of Diana by looking at her bingeing as a behavioural stage she outgrew, and as a symbol of emotional emptiness. Food, Diana told Martin Bashir, "gives you a feeling of comfort, it's like having a pair of arms around you". Eventually Diana learned to assuage her emptiness with an embrace of others. "Certain hints suggest,'' she writes, "that Diana could only begin the work of touching after she had finished with her eating disorder."

In a fine essay, cultural historian Judith Williamson ruefully admits that academics, too, "have a powerful need to make sense of things, to find stories that explain and connect what happens in our world''. But Diana's death was "an accident, a completely senseless occurrence''. Such events defy our rationality. For the mourners, she suggests, "the drive to go physically to the Palace and other landmarks has perhaps been an attempt to grasp something more solid - a run on the bank of the Real".

As a literary historian and critic, I am puzzled by the difficulty so many intellectuals seem to have with the intensity of emotion millions of people felt at the death of a woman they had never met. For women especially, I think, the longing for three-dimensional heroines, not saints or Mother Teresas, often attaches itself to fictional characters like Jane Eyre. We all knew more about Princess Diana than we know about most fictional heroines.

Even in the context of summer 1997, the response to her death should have come as no surprise. I remember that when Mario Testino's pictures of her were published in Vanity Fair, I walked into my neighbourhood hairdresser's in London to find all the stylists and customers minutely analysing the pages. Moreover, all summer of 1997, everyone I knew was reading and talking about the columns of journalists Ruth Picardie and John Diamond, writing about their struggles with cancer. These strangers had revealed themselves to us in the media and become real to us.

The psychiatrist Anthony Clare explained the emotional investment clearly and compassionately in the Irish Sunday Independent on the day of the funeral: "Those who remain baffled by the phenomenon, or dismiss and deride it with knowing references to mass hysteria and the cult of personality, underestimate the fact that in this age of mass communication and social fragmentation it is perfectly possible, nay inevitable, for people to feel that someone they see daily on their television screens, who acts out the vicissitudes of contemporary life - love and betrayal, selfishness and compassion, exuberance and depression - in a bold dramatic sweep becomes from time to time the carrier, the mirror, the comrade of our hopes and fears, our desires and anxieties".

But Diana's story, as many have noted, cannot be firmly moored to a particular context, whether mass communication, coming-out narratives, authoritarian populism or soap opera. Even the context of Althorp and the Spencer family cannot entirely contain and shape the future of Diana's temple. Like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, it is already a symbolic space where people will inscribe their own message. By this time next year, we may be reading After Althorp.

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