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The Once and Future Princess

Most of the discussion of the recent televised interview given by the Princess of Wales, and of the royal separation to which it deliberately drew renewed attention, has been, as one might expect, superficial and partisan: for or against Diana, for or against Charles, for or against divorce, for or against the monarchy, for or against the BBC. It has also been as narrow-minded and short-sighted as such “instant analysis” tends to be. On the one hand, it has been generally concluded that while her interview was a sensational performance, the Princess actually said very little that was new. On the other, it is now widely believed that a divorce must take place, and that it will clarify an impossible situation. But a more considered reaction to the interview suggests that the first of these conclusions is incorrect, while serious reflection on the consequences of divorce implies that the second conclusion is no less inadequate.

Despite the fact that Diana had clearly been well-prepared for her appearance, it revealed for the first time, and no doubt did so quite unintentionally, the extent of her confusion about herself and her job. She is admired, she said, for being a “strong woman,” but much of the account she gave of her thoughts and actions belied that. She presented herself as a devoted mother, but do devoted mothers give interviews as candid as this one was? She said she hopes the Prince of Wales will find peace, but many of her other comments hardly seemed designed to assist him in this quest. And how are we to reconcile her claims that she is not a “destructive” person, and that she believes in the monarchy’s future, with her avowed determination to “fight to the end,” and with the damage to the throne which her behavior has already caused?

Nor does she seem any more clear about her present occupation or future job. She says she would like to be a roving ambassador for Britain. But this was just the vague and plausible-sounding position vainly sought by the Duke of Windsor, another hapless royal (of whom more later)—hardly a convincing or encouraging precedent. She says she wants to hug people and to give them love: but this is the language of her step-grandmother, Barbara Cartland, and it mistakenly presumes that monarchy is primarily about therapy and social work. And when she says that she wants to be “a queen of peoples’ hearts, in peoples’ hearts,” we have reached depths of pious platitude and vacuous phrasemaking that have not been plumbed since Prince Charles informed us that he wanted to be “defender of faith.”

When we consider the sort of life she has lived these last fifteen years or so, it is hardly surprising that the Princess of Wales is mixed up. In this, at least, she resembles her husband: that sad, bewildered, vain, unsure, and petulant person of the television documentary and book by Jonathan Dimbleby. Whatever allowances we may make for their low morale and their understandable sense of failure, the fact remains that neither the Princess (as we can now see) nor the Prince (as we have long known) seems to know why they are here or what they are supposed to be doing—and they probably share this lack of knowledge about themselves with an increasingly large proportion of their nation’s population.

Clarity” is what the Princess of Wales called for in her interview, and there is certainly ample need for it in defining the jobs they do. But her main concern was for “clarity” about their three-year-long non-marriage and non-divorce. Of course, three years is a long time for anyone to be in such uncertain circumstances. And since the Prince of Wales was irresolute about taking a bride, it seems unlikely that he will be any more resolute about getting rid of her. After all, he could long since have done so already. But even if he finally screws up his courage to start divorce proceedings, it is highly unlikely that divorce will bring the “clarity” that is now being rather belatedly called for. On the contrary, it may well create as many new problems and pitfalls as it solves or eliminates.

To be sure, divorce would mean that the Princess of Wales was no longer the wife of the future king, and so we would all be spared the grotesque sight of her being crowned alongside her husband at Westminster Abbey. But whether they stay separated or become divorced, the fact remains that Diana will continue to be the mother of another future king who will one day succeed his father (or maybe even his grandmother). Inevitably and unavoidably, this gives rise to intractable long-term problems which no one seems willing to recognize or discuss or think through.

In Charles’s case, divorce would merely give him the freedom to bring upon himself (and the monarchy) a new and protracted sequence of further public relations disasters. What would it do to his shaky public standing to initiate divorce proceedings against his wife’s clearly expressed wishes? What will be the reaction if he stays with, but doesn’t marry, Mrs. Parker-Bowles? Or if he does make her his wife? Are King Charles and Queen (or “Queen Consort”) Camilla a credible prospect? Would the Church of England have to be disestablished in order for them to become so? There are no easy, agreed-upon, or predictable answers to questions such as these. Which is merely to say that on Charles’s side, a royal divorce will neither sort things out nor quiet them down. Quite the contrary.

Meanwhile, what would become of a divorced Princess of Wales? What could be done with or about her? Once upon a time, it was easy to eliminate royals who had made difficulties or who had outlived their usefulness. They were executed (Mary, Queen of Scots); they were incarcerated (George I’s wife, for adultery); or they were exiled (the Duke of Windsor). But in the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, none of these options can be possible or plausible for dealing with a divorced Diana. No wonder she intends “to fight to the end”: for who or what is there to stop her? Nor should we forget that before long, Prince William will come of age, and he may well have strong views about how his mother has been treated in the past—and about how she should be treated in the future.

Unless she loses her cool completely (and her interview gave little indication that that is likely), the Princess of Wales is going to remain both a celebrity and William’s mother for a very long time. As such, she cannot fail to be a constant, visible reproach to Prince Charles, whom she still shows an unerring capacity to upstage. After all, she is scarcely one third the age of the Queen mother, and she may have sixty more years of life in which to bide her time and play a long game. Even if she lives only another forty years, she will survive the Queen and her generation, and probably Charles and Camilla as well. The way will then be open for her to appear in triumph at her son’s coronation, and to be the undisputed matriarch of his early reign. This would indeed be revenge.

In the long term, time is more on the side of the Princess of Wales than it is on her husband’s. But in the short and medium term, all this is bound to be extremely disruptive for the monarchy—whether Charles and Diana divorce, or whether they do not. Either way, they will be inextricably linked together through their elder son for as long as they live, and as a result it is difficult to see how further damage can be avoided—to themselves, to their children, and to the monarchy. Divorce may be got out of the way, but this will only cause a whole new set of difficulties, any of which, fanned by the tabloids, the weeklies, and television, is bound to cause the House of Windsor continued embarrassment.

From this perspective, it is instructive—but not encouraging—to compare the Prince and Princess of Wales and their problems with that earlier wretched royal couple, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. At the time, the abdication was a sensation, and their long, sad exile afterward was by turns painful and infuriating. But set beside the difficulties created by Charles and Diana, those of Edward and Wallis could be dealt with relatively easily. He had given up the throne, and there was no prospect of his regaining it. They were married, stayed together, and produced no children, which meant that their problems died with them. They were successfully exiled, they were relatively discreet, and the press was far less intrusive then than it is now. As such, they were on the receiving end of a remarkably effective and sustained exercise in royal damage limitation.

But with Charles and Diana, there is not the remotest prospect of such a successful outcome. He has yet to become king, and he is clearly going to need to be helped along to the throne (perhaps by Mrs. Parker-Bowles, perhaps not), and who knows how many more royal bricks he will let fall along the way? Diana is the mother of the next king but one (or perhaps the next king), the press will continue for the foreseeable future to be captivated by her public and her private life, and it is not clear what the Palace will be able to do to control or contain her. And before very long, the children of this ill-starred union are going to develop opinions of their own about their parents, which will not necessarily remain confidential. Compared with this, the abdication of Edward and its aftermath were a garden party.

The lessons to be drawn from the Princess of Wales’s interview are two, and both should be the despair of courtiers and royalists, and the delight of tabloid editors and republicans. One is that neither the Princess nor the Prince of Wales has much idea of what they are doing and where they are going. The other is that while divorce may become as necessary as separation was three years ago, it will change or solve very little that is really important, and merely be the prelude to a whole new set of difficulties for the Palace. Far from being—as some hope and others fear—the end of the monarchy, this sad, sordid story is going to run on and on and on. To say that this is an appalling prospect is cause neither for Schadenfreude nor for sensationalism. It is just how things are inescapably going to be.

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