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In the Royal Line, a Story Without Peers

By Flora Fraser

Sunday, September 7, 1997; Page C01

LONDON—As long ago as the 1860s, the English journalist Walter Bagehot wrote, "A republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a monarchy." If that it so, it does not often come up for air. But when it does, watch out! Last week, the people of England took the helm of government. From the shrines to Diana, Princess of Wales, in Kensington Gardens and from the queues outside St. James's Palace, they directed events. And yesterday, the millions outside Westminster Abbey led those inside in spontaneous applause.

Such changes in mood are startling moments in England's history. On May 29, 1660, Charles II rode into London to bells and to every sign of public rejoicing at the restoration of the monarchy following Cromwell's republic. "Ah, I see I should have come long ago," he quipped. King Charles came as a prodigal son -- a reminder that the relationship between monarchy and public is at heart a family affair. It is quite impossible to conjure up the surprise that everyone here feels at what they feel at the death of Diana.

Daily life in England resumes tomorrow, and Diana's life -- and death -- are now material for a different breed of royal watchers, the historians and biographers. As a biographer myself, from a family of royal biographers, I find myself speculating already whether she has earned a place in the history books. Did Diana "make a difference" -- the current qualification for inclusion?

Perhaps her life is rather the stuff of legend. My thoughts turn to personal correspondence and diaries, the reassuring building blocks of historical biography. Diana's was a different world, where primary research must include TV and radio interviews, video footage and all those photographs. To a biographer of 18th-century figures, this material is unfamiliar, strangely impersonal and daunting in volume. If Diana the person is at once familiar and elusive, can we at least place her in a royal historical context?

The princess was a meteor on the humanitarian scene, and, while remaining within royal tradition, she broke with tradition -- an outsider's prerogative. Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert, too, ruffled feathers; he attracted the same criticism in the 1840s for his efforts to modernize the monarchy as Diana endured in the 1990s.

Bagehot argued that royalty's mystery was its life: "We must not let in the daylight upon magic." Diana threw open all the curtains, and it seemed more magical than ever! But in her smiling wake came change and the unexpected. And the queen is constitutionally resistant to change.

In a curious way, the tensions between two generations and two styles came to a head last week. In 1952, at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth's father, King George VI, the veiled images of the young queen (then a girl), of the widowed queen mother, and of Queen Mary touched the nation. Stoicism, dignity and silent suffering were then virtues -- and virtues consecrated by the war years. Last week, public opinion wanted something different. The queen and the palace were forced to respond to the somber mob and bow to its wishes -- for her majesty's early return to London and for a public tribute to the dead princess.

But the public appetite for mourning has not always been so strong. Queen Victoria was criticized for abandoning herself to grief after Albert died in 1861. Indeed, Red Republicans marched in Hyde Park 10 years later, when the Widow of Windsor still refused to take her place on the public stage. The queen's veneration of her dead consort extended to making a shrine of the room where he died. This was behavior learned from her uncle Leopold, whose wife Princess Charlotte had shocked the nation by dying in childbirth in 1817. He ordered that the very bonnet and cloak Charlotte had been wearing when labor pains came on stay where she had dropped them.

The death of Princess Charlotte brought public sorrow for the loss of one so young and disquiet about the monarchy's future. With Diana, there is also an element of anger, focusing on perceived wrongs. And this takes us back with uncanny ease to the Queen Caroline affair of 1820. For in family quarrels -- and the recent dissension within the royal family is as familiar to us as our own -- ancient wrongs are eagerly revisited.

The perception that Queen Caroline had, as Princess of Wales, been hounded from her home by her husband the Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent, was so strong that it would be invoked 25 years later as a reproach to then-King George IV. Similarly, the isolation of Diana was rehearsed time without number in this last week. Forget the rights or wrongs of either case. Both princesses, unruly to the end, were supreme politicians who ran rings around their husbands in the business of mobilizing public opinion. And in neither case could the Palace and Tory ministers detect the least simmering in the public mood when they took measures to exclude the princesses from the inner royal circle.

We know that Diana wanted to be queen of peoples' hearts, a position she now occupies. Will the events of her tumultuous life and death, the respectful millions who attended her funeral, shrivel in due course to a sentence in the history book? Queen Caroline told her lawyer days before her own sudden death in 1821 and weeks after she had stormed her husband's coronation in Westminster Abbey, "I am dying, Mr. Brougham, but it does not signify." Her story lives after her, however, rich in incident, charged with significance and almost impossible to believe. And this is how I think Diana will survive. The story of her life -- and of her death -- is so extraordinary that it will be told in generations to come, and those who hear it will gape and stretch their eyes to hear such things.

Flora Fraser is the author of "The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline" (Knopf).

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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