Portrait of a Troubled Princess

By Sally Bedell Smith

Times Books. 451 pp. $25

Reviewed by Charlotte Hays

In a book timed to coincide with the second anniversary of Princess Diana's death in Paris, Sally Bedell Smith provides a tantalizing peek into the living museum that is European royalty and a portrait of Diana as a mentally ill princess.

Wisely, Smith avoids psychobabble by deferring a specific "diagnosis" until the end of the book -- she proposes that Diana suffered from "borderline personality disorder" -- and presents instead a narrative of the troubled princess's travails.

Diana Spencer's torment and violent emotions shocked Prince Charles even before they were married, but by the time the future princess of Wales moved into Clarence House, the Queen Mother's residence, to prepare for her wedding, it was too late. Diana's own parents and siblings, Smith writes, "had too much of a vested interest in a successful royal marriage to probe her feelings."

It is ironic that Diana's mental illness went undetected in the face of so much publicity. Her problems were not far beneath the surface. Indeed, Michael Colborne, an aide to Prince Charles and thus privy to what Charles called her "other side," observed that Diana's "mood swings were quite frightening in a nineteen year old. [They] came from total despair." Diana alternated between tears and silence, "her head buried in her hands." In the months before her marriage, she suffered from the bulimia that would continue to plague her. Her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, whose departure from the Spencer family after a love affair was traumatic for her youngest daughter, recognized the signs but chose to ignore them. Diana began to cut herself with sharp objects, a sign of severe mental illness, in 1982.

Smith paints a terribly sad picture of an unstable young woman whose destiny was sealed by her marriage. "In a sense, she was finished the day of the royal wedding," Colborne said. Though coming from a family of courtiers, Diana badly misjudged what life would be like as the future queen of England. "The royal family is not like us," a friend of Queen Elizabeth's is quoted as saying. "They cannot be, bless their hearts."

While it cannot be said that the royal family has altogether escaped the misfortune of mental illness in its long history, the Windsors were simply the last people on earth capable of dealing with Diana's problems. When Charles had to leave her for official duties, the jealous princess fell into depression.

Smith demolishes as delusions or lies many of Diana's charges against the royal family, which she early on believed was plotting against her. Diana bitterly insisted that her in-laws made no effort to show her the royal ropes. Smith points out that Lady Susan Hussey, one of Queen Elizabeth's most trusted ladies-in-waiting, was assigned to tutor Diana. Diana, however, turned on Hussey, convinced that she was in love with Prince Charles. Smith also successfully refutes Diana's calumny that Charles spent the night before his wedding in the bed of Camilla Parker Bowles. Like Jonathan Dimbleby, Charles's official bio- grapher, Smith thinks that Charles broke off with Parker Bowles before his marriage and resumed the relationship in 1986, when his marriage already had deteriorated.

In addition to all her other problems, Diana had a habit of seeking advice from the most unsuitable sources. Her primary adviser in the matter of the infamous 1995 Panorama interview -- which persuaded the queen that divorce was the only solution for the prince and princess -- was Adrian Ward-Jackson, a London art dealer who had no inside knowledge of royal protocol.

Like Diana, Smith both disparages and depends upon "the hacks" who followed Diana so relentlessly in life. Smith dissects the princess's truly weird relationship with the press, which she alternately courted and despised. Indeed, the narrative picks up when it leaves the confines of Buckingham Palace -- presumably because hacks talk more freely than courtiers. Even the more highbrow scribes were not immune to Diana's charms. After meeting the princess, the acid-penned Auberon Waugh "took Diana's side unreservedly because he fancied her," according to Richard Ingrams, the former editor of Private Eye.

The liveliest parts of the book are about Diana's lesser love affairs, with art dealer Oliver Hoare, whom she harassed with phone calls, and Dr. Hasnat Khan, whose family she visited in Pakistan. (Diana wore disguises to meet Khan in London.) The unemployed Dodi al Fayed -- who unlike the very busy Prince Charles could spend every waking minute with Diana -- comes across as an even sadder character than Diana. Smith is excellent on the choreography -- by Dodi's ambitious and socially outcast father billionaire, Mohammad al Fayed -- of the affair that cost the couple their lives.

A slight fault of this book is that there is not quite as much layered reporting as one has come to expect from Smith, whose biography of Pamela Harriman, Reflected Glory, included even the illuminating financial details of Harriman's life. Smith offers, for example, the tidbit that on his estate Diana's brother Earl Spencer had 120 houses from which Diana could chose a refuge. But Smith doesn't give us enough information about what it means to be Earl Spencer. She always refers to Diana's late father as Johnnie, inadvertently conjuring up the false familiarity of the hordes of people who went on TV to discuss "John" in the more recent celebrity death. Smith's look into the world of royalty is fascinating but just the tiniest bit fleeting.

Still, even though one might have wished that Smith had taken her time and the book had come out on the third anniversary of Diana's death, it is an important achievement. Smith has done an impressive job of winnowing fact from fiction. She is also quite generous to her subject, concluding that "given the extent to which Diana was ruled by her inconstant emotions, the wonder is that she accomplished as much as she did."

Charlotte Hays is editor of the Women's Quarterly. She is writing a book on the dazzling marriages of the 20th century.