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The Princess and the Fractured Fairy Tale

By Christopher Hitchens
The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 23, 1992; Page C01

DIANA: Her True Story
By Andrew Morton
Simon & Schuster. 167 pp. $22

DIANA: A Princess and Her Troubled Marriage
By Nicholas Davies
Birch Lane Press. 368 pp. $21.95

The British public, renowned for its kindness to animals, apparently insists on the regular sacrifice of a human family. At least once every generation, a young princeling or princess is kept, like any Aztec or Inca monarch, in a gilded cage from which the only release is death. Our time of progress and improvement has, naturally, added certain refinements. The doomed royal person may be faced with the hopeless choice: Give up your freedom and happiness for the crown, or give up the crown for your freedom and happiness. And remember that your ordeal will be recorded in excruciating detail. Thus Edward VIII, a pro-Nazi wastrel and slob, was considered perfect monarch material by the Establishment until he craved a Baltimore divorcee. Thus Princess Margaret, sister of the present queen, was told by the palace that she could not marry the love of her life, a dashing airman named Group Capt. Peter Townsend, because he too had been married before. Thus Princess Margaret's nephew, Prince Charles, was told to find a wife before he was 40 and hastily picked a disco-loving airhead who was, at the time of their first meeting, exactly half his age.

Now mark the sequel. The same Queen Elizabeth II, who unsmilingly ruled against her sister's happiness and in favor of "family values," has to face in the autumn of her life the fact that her own marriage is a notorious pretense; the fact that the marriage of her only daughter has ended in a messy divorce; the fact that her two eldest sons are involved in sordid and boring pre-divorce routines and the fact that her youngest son looks as though he may not marry at all. Score one for the hereditary principle, which is the font of monarchy, aristocracy and the British class system and thus has graver implications than the bulimia and hysteria of the much-photographed Diana Spencer.

If you care to read about bulimia and hysteria, Andrew Morton and Nicholas Davies have done what Fleet Street reflexively calls a "right royal" job. Thrill as the Spencer girl gorges and pukes. Gasp as she hurls herself, gravid with child, down the stairs of a palace that credulous taxpayers keep in business. Cringe as you realize that "fairy tale" is precisely the right term for this romance scripted by the brothers Grimm.

Morton is a specialist at the unintentionally hilarious. In "Diana: Her True Story," he leans heavily on the breathless testimony of James Gilbey, "a member of the distilling dynasty who has known Diana since she was 17" and who told him:

"She said to me recently that she hadn't made any date in her diary past July because she doesn't think she is going to be there." This, according to Morton, made him bring his book publication forward. And though it's never made clear whether "there" is a reference to this vale of tears or the House of Windsor (the difference may be slight), what emerges is a picture of the perfect mesalliance between those two stock British characters, the buffer and the debutante; he, old before his time and she, a spoiled brat who sulks at the "duty" part of her ostentation and privilege. What a symbol for an ancient and dignified people. The lineage of Mrs. Simpson is carried on by this imperishable Mortonian observation:

"As Oonagh Toffolo, who once nursed the Duke of Windsor and regularly visits Diana for sessions of acupuncture and meditation, observes: 'She is a prisoner of the system just as surely as any woman incarcerated in Holloway jail.' "

I haven't the advantage of having met Oonagh Toffolo, but I can tell that she's never been near Holloway jail (where convicts are kept, according to quaint English custom "at Her Majesty's pleasure"). Still, this passage and others make it clear that the fond illusion -- of a vulgar war between the royal family and the gutter press -- is now quite unsustainable. Princess Diana is for all intents and purposes the author of Morton's servile and scandalous book. These are her friends, using her direct quotes at her express request. So much has been amply confirmed since publication. The Spencer girl wants us to know that "there were days when she had her fortune read and her astrological traits analysed every few hours. She tried to live her life by their predictions; her volatile spirit clinging to every scrap of solace in their musings." In other words (and to betray a well-kept national secret) it's not that the supermarket rags intrude into royal doings; it's that there is an alliance between the two and that the sort of people who adore astrology and supermarket trash also adore the dysfunctional House of Windsor.

Nicholas Davies, for instance, who became briefly famous a while ago as the Robert Maxwell journalist named by Seymour Hersh as an Iran-Israeli arms dealer, is also a polo-playing friend of Prince Charles's. His rather more objective book, "Diana: A Princess and Her Troubled Marriage," which contains very much the same grade of information, must therefore rank as one of the stoutest abuses of hospitality on record. I especially loved this vignette from the formative years of the Spencer girl:

"There were six servants, including a full time cook, and from an early age the children seemed to live on pheasant for lunch."

Small wonder, then, that Diana is now so keen on getting back in touch with her inner child, complete with tantrums, "cries for help" and nursery orgies. The heir to the throne, meanwhile, pursues his own version of the New Age by holding conversations with shrubs and frequenting the company of dubious mystics. "The firm," as the queen stoically refers to the royal family, meanwhile runs badly to seed.

Intended as it is for a mass family audience, this genre tends to hint rather than allege about the baser passions. Thus there is hushed talk about "separate beds" and "constant companions," and a fine bestiary of double and even triple-barreled names. It's clear enough that Diana prefers the company of the more spirited members of the Travolta generation, where Charles inclines to the tried and tested wives of the various maris complaisants who sportingly gave him a start in these matters. Of our need to know this, or be told it by a publicly funded showbiz princess, I prefer to say nothing.

There's a fascinating subtext, which neither author is able to recognize or develop. We learn at one point that the Spencer girl has formed an attachment to Mother Teresa, but that she went straight from a meeting with her to "promoting family planning issues." Then it emerges that Diana "asked the Pope about his 'wounds' during a private audience in the Vatican shortly after he had been shot. He thought she was talking about her 'womb' and congratulated her on her impending new arrival." English law forbids the royal family to become Catholic or marry a Catholic, and appoints the monarch the head of the church as well as the state and the armed forces in order to continue Henry VIII's vendetta against the Vatican. To talk family planning with Mother Teresa and wombs with His Holiness is surely pushing this tradition, inherited like the rest of it from feudalism and sectarianism, a bit far.

Davies cites an opinion poll taken a year ago that found 22 percent of the entire British population, and 60 percent of the younger generation, giving more or less republican answers to the silly questions they were asked about their unhappy, spendthrift figurehead family. Random observation suggests that this proportion has not diminished in the meantime. Can it be that, faced with the ghastly alliance between Fleet Street populism and enervated royalism, the British public has finally done what the Spencer girl cannot do, and started to grow up?

The reviewer, a columnist for Harper's and the Nation, is the author of "The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favorite Fetish."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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