Maybe I’d be better off writing a ‘tell-all’ biography of Princess Diana

I’ve just parked up a chapter on Princess Diana that will eventually end up in my new book about the 1980s.  I’ve been writing the chapter for a long time and I’m not sure I’ve finished it – but it is definitely not getting any better for now  so I better leave it alone.  I’ve read more books on Diana in the last couple of months than I ever dreamed likely.  The more I worked through the pile of unauthorised biographies and memoirs, the more the lines between the two sorts of books began to blur.  It became harder to tell when people were writing about Diana, and when they were writing about themselves.  I should also add, the more I read the less of an idea of what she was ‘really like’ I had. Although to be honest that wasn’t what I was looking for and it isn’t really what I’m interested in.  What I’m interested in is how and why these books sell the idea of the Real Diana. Whilst academic approaches have tended to displace the Real Diana, by analysing what she signified and why people cared about her.  Popular biographies and memoirs market their access to the ‘real woman’ underneath; who she was.

Each of the biographies and memoirs I read tried to sell me a new bit of insight into the Real Diana. I’ve read memoirs from her butler, housekeeper, fashion designers, body guards, press officerspress photographers , journalists, private secretary, and relatives by marriage.  I’ve also learnt how to keep my tiara on, how to do my make-up so I don’t look like I’m blushing and how to dress for a formal banquet when pregnant.  It is as if the scale of the disclosures about Diana’s personal life could dislodge her public image by their sheer weight alone.  It isn’t even clear where Diana’s public role and her private life meet in these books; anonymous interviews are given to biographers ‘off the record’, quotes from a ‘friend’ turn out to be directly from Diana or Charles, various insiders sell their secrets to the world.  The line between what constitutes an authorised and an unauthorised biography imploded when it came to light that Andrew Morton’s ‘unauthorised’ biography (Diana: Her True Story, 1992) was in fact very authorised.  It was originally marketed as being as close to an autobiography as the readers would ever get.  The illustrations used, family photographs from the Spencer family album, rather than the paparazzi shots and official portraiture used in most biographies, added a sense of the inside, hitherto unheard domestic story.  In fact, Morton’s book was so authorised that it turned out most of the words had come straight from Diana herself. It was ultimately more of a memoir than a biography.

As a type of source, these memoirs and biographies aren’t just books.  For a start most people found out about their main revelations in TV chat shows, newspaper coverage and exclusive deals around their publication rather than by reading them.  But more than that, these books are also historical actors themselves.  Publish one, and things happen.   In the last years of  Charles and Diana’s marriage a game of disclosure ‘tag’ played out across different forms of media: newspaper exclusives, television interviews, memoirs,  biographies, staged photographs.  So, running backwards Diana’s interview with Martin Bashir for Panorama in 1995, was a response to Charles’s interview with Jonathon Dimbleby in 1994, which was itself a retort to Morton’s book that was serialised in The Sunday Times in June 1992.

Morton’s book sold 2 million hardback copies. A new paperback edition in 1993 included a new chapter and new images.  Diana: Her New Life followed the next year. A ubiquitous post-death new edition come out in 1997.  In the editions after her death Morton added a new sub-title; ‘In Her Own Words’ and retrospectively called up Diana’s official backing by explaining how much she had appreciated the styling of the book.  In the forward to the 2009 edition Morton says that ‘she appreciated…, the fact that, in order to make the book truly distinctive, we had to have a hitherto unpublished jacket picture. As it was out of the question that she could attend a photo shoot, she herself chose and supplied the winsome Patrick Demarchelier cover photograph, which was one she kept in her study at Kensington Palace. (Morton, p27)


Morton’s was not the first or only unauthorised biography to market itself on details of Charles’ and Diana’s collapsing marriage. In fact the market differences in the subsequent books were pretty much set up by Penny Junor (Charles and Diana: Portrait of a Marriage) in 1991 and Nicholas Davies and Lady Colin Campbell in 1992.  From this point on Diana’s affairs, bulimia, alleged suicide attempts, emotional outbursts and speculation around Diana’s mental health became standard content in academic and popular writing on the couple.  In the midst of the Squidgey-Gate and Camilla-Gate Tape scandals, six books about the Royal Family were published. Whitakers’ Diana v. Charles (1993) was the centre of The Mirror’s scooped story on the tapes, The Sun’s royal photographer Arthur Edward’s memoir was serialised in The Sun, which coincided with The Daily Expresses publication of sections of Anthony Holden’s The Tarnished Crown (1993). The Daily Mail ran with Nigel Dempster’s, Behind Palace Doors and the London Evening Standard went with The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor (1994) by N Wilson.  Anna Pasternaks’ Princess in Love (1994) added James Hewitt as a character to the story.  Her account of their affair, which was written with his full co-operation after one of his own ex-lovers had sold the story of his relationship with Diana to the press. The only major exposures in subsequent books were additions to the list of her lovers, or could be lovers.

Even the biographers who weren’t passing off Diana’s words as their own, had to pitch their special access to her. For example, Nicholas Davies set himself up as a suitable biographer because he had first met her on the polo ground in 1979 before she was a public figure. (Diana: A Princess and Her Troubled Marriage, 1992 piv-v)  Lady Colin Campbell set out her own credentials in the introduction to her book Diana in Private: The Princess Nobody Knows.  She name dropped her ‘longstanding’ friends including Diana’s distant cousin,  financial adviser and the Prince of Wales’ Press Office.   She goes one step further to demonstrate her connections with Real Diana.  She writes about , ‘the Diana I knew and liked – and sometimes didn’t’. She had enough personal knowledge not to like the ‘real’ Diana.  (Campbell, 1992, pix, Campbell, 1998, Preface)

If  insider knowledge of Diana wasn’t enough, biographers could also call in expert witnesses to substantiate their take on her. The combination of insider detail and outsider objectivity combined for biographers to make claims about Diana’s health, motivation and meaning.  In his book Diana, Self-Interest and British National Identity (2000), John A Taylor pointed out the degree to which unofficial biographers relied on a stack of expert witnesses to  ‘diagnose Diana’.  Chris Hutchins and Dominic Midgley’s book, Diana on the Edge (1996), combined psychologists with professional image consultants to present the case that Diana suffered from a borderline personality disorder.  Penny Junor used her experts to come up with a different diagnosis of ‘severe clinical depression’. (p112)  It is worth noting that they often did this whilst simultaneously ridiculing Diana for her own reliance on the expertise of astrologists, psychics, healers, aromatherapists, massage therapists, psychoanalysts and osteopaths.  The unauthorised biographies then, were all part of the PR War around the breakup of the marriage, and the circulation wars between different newspapers, but they also mapped out the ground between experts and professional expertise.  Rather than spending my time unpicking and analysing the Real Diana, I was left wondering something else.  How many different ways can there be of making up who she ‘really’ was’?

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