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Remembering a Princess: a personal recollection with a Regency parallel

Princess Diana on a royal visit to Bristol, 1987
(Photo by Rick, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Every once in a while a momentous event occurs that’s bigger than life, and causes time to seemingly stop for a moment. Later you’ll ask others, “Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard that ...?”

For some in the Boomer generation, it’s “Do you remember where you were when Kennedy was assassinated?” For Millennials, it could be when the Twin Towers fell. As for me, I remember the night twenty years ago when I heard the news that Princess Diana had died.

On that August night I was camping with family and friends in the Oregon coastal woods, enjoying Labor Day Weekend and our last summer holiday before the school year started. It was late in the evening, and the campfire had burned down to few glowing embers. After helping to clean up the residue left by the S'mores, a gooey marshmallow, graham cracker and melted chocolate treat that's manadatory camping fare in our family, I followed the trail through the darkness to the dank and badly-lit communal bathroom, toothbrush and washcloth in hand.

That’s when someone at one of the sinks said that Diana had been seriously injured in a car accident in Paris. I could scarcely believe it – surely the collision wasn’t too bad, and the Princess would be all right. After all, she was a young, healthy woman. But before I could fully absorb the news that she’d been in a car accident, I heard she’d died.

I was truly stunned, unable to take it in at first. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how close I felt to a woman I’d never met, a princess who lived half a world away in circumstances so dissimilar to mine we were almost a different species.

Diana radiant in her wedding dress with its 25-foot train,
designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel

Along with rest of the world, I’d followed Prince Charles' courtship of Lady Diana Spencer, back when she was known as “shy Di.” Like millions of other Americans, I got up in the middle of the night in July of 1981 to watch Diana’s lavish royal wedding, with her almost swallowed up in the silk taffeta of her voluminous dress and its 25-foot train. (I’m glad I didn’t know that 16 years later I’d also stay up late on a summer night, this time with a heavy heart, to watch her funeral.)

Like the Princess of Wales, I had two sons, both born in the 1980s around the same time as William and Harry. As I dealt with my own rambunctious little “princes”, I read about and applauded Diana’s hands-on parenting style and the way she broke tradition by spending more time with her children than royals usually do.

From what I could tell, Diana was determined to give her boys as normal a childhood as possible. As much as she could, she tried to show her boys different aspects of the real world that most people struggled with, to help them develop compassion and a sense of social responsibility.

It was a lesson that wasn’t lost on me as my husband and I tried to instill similar values in our own sons.

I recall sitting in the parents section during my boys’ swimming lessons or soccer practices, reading the current magazines that allowed me to track Diana’s life through articles and photos. In her interviews she spoke with disarming candor about her family and personal problems, like her struggle with bulimia. I saw her reach out to people with AIDS and others who suffered stigmatizing diseases in an effort to ease their isolation. I felt bad for her when her marital woes were exposed, and happy to see her bounce back from her break-up with Charles with her dignity intact.

After her well-publicized divorce, which provided endless fodder for news outlets around the world and resulted in her losing her official title of Princess of Wales, Diana didn’t go into hiding. I admired that, and how she fearlessly used her celebrity status to draw attention to global humanitarian issues. Who could forget the images of Diana walking through an active land mine field in Angola in January 1997, or her chatting easily with a group of amputees at an Angolan orthopedic center?  

To me, Diana wasn’t just a distant celebrity. I felt a connection to her, and I know I wasn’t the only one who did. She wasn’t perfect, but who is? She was relatable, as a mother, as a woman, and as a human being. That was her gift, and for the most part, she used it to make the world a better place.

So, when I heard she’d died so unexpectedly, the world seemed to stop, just for moment, like it does sometimes when events like these occur. And when the world started up again, as it must, the universe seemed to me to be a bit older and sadder, as though a spark had been extinguished and couldn’t be relit.

 Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire,
by Thomas Gainsborough (1785-87)

Oddly enough, there’s a Diana-like figure in our Regency world, and what’s even more of a coincidence is that Diana’s doppelganger is her own distant ancestor, Lady Georgiana Spencer, who became the Duchess of Devonshire when she married William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire in 1774.

Georgiana was born at Althorp House, the Spencer family seat in Northamptonshire where Diana spent part of her childhood and is now buried. On her 17th birthday, Georgiana married the 25-year-old Cavendish, who was considered quite a catch and one of the most eligible bachelors among the ton in English society. But Georgiana's marriage was a lonely and unhappy one; her husband was cold to her and he didn’t let the fact that he had a wife interfere with his extra-marital affairs.

Georgiana compensated for her unhappiness by diving headlong into a rather scandalous social life, and she developed a serious gambling addiction which landed her deeply in debt. But she was also an author and trendsetter, a young and beautiful woman who devoted herself to political causes and used her growing celebrity to become an ardent supporter of the progressive Whig party. 

Georgiana was famous in her time and beyond, so much so that in 2008 a movie was made about her starring  starring Keira Knightley (which I mention in this post.) Like Diana did two centuries later, Georgiana became a fashion icon, with her clothing and hairstyles written about and copied. She was also an author of several books (prose and poetry), known for her interest in science, and loved for her many acts of kindness and generosity.

When Georgiana died in 1806, thousands of people mourned outside her London home, in an uncanny parallel to the huge crowd that gathered to lay flowers (more than a million bouquets) outside of Kensington Palace when Diana died.

Althorp House
Photo by Andrew Walker

There was clearly something special about these two Spencer women. Though they weren’t particularly lucky in love or in life, they had a notable impact on the world in which they lived.

So, when I think of Princess Diana tomorrow on August 31, the 20th anniversary of her death, I'll remember how she inspired me when I was a young mother. I'll wish she could see her boys now, and how they’ve assumed their public roles in the world with empathy and grace. And as a grandmother myself, I'll be sad that Diana never met her grandchildren, whom I'm sure she would've adored. From my perspective, that's perhaps the cruelest loss of all.

I hope Diana can rest in peace now after leading such a tumultuous life. Short as her time on earth may have been, she certainly won’t be forgotten, especially by me. Her place in history is assured. 

Do you remember where you were when you heard Diana died? Please share your recollections in the comments below.


Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Comments

  1. I remember that I was watching late night news. My husband and children were all in bed asleep. When I heard the news, it was like being kicked in the stomach! She was someone that a lot of people admired and wanted to emulate. It was like losing a friend.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I felt the same way! She had a remarkable effect on people. Thanks for sharing your recollection.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Mom, Adam here. I remember that camping trip, and when you walked back into the campsite to deliver the news. I was old enough to know that Princess Diana was as a celebrity, but not much more. Though I knew the loss was tragic because of how you and the other adults reacted, I didn't fully understand why. Years later I began to learn about Princess Diana's contributions to society, her positive impact as a generous and caring person, and why her death was so untimely and tragic. A major loss for sure, but by remembering her in ways like this we can appreciate her gifts and the ways she touched our lives.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Adam, for your comment! You’re so right – the best way to honor Diana’s memory is to remember how she made a difference and improved so many people’s lives, sometimes just with a smile and handshake.

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