A novel about Princess Diana – too soon?

27 August 2011

Is it too soon for someone to write a novel about Princess Diana? I really envy the first person, many years hence, who writes the first stonking great historical novel about the former Princess of Wales because not only will they have an amazing tale to spin but they’ll probably also become disgracefully rich. Okay, maybe not rich. I must admit though that I’m mostly envious about the story they’ll be telling though – I mean, it has it all doesn’t it?

I know that Monica Ali has just had a book come out which considers what could have happened had the Princess (although notably, although the character in her book is clearly supposed to be Diana, she nonetheless invented a fictional princess for it) survived that terrible crash in 1997 and vanished to a new life in small town America. I love the idea of this incidentally – I’ve always wanted to write a book about the survivor of a huge accident or natural disaster (actually in my imaginings it was always someone who’d missed one of the planes on the 11th of September 2001) walking away and starting over somewhere new because it’s something that really fascinates me. Or at least it used to really prey on my mind a bit when my life was much less happy than it is now.

Anyway, I don’t mean anything quite so cerebral as Monica Ali’s book, great though it undoubtedly is. No, I want something like Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, about Marilyn Monroe  – a huge, meaty, gloriously over the top book that takes the reader right into the very heart of the action and all the ensuing drama. It can’t happen for a long time though – or can it? There seems to be plenty of unauthorised royal biographies and tacky made for television films (did you see the William and Kate one? Crikey, how grim was that?!) floating about the place so why not a novel too?

Considering this has made me question my own position as a writer of historical fiction. Having studied history to degree level, I try very hard to stick to what I know to be the facts about the people and times that I write about but guesses frequently have to be made (all the time really – we can’t know the ins and outs of every conversation that someone had in the 18th century and novels need dialogue so, yes, you do have to make stuff up) and so how far does my responsibility to be both accurate and respectful go?

I’ll admit it now – I’d love to be the one writing a novel about Princess Diana as I’m a huge fan and, without giving too much away, her own background isn’t all that alien to me so I think I could do a convincing job. If I did write a book about her though, I think I would make it a young adult piece about her youth that ends with her marriage (so along the same lines as my Marie Antoinette book) because a. there’s less potential to upset anyone that way (I also happen to really like Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, who I think is rather splendid) and b. I happen to think that the young Diana, who weathered the storm of parental divorce is someone that a lot of young girls would really relate to and want to know about.

Anyway, I was at a bit of a loose end yesterday afternoon so I churned out this small fragment of how I think my Princess Diana novel would be. It’s rough as hell and needs a bit of work but hopefully you get an idea both of how it would be and also why it can’t be written yet…

She’d been rehearsing this moment for weeks now and had promised herself that she wouldn’t blush as she walked into the gorgeous crystal and gilt drawing room at Clarence House. However now that the moment had come, she found the telltale warm glow rise from her exposed shoulders to the roots of her hair and stood for a few seconds, tongue tied and diffident in the doorway before advancing into the room.

 Charles had his back to her and had been helping himself to a glass of whiskey before he heard the rustle of her heavy black taffeta skirt and turned quickly around to look at her. In her daydreams about this moment, she had imagined him smiling with delight and perhaps a little lust before stepping briskly forward to crush her into his arms and kiss her. 

 She bent her head and waited for his approval. ‘Has someone died?’ he enquired coldly as he put down his glass.

 Shocked, Diana shook her head. ‘Don’t you like it?’ she stammered, smoothing down the billowing skirts. The black dress had seemed so perfect at the Emanuel’s showroom, so grown up and sophisticated. ‘I thought it would be just right.’ He’d told her that tonight was to be hugely important – a dinner at the Goldsmith’s Hall and their first official outing together as an engaged couple. ‘The eyes of all the world will be upon us so it is essential that everything be absolutely perfect,’ he’d said.

 A special night required a very special dress and she had fallen in love with this one as soon as she had seen it, gleaming like polished jet between racks of pale pink, primrose and teal chiffon and satin dresses. ‘He’ll fancy me in this one, won’t he?’ she’d asked Elizabeth Emanuel, holding the beautiful dress to her chest and twirling around excitedly. She’d vaguely remembered a Bette Davis film in which the heroine turned up to a ball dressed in a flounced black crinoline gown and becomes the cynosure of all eyes in the midst of a bevy of white clad debutantes. That’s what I want, she decided. I want everyone to be looking at me and no one else.

 ‘My family only wear black when they are in mourning,’ he said now from between gritted teeth. ‘I presumed that you would know that.’

 ‘I didn’t know,’ she whispered, feeling less like Bette Davis now and more like the second Lady de Winter as amidst a stunned and horrified silence, she descended the stairs at Manderley dressed in the same costume that Rebecca had worn. She’d loved that book as a girl and had always found that scene incredibly painful – now she knew why. ‘No one told me.’

 Charles turned away impatiently. ‘How could you not just know?’ he grumbled. ‘When have you ever seen my mother wear black?’

 She laughed then. ‘I’ve never really paid much attention to what your mother wears,’ she said, hoping to lighten the tense mood a little. She remembered that day so long ago when they’d sat next to each other on bails of hay and she’d said ‘You need someone to look after you’. He’d looked at her then as though a lightbulb had switched on in his head but now he just looked at her like she was a total idiot and it was no longer certain which one of them needed looking after the most.

 ‘Well, it’s too late to change and we need to leave,’ he said without smiling. ‘It will have to do.’

 She felt crushed as she followed him from the room, past palace staff who gasped then pretended not to look as she went by. How could she have been so stupid? She might have known that she would choose the wrong dress. After all, everything else she had done lately had been wrong too so why should this be any different.

 They sat together in silence as their limousine sped through the streets of the city towards the Goldsmith’s Hall. Diana gazed miserably out of the window as they drove along the Embankment and then past the gleaming white front of St Paul’s Cathedral, where they had already decided to have their wedding. Westminster Abbey was more traditional of course but Charles had insisted upon St Paul’s. She looked up at Wren’s great dome and tried in vain to imagine herself and Charles standing beneath it. She shivered, feeling suddenly far too small, too young for all of this and pulled her black taffeta wrap closer around her shoulders.

 ‘I am sorry,’ Charles said into the darkness, his voice tense and uncertain. His fingers briefly brushed against hers where they lay on the armrest between them. 

 She nodded, not knowing what to say.

 ‘This is all new to me as well, you know,’ he continued awkwardly after a pause. ‘I’ve never really had to think about someone else before.’

 ‘I understand,’ she replied with a smile, boldly reaching out to grasp his hand and giving it a squeeze. ‘We’re a team now though, Charles. We can help each other.’

 He lifted her hand to his lips. ‘Thank you,’ he said in a muffled voice. 

 She looked out of the window again. A group of girls in sodden fashionable clothes strolled down the pavement, stumbling and clutching each other as they laughed. The rain was plastering their permed and bleached hair to their faces but none of them seemed to care at all. One of them walked a little behind the others, a small frown between her eyes as she lit a cigarette, holding her bag over it to keep the rain off and then looked directly and quizzically at the royal car as it purred past. 

 Diana stared back and gave a slight smile. Hard to imagine that she’d been just like them only a few months ago. She was only nineteen after all – other girls her age were having fun with friends and boyfriends, studying at university or working in their first jobs. What would I have been doing now if none of this had happened? she wondered. Probably sitting cross legged on the sofa in her flat munching crisps, flicking through Vogue and watching a romantic film while her flatmate made them both slightly too strong gin and tonics and chattered about her day.

 Charles coughed. ‘You look fantastic by the way,’ he murmured. ‘That dress…’

 ‘Are we here?’ she interrupted him. The car had pulled up outside a large building and she automatically pulled back from the window when she saw an immense crowd arranged on the pavement opposite. ‘Are they here to see us?’ she asked stupidly. 

 He’d finally laughed then. ‘Yes, of course.’ The door was pulled open and with one final reassuring squeeze of her fingers he was gone. ‘Just wait what’s coming next,’ he said jokingly to the waiting crowd as they cheered and shouted her name.

 For one brief second she considered slamming the car door shut against the deafening roar of the crowd and ordering the driver to turn around and take her straight back to her own flat. They’d all tried to warn her about this, had told her that people wanted to see her but she hadn’t anticipated just how it would make her feel – small, vulnerable and desperately scared. ‘This is your last night of freedom. I suggest that you enjoy it,’ her new bodyguard had said to her the night before her engagement announcement when she was taken to Clarence House and her new life. He hadn’t been wrong. 

 Charles looked back anxiously into the car and she took a deep breath and slid out to stand at his side, dipping her head and smiling shyly as a hundred camera flash bulbs exploded all around her…’