Using dramatic license, “The Crown” features the romance between Charles, Prince of Wales, and his future queen. Though appearing to be in a sense a real-life Cinderella, Diana, Princess of Wales, is a kind of symbol of our dysfunctional modern Western society.
We were living in England in 1997, when Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash in Paris. The colossal outpouring of grief in England was a kind of cultural tsunami. Oceans of floral tributes swept across the land. Crowds of people were in tears. All the stages of bereavement flooded out: denial, anger, blame, and loss. Every lip was trembling in the land of stiff upper lips.
Netflix’s fourth series of The Crown features the romance between Charles, Prince of Wales, and his future queen. Allowing for dramatic license, the basic facts of the story are still clear. At the time of their courtship Diana was an ordinary teenager—and a rather immature, insecure, and not very bright one at that. Still in a relationship with his old flame, Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles is under pressure to find a suitable consort by the rest of the royal family to whom Charles refers as “the politburo.” The senior royals, who are portrayed in the series as a tribe of shrewd, manipulative survivors, are charmed by the innocent beauty of their English rose.
The shadow is the fact that Charles is still in a relationship with Camilla, and one of the most gripping moments of the series is a conversation between the senior members of the family on the eve of the royal wedding. We have already seen how Lord Mountbatten and the Queen Mother attempted to quash Charles’ love for Camilla and arrange her marriage to Peter Parker Bowles. With her own disastrous marriage, and the marriage of the former Prince of Wales to Wallis Simpson in the background, Princess Margaret points out to the other royals that Charles still loves Camilla and asks, “How often will this family continue to make the same disastrous mistake?”
As they are seen preparing for the wedding, the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie are heard in the background. He began his sermon at the wedding by saying, “This is the stuff of which fairy tales are made.” Critics of The Crown have pointed out how much the series has deviated from the facts, but I think they are missing the point. Dramatized history has always deviated from the facts. It now seems, for example, that Henry V was not really rambunctious Hal and there was no boisterous Sir John Falstaff egging him on. Shakespeare created Falstaff to liven things up.
Dramatized history serves the purpose of highlighting the greater, universal themes embedded in real life and bringing them to the fore through the dramatist’s art. In this respect, the writers of The Crown do an admirable job. Runcie’s words about the royal wedding being the stuff of which fairy tales are made were most apt. If ever there was a real-life Cinderella story, it was the life of Diana, Princess of Wales.
In the drama we see her as the helper in the kindergarten and we learn that she works as a cleaner for her older sister. “Scrubbing the floors. That fits, but what!” we ask, “only one cruel older sister? We thought there were three!” We don’t see her, but in the background there is also a wicked stepmother. Diana’s parents divorced, and—her father’s paramour—the divorcee Raine Spencer stepped in. She was a domineering woman whom Diana and her siblings called “Acid Rain.” Raine Spencer’s mother was Barbara Cartland—a lavish and flamboyant writer who dressed in preposterous costumes in various shades of flamingo. To top off the fairy tale connection, Diana’s step-grandmother churned out endless Cinderella stories in the form of kitsch romantic fiction.
The characters in fairy tales are supposed to live happily ever after. Alas, the story of poor princess Diana ends in such a way to prove that it was all not so much of a fairy tale as a tragedy. Her own incapacity to cope with the reality of royal life combined with the royal family’s inability to deal with her, and most of all her husband’s self-indulgence and immaturity led the whole house of cards to collapse in a spectacular way, leading to her isolation, subsequent affairs, emotional fragility, and final tragic death at the age of just thirty-six.
The events surrounding that weekend at the end of August 1997 are dramatized equally effectively by the 2006 film The Queen. With Helen Mirren in the role of Her Majesty, The Queen contrasts the stoicism of the royal family with their suddenly emotional subjects. Diana’s death pops their royal bubble even more than her life, and in chronicling the story The Queen along with The Crown reveals not just the drama of Diana and the royal family, but the turmoil of the age in which we live.
Diana becomes a kind of symbol of our dysfunctional modern Western society. A poor little rich kid, she’s beautiful to look at, but her childhood is broken by adultery and divorce. Her education is flimsy, her religion superficial, her inner life is nonexistent, and her emotions unstable. She is a lost lamb in the wilderness, vulnerable to the wolves of the mass media and the establishment. Then her own marriage and family crumble under the weight of infidelity and treachery. With little meaning to her life, she wanders into a series of empty relationships until the final crash.
No wonder there was such an outpouring of grief at her death. A huge proportion of the population identified with her. Their lives too were awash with affluence soiled by broken dreams, broken homes, broken marriages, and broken hearts. Victims of a barren, materialist culture, they were not only weeping for the poor little princess. They were weeping for themselves.
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The featured image is courtesy of IMDb.