Is it sex appeal, like Marilyn Monroe? Is it saintliness, like Mother Theresa? Is it political ambition, like Cleopatra?

photograph: Georges Biard

photograph: Georges Biard

 Or is it something more elusive than any of these?

 It is now fourteen years since Diana, Princess of Wales, died in that horrific car smash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, yet the anniversary of her fiftieth birthday last year saw a fresh outpouring of public grief.

For a major celebrity, Diana was remarkably self deprecating: “I don’t even know how to use a parking meter, never mind a phone box.” Her greatest talent was in being nice to people: “I want to walk into a room, be it a hospital for the dying or a hospital for the sick children, and feel that I am needed. I want to do, not just to be.”

Did this make her a great woman?

Her critics said no, because she never held any position of political power. But in a BBC poll she was voted third of “100 Greatest Britons”, easily outranking her former mother-in-law and placing her above Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton and Nelson.

This infuriates those who argued that she achieved nothing in her life. They ignore her British_coin_25p_(1981)_reversetireless work for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines – the victims of anti-personnel mines were and are mostly children. The ban was effected shortly after her death, and in a world seemingly run by arms dealers this was no small achievement.

My mother certainly thought Diana was a great woman. She was no royalist, the only other Windsor she had time for was the Queen’s mother. She was of the generation that lived in London during the Blitz and still remembers that Queen Mary didn’t leave London during the bombing – she stayed “with us”.

photograph: Rick

photograph: Rick

She reckoned Diana was of the same stripe. Mum even once owned a Princess Diana doll. It was about two feet tall, and looked more like Barbie on steroids, dressed up for a day at the races. It was a real talking point in her house for many years, (along with the inflatable two metre high kangaroo in the backyard.) Diana’s greatest virtue, in her words, was that she wasn’t “stuck up”. 

She had the common touch. And for East Enders like my mother, that was everything.

Few women in history have inspired the same kind of adoration as Diana.

Perhaps because she said things like: “HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug: heaven knows they need it.”

Yet opinion about her remains divided, as with any famous person. One of her more spiteful biographers wrote that she was a “demanding shopaholic … obsessed with her public image”; her brother eulogized her as “the most hunted person of this modern age.”

She was certainly an enigma: she appeared to be a woman on a desperate search for love yet she once said: “People think that at the end of the day a man is the only answer. Actually, a fulfilling job is better for me.”

She will be much written about in the future, I guarantee.

In a hundred years historical fiction authors like me will pore through the history files looking for the facts about her for their own stories. But what will those facts be?

 Every saint has a dirty secret; even a monster may have an adoring grandchild. The really John_Travolta_and_Princess_Dianainteresting thing about famous people is not how many lovers they had, how many battles they won, or countries they ruled. They become truly interesting when they have a human face. Great virtues side by side with obvious failings can be very appealing.

Diana was certainly very human. It was part of her charm. She had the opportunity to help the less fortunate and took it wholeheartedly; she went about doing good while most of us just go about.

It is too soon to write the first unfettered historical novel about her. But I suspect she will become one of the most enduring women in history. God knows there have been few enough men or women of true celebrity and glamour who have done so much for others while remaining as fallible and earthy and flawed as the rest of us.


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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
This entry was posted in HISTORY and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Julia Robb says:

    Colin, don’t forget to tell your readers to read the column I wrote about you at http://venturegalleries.com/blog/the-best-novelist-youve-never-read/

  2. filbio says:

    In these times when spoiled do-nothings like the Kim Kardasians of the world are adored it makes us yearn for people like Princess Diana. She was great because of who she was. She was human, and she was one of us.


  3. A very special woman who did so much more than dress for the cameras. She gave her children a legacy of personal freedom and courage.

    • The royal family’s image was pretty bleak until she came along. My mother had a Diana doll in her living room cabinet, about the size of a kangaroo. First ‘royal’ she’d liked since the Queen Mother, and as she was a right wing Cockney I thought that was significant. Her sons certainly seem to have inherited her charisma.

  4. ritaroberts says:

    Colin, this is a special tribute to Princess Diana in itself and you are doubtlessly going to receive hundreds of reply’s. Diana thought of everyone but herself throughout her short life,she was and still is loved by all and sadly missed. A great lady ! who’s sons and family and the Nation are proud of. Thankyou for this great post.

    • She was a complex woman which is what intrigues me; look at Harry and you have to wonder about the skeletons in her closet. But it was her very humanity that made her popular with me anyway. I think she was probably much feistier than she looked. But her work at St Ormond’s and with the victims of landmines was enormous. She captured the heart and soul of a nation in a few short years, even the Queen underestimated her.

  5. The question you’ve asked is relative. To the people who argue she’s not great because she never held a position of political power, the answer to the question ‘Was she a great politician?’ would be ‘No’. But that doesn’t mean she can’t be great by some other measure, and without a doubt she was a great humanitarian and charity worker, who had the advantage of her public profile to help her achieve outcomes.

  6. Trish De says:

    She is a special woman as proved by her continued popular ‘presence’. In spite of her flaws and wounds, she radiated true grace. I think people get confused because she was such a pretty girl and her attraction seems like a shallow reflection of that, but it could be divine irony that Mother Teresa died the same week. They were both people who were impelled to give of themselves through touch and just ‘being with’ others in need of comfort. You don’t have to be a genius with a degree in psychology to give greatly. Both those women in their own frames of reference showed the importance of putting yourself out there on the front lines of your life with what you’ve got and just ‘be there’ for others when needed. They are both beautiful girls!

    • Both women were certainly flawed, and that is very appealing to a writer! It is interesting to contrast their roles and legacies with women who were inside politics. Someone like Margaret Thatcher, for example. I know who I think did more good and has a greater claim to greatness.

  7. ritaroberts says:

    Reblogged this on Ritaroberts's Blog and commented:
    She was an engaging lady who touched everyones heart

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