Was It the Death of the Heart? *

Cornelia Powell
10 min readJun 10, 2023

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Diana, Princess of Wales, commemorative statue in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace in London

“When the royal family enfolded Diana, they thought they had got a rather dim girl from the landowning Norfolk aristocracy — not exactly the stuff of revolution. They could not have known that she would be transformed into an international superstar who would make their lives hell.” This from an article, “Diana’s Britain,” by the editors at Newsweek magazine published the week after the princess’ funeral. Some feminists of the time were also fooled by “the mouse that roared.” British journalist Beatrix Campbell wondered how more conservative Britain could become when this pretty, inexperienced girl from old landed gentry married into the stale confines of royalty. Calling her wedding gown “a shroud,” she feared Diana would disappear within a dusty patriarchal construct. But Campbell and others began to see it differently.

Diana emerged into the world’s consciousness during the second year of Margaret Thatcher’s landmark run as Prime Minister and Great Britain, entrenched in a recession, was in turmoil with the country’s traditional industries in crisis and race riots destroying neighborhoods in the cities. “Into this unrelieved gloom the royal wedding injected a welcome splash of color and glamour,” the Newsweek article continued. “For that reason alone, Diana always carried a fund of good will with her. Yet at the time, few appreciated the central significance of the new princess; she was young and unformed, with enormous potential for growth.” And indeed, from that summer in 1981, Diana’s growth into a striking, outspoken woman paralleled Britain’s own growth into the modern era. Diana may have spent her childhood in the pastoral countryside, but as a young woman she needed the bustle and stimulation of the city and like much of the country’s youth, Diana loved “London’s glitzy rebellious values.” And for better or worse, as feminist writer Naomi Wolf expressed, Diana brought “an American style of emotionalism to the rigid skin of British formality.”

The Labor Party picked up this youthful call to modernize with forty-three-year-old Tony Blair’s campaign for prime minister in 1997. Since his “agenda echoed Diana’s,” according to Catherine Mayer’s Time magazine article, “How Diana Transformed Britain,” Diana met in secret with him and his election team in support of Blair’s “mandate to build a more inclusive, caring Britain.” By the time of her death, only months after Blair’s election, she seemed to embody “how new Britons wanted their country to be.” After centuries of practiced reserve and mystery, it took the Royal Family a little longer to realize how much the country was changing even though they had clues inside their own family which had been moving, as Newsweek reported, “from archaic rule to modern dysfunctionality.” Then the shock of the princess’ death left them unprepared for the rising new era of more open public self-expression — the unbuttoning of England’s stiff-upper-lip sensibility. “The People’s Princess,” Mayer wrote, summing up Diana’s impact, “had unlocked hearts, reordered values, presided at the triumph of emotional intelligence over cold intellect, of compassion over tradition.” This was evident in how the lives of her sons progressed. Prince Charles’ already close relationship with his sons — as well as the Queen and Prince Philip’s devotion to their grandsons — seemed to grow even warmer. And the way Charles continued a more egalitarian upbringing for the young princes that he and Diana had practiced together was met with no resistance.

Diana shook up some of the most sensitive of human relations, not only of the British Establishment, but throughout the world. “‘She embraced the modern, multicultural, multiethnic Britain without reservation,’” Trevor Phillips, a Black television executive who later had a position in the New Labor government, told Newsweek at the time of the Princess’ death. “You could be British and black, Asian or gay — and Diana wouldn’t even notice.” She hugged men with AIDS, “touched lepers in Nepal,” caressed the horrific wounds of children in Africa; she dated Sikh and Muslim men, even falling in love with one, a London surgeon. “Unlike most Europeans,” Phillips added, “she had ‘no flinch, no anxiety about race…for non-white Britons, she was like a beacon in the darkness.’”

These multi-cultural connections were highlighted during the week of mourning — the days between Diana’s death and her funeral service. According to Jennifer Chandler’s on-the-scene study, “Pilgrims and Shrines,” many of the messages and memorials left at the gates of Kensington Palace were written in a number of languages: “Chinese, Japanese, French, Turkish, varieties of Arabic, Greek, Welsh, Brazilian Portuguese.” Other messages came from diverse groups like “the inmates and warders of a prison” or “the Iraqi Opposition” or “on behalf of their countries (however unofficially), including Islamic states — Bahrain, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates.” While other signatures on notes and poems and condolences simply “identified themselves as coming from abroad,” Chandler reported. Many times the tone of written messages seen around Britain, Susanne Greenhalgh explained in Mourning Diana: Nation, Culture and the Performance of Grief, “often voiced an inarticulate anger…‘the scribbler sided with Diana against “Them” — ill-defined authority, an uppercrust Establishment….’” The religious tones were noted as well. “There was also something strange, maybe sympathetic, maybe grotesque, about this folk religion that had sprung up at the gates of Kensington Palace, and the image of Diana as a blend of Celtic Flora and Catholic Virgin,” wrote Damien Doorley in his Jungian essay, “Diana’s Diffuse Charisma” from When a Princess Dies.

Communities throughout the city and country — Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish; gay and lesbian; or those united by a particular physical disability — all held their own ceremonies in the Princess’ honor. Mourning rituals and ceremonies performed around the world for Diana included groups as far-flung as the Aboriginal Australians: “On Milingimbi, one of the remote Northern Territory Crocodile Islands,” reported Jean Duruz and Carol Johnson from local news sources, “members of fourteen language clans living on the island united to hold an Aboriginal funeral for her. As part of the traditional mourning process, women exchanged ‘Diana stories’.” In their essay, “Mourning at a Distance,” the two writers shared how telling “Diana stories” became an integral piece of the mourning process for all Australians, and yet it appears it was a universal expression of her loss and now her legacy.

Dickie Arbiter, the former press secretary to various royals, including Diana, and who was in charge of media arrangements for her funeral, “recalls a strange, muted, mournful night after the Princess died,” as Catherine Mayer described for Time magazine. “He encountered a group of wheelchair users on their way to lay flowers at Kensington Palace” and overheard them saying: “‘Who’s going to speak for us, now?’” As Arbiter continued to muse about all of the marginalized citizens for whom Diana had given voice, he paused and added: “‘She’d have made a good Queen, you know.’”

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Whatever title Diana had, lost, or would have had, in the end she got the world’s attention for what really mattered — that love is a mighty force — and her heart’s purpose lives on. “The fact that she was — undeniably — on occasion manipulative, deceitful and self-centered,” Mayer emphasized, “should not blind us to the fact that, during her 17 years in the limelight, she had grown as Britain had grown, changed as Britain had changed, and that by the time she died she had something increasingly vital to offer.” We’re now all living in a new age of heart energy that Diana helped generate — which also breathed new life into the British monarchy and, in turn, opened the possibility of Meghan Markle, a modern woman passionate about creating a more egalitarian world, focused on women’s issues and those of the underprivileged. The essence of his mother that Prince Harry embodied — a genuine kindness and a deep desire to be of service to others — Harry saw in Meghan. Falling in love with a woman who carried the spirit of his beloved mother must have felt like coming home to him. Andrew Morton, who wrote the Diana biography that became the turning point for her life within the royal family — and pulled back the Oz-like curtain — spoke of this special connection between the two women and their destiny: “Diana died at 36, Meghan comes onto the scene at 36 in a kind of curious spiritual way she’s picked up her baton.”

Hollywood could not have scripted it any better! Here was the perfect person — a beautiful, graceful, creatively-talented, kind-hearted, committed-to-service woman of color — to be welcomed into the royal family, showing the world they were indeed a modern institution for the future; an institution for all its diverse citizens and deserving of the support of the people of the Commonwealth.

But once again, like in Diana’s time when she called to task an antiquated monarchy that favored duty and image over love and transparency, the Palace stumbled. Meghan represented social changes whose time had come and seemed to have been welcomed graciously into a more modernized royal family; however, she was met with a noxious backlash of hateful small-mindedness in parts of the media, society, and the palace that even the beloved memory of Princess Diana couldn’t hold off. Revealing, it appears, that this royal family was not so “modernised” after all, so embedded in their “never complain, never explain” mindset, that (as Meghan’s shocked and devastated husband shared, recalling the dangerously aggressive threat his mother experienced) no one spoke up in support of Meghan. During this time, many asked the question similar to what Laura Clancy and Hannah Yelin proposed in their 2021 study of the British Monarchy and feminism: “Can an inherently antifeminist institution be truly modernised?”

“Courts are accidents waiting to happen, medieval structures only partially adapted for the modern age,” wrote Catherine Mayer in Charles: The Heart of a King from 2015. “When you put a modern person in an ancient institution they will be destroyed,” an observer said at the time Princess Diana was grappling with life inside the monarchy. “But once an institution starts destroying people, it’s time to recognize there is something fundamentally wrong with that institution and not the people it destroys.” (This unidentified voice-over quote was from the 2022 HBO documentary, The Princess, made with archival news footage from the 1980s and ‘90s.) Once he became a husband and father, it didn’t take the heart-centered Prince Harry long to experience his own reckoning, realizing the unchanged nature of the British Monarchy, and, even without a plan in place, remove his wife and son from a destructive environment.

“Nothing angers society’s gatekeepers more than seeing Meghan reject the thing they would sell their soul to have,” remarked freelance writer R. S. Locke. “Their departure is considered a rejection of the pyramid as a construct, thus a rejection of the society itself.” They were rejecting, in Andrew Morton’s words, “an institution governed by tradition and continuity” that sat at the top of that social pyramid, one committed to “maintaining protocol” above all else; an institution with competing palace courtiers willing to spin a story for their ‘team’ to the detriment of another. Harry and Meghan were rejecting an institution formed in a hierarchical era, now severely outdated, that was still using its hierarchy to oppress others.

Royal commentator and historian Hilary Mantel said in an interview with The Times in the fall of 2021 that “it’s hard to understand the thinking behind the monarchy in the modern world when people are just seen as celebrities.” Acknowledging how Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles — both well trained in that royally-aloof, duty-bound world — take their responsibilities very seriously and do their jobs “as well as anyone possibly could.” But she questioned, as many have, could something so outdated last past the next generation who have grown up with one foot in the ‘regular world’ — could they live within such a restrictive, dutiful environment? “‘For Charles and the Queen, their lives were quite literally their jobs,’” explained Peter Mandelson (as quoted in Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers.) “‘Every move they made, every smile or raised eyebrow, every relationship made or severed, was seen as part of their defining function: simply to be the royal family.’”

Prince Charles was willing to accept this, but the question lingered for the next generation. Although Charles, even long before he became king in 2022, was shaking things up, making “modernising” changes, especially with an eye toward a time in the not-so-distant future when his heir, Prince William, would become king, there was still the specter of ‘gilded cages’ of which the more free-spirited Harry recognized and wanted no part. A man tuned in to creating a future of equality and deep human connection, Harry had proved he was committed to be of service to the wellbeing of people and the planet. Like his mother, however, service was not about cold duty sacrificing personal freedom and happiness, it was about love. And Harry knew his father and brother served with love, but from inside those institutionalized gilded cages, at what cost?

Harry and Meghan are both committed to living a life of service — wherever they live and, like his mother, whatever titles they may or may not have. “We can all live a life of service. Service is universal,” a spokesperson for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex explained after the announcement of their decision not to return as working members of the royal family. “Service doesn’t require titles. It requires empathy, compassion, desire & drive,” tweeted American journalist and author Maria Shiver in support of their work.

Princess Diana tested the patriarchal foundation of the monarchy, asking whether an institution is relevant if it doesn’t embrace love over duty, diversity in its citizenry, and the empowerment of women. Harry and Meghan tested it further and the crack was heard around the world. We’ll see how critical this latest blow: a warning for the monarchy’s last chance to modernize or a mortal wound marking its demise? I find this worth noting given, in its archetypal nature, the monarchy can be a representation of society at large. And that’s the nature of archetypes: we can see ourselves in their humanness — and in their lack of it. ~

[Excerpt from book-in-progress, The Spiritual Mission of a Princess.]

  • title inspired by Jim Fitzgerald’s essay, “The Death of the Heart” from When a Princess Dies: Reflections from Jungian Analysts, 1998

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Cornelia Powell

Grew up on a farm exploring wonder/Worked in fashion exploring dreams/Spiritual journeyed the world exploring me/Live on a green mtn ridge exploring more wonder