Back in 1985, Tina Brown, then editor of Vanity Fair, wrote a cover story about Princess Diana called ”The Mouse That Roared” — a piece whose portrayal of Diana as demanding and difficult set London atwitter and forever altered her docile, pink-cheeked image. Brown’s interest in the princess, forever piqued, has now been turned into a 560-page biography, The Diana Chronicles, out in time for the 10th anniversary of Diana’s death.
This massively researched book — which encompasses the princess’ life in all its messy, sprawling sadness — doesn’t have much new to say. It feels like a compilation of everything ever written about Diana. Every book, every magazine article, every interview is recycled and put to use. Every familiar quote and story, no matter how tiny, is tucked in here, from her early school award for keeping the best guinea pig to the way she planned her voluminous wedding dress, whose billows barely fit in the coach. That’s not to say it’s all rehash. Brown spent years interviewing her many sources and serves up countless small tidbits, usually spiked with nasty commentary: ”As she entered her thirty-seventh year, Diana told herself she was looking for love. But what she was really seeking was a guy with a Gulfstream. Her needs at this juncture had more in common with…Elizabeth Hurley than with those of anyone currently residing in Balmoral.”
Brown succeeds in one area where previous Diana biographers have failed: providing a real social history, not just of the Spencers but of Diana’s social class. Yes, the classic Diana comment, ”Thick as plank, that’s me!” is here, but so is an insightful account of Diana’s early years and stunningly abysmal boarding-school education. (Who knew how dreadful England’s all-girls schools could be?) Her courtship with Charles, played out at royal birthdays and the house parties of the rich and titled, feels fresh, marred only by Brown’s incessant sniping: ”The youngest Spencer girl may have had an academic transcript the size of an index card, but her emotional radar was at full power.” And Brown fascinatingly reveals the inner workings of the royal family — the ”Firm,” as Diana called it — from living arrangements at Kensington Palace to set-piece dinners at Balmoral.
It’s curious that a writer as gifted as Brown has chosen to add to this summer’s Diana frenzy with this shrewd, often venomous bio. It’s as if she wants to out-bitch Kitty Kelley while still maintaining her reservation at Michael’s, Manhattan’s literary haunt. Isn’t it bad enough that the princess will be plastered on magazine covers and featured in even more cheesy TV retrospectives? For Diana’s sake, one hopes this book is the last of its kind. She’s dead. Let her rest in peace. B