An adventure in space, time, and Diana
The Telegraph's alternate history tale about the Princess of Wales is deranged.
Most days, The Daily Telegraph reads like it’s composed in a different reality and posted into ours as an act of trans-dimensional trolling but a “what if…?” short story from Rose Tremain1 about a Diana who didn’t die makes even the paper’s most deranged columnists look positively hinged.
Loosely pegged to the anniversary of Diana’s death (31st August 1997) but published a week early, Tremain’s tale is framed as an account of the novelist interviewing the renegade royal for The Daily Telegraph. And in the timeline she has sketched out, the fact that Diana did not die in Paris has had no effect on subsequent events — William is married to Kate, Harry is married to Meghan, Charles is married to Camilla, and… uh… David Miliband is still not Prime Minister.
An alternate history story where the change to the timeline has no knock-on effect is a failure of both technique and imagination. Beyond the obvious trauma for her sons and other relatives, Diana’s death triggered one of the biggest u-turns in the history of the British press; the day before she died Diana was a demon, the day after she was a saint. The public grief that followed was nutured and framed by a media attempting to shift as much blame away from it as possible.
On the morning after Diana’s death, The News of the World was stuck with a two-page ‘exclusive’ from royal editor and future convicted phone hacker, Clive Goodman, that claimed:
Troubled Prince William will today demand that his mother Princess Diana dump her playboy lover, Harrods heir Dodi Al-Fayed.
In The Sunday Express, Petronella Wyatt’s declared:
She seems to relish her role as a martyr, God help her if she ever finds happiness — it would make her miserable.
One of the most pungent examples of the swift turn to hagiography came from the Daily Mail’s Lynda Lee-Potter. On 27 August 1997, she wrote:
The sight of a paunchy playboy groping a scantily-dressed Diana must appall and humilate Prince William… As a mother of two young sons she ought to have more decorum and sense. She has for many years criticised Prince Charles for being a distant undemonstrative father. In the long run he’s been the more responsible parent and certainly inflicted less damage, anguish and hurt.
By September 1, she was typing through reptilian tears that:
Throughout their childhood [Diana] gave her sons endless loving cuddles… She adored her children.
In Tremain’s alternate reality, Diana has the soft-focus coverage without the dreadful inconvenience of having to be dead to get it. The story opens with a pair of sentences so saccharine they could rot a tooth faster than a cup of Coca Cola…
She’s still beautiful. That’s the first thing to say.
… but which immediately prompt questions: Why is alt-reality Tremain having to tell her readers this? Surely there would still be a lot of photographs? And anyway, the rest of the story paints the other dimension’s Diana as still very much a public figure (a potential Strictly contestant, dispatched to chat to Vladimir Putin, gazumping Prince Charles for charity patronages, and going to Wimbledon with Tom Cruise).
After some tedious scene setting involving a maid called Kitty and the Strictly diversion — which includes Diana namedropping John Travolta (“He’s seven years older than me but he can still move like a satyr.”) — she starts speaking like a Daily Telegraph leader column made flesh. Unsurprisingly, this is when Tremain’s imaginary talk turn to Harry and Meghan:
Diana says: ‘Wills and Harry shared so much as boys and as very young men, but marriage always changes things between siblings. It just does. Catherine is the “good sport”, the Berkshire girl, and she’s had no trouble fitting in. She laughs at all our family jokes. But Meghan never really got the humour; she’s from a different world. You see? If language nuance breaks down, then you have problems. Don’t you think? You’re a writer, you would understand this.
But you know Meghan is an enthralling person, very sassy, and smart, and I’ve said to William, for goodness sake, we must try to understand what’s happened and not lay too much blame on her. But Wills feels wounded. He was counting on his brother’s support for all that he’s going to have to undertake as Prince of Wales and then as King. And now it isn’t there at all and that’s hard to forgive.’
‘Have you forgiven the runaways?’ I ask.
‘We forgive our own children pretty much everything, don’t we? We just yearn for them to be happy.’
‘Do you think Meghan and Harry are happy in California?’
‘For as long as their great romance lasts, they’ll be happy. When the romance fades, perhaps Harry will want to come back. He hates having his military roles taken away from him and he always looked so gorgeous in the uniforms!
Because, of course, Diana — a woman who famously talked about “the men in grey” — would be unsympathetic to Meghan and on the side of “the firm”. Tremain is an multi-award winning novelist but her Diana is a glove-puppet mouthing the sentiments of Allison Pearson and Camilla Tominey.
“Sassy” Meghan is “from a different world” while Kate “had no trouble fitting in”? I can barely hear myself think over the sound of barking dogs.
Meanwhile Prince Andrew remains resolutely nonce-adjacent in Tremain’s imaginings but Diana diplomatically skips over ‘all that’ with burbling nonsense about desserts:
‘So you don’t discuss the Duke of York?’
‘Oh God. That. Well, we do sometimes, but it’s such a mess. Fergie says just about all she can do for Andrew is to ensure that the chef makes his favourite puddings.’
‘What are his favourite puddings?’
‘He likes nursery kind of things. Treacle Tart. They remind him that he’s still the adored son. The person I feel most sorry for in all this is Her Majesty. I’ve never seen the Queen cry. Never. She’s so stoical and brave. But, over this, I bet she just sometimes has to weep.’
Despite many hours of Diana talking on tape to which she might have referred, Tremain is unable to make her character sound even remotely human, let alone like the specific human she’s reanimating for a fee. Instead, she puts what she imagines are clever lines into undead Diana’s mouth:
‘You know, Rose,’ she says eventually, ‘don’t on any account write this in your piece, but I think, if they were all honest, they would like me to disappear. Even Her Majesty, who has always been kind and courteous to me; she pronounces my name “Dana”, leaving out the ”i”. And I often think this is because she feels there’s too much ”I”, too much ”self” in my personality and I still somehow get in the way of things. They can’t totally move on.’
If the words and sentiments of the imagined Diana stretch credulity, what Tremain has her do shreds it into grim confetti: Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron (French presidents being famously obsessed with British royals) decide to send Diana to chat with Putin — who she planned but failed to tell, ““You can’t betray the soul of Tolstoy, who liberated his serfs.”) and she reveals herself to be a David Milliband stan:
[David] is such a decent man. I suppose I shouldn’t really say this, but British politics would have been quite, quite different if he’d been elected Leader of the Labour party, instead of his over-ambitious brother.
She’s also fond of Ronald Reagan (“[he] was pretty good”) and a West Wing fan who wishes Martin Sheen had been US President instead of Trump and Biden.
Tremain stretches for profundity with her final paragraph and pulls a muscle:
Diana is sitting now on an iron bench, under a dark yew, with her head slightly lowered and her eyes cast down. In this somehow familiar pose, she reminds me now not so much of the Mona Lisa but of Raphael’s Madonna of the Rocks, watching tenderly over her children, but mired in some unforgiving landscape of the mind, with only a fragment of bright blue sky behind her head.
The conflation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks and Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow is a result of either the Telegraph’s ongoing defenestration of sub-editors or simply down to Tremain being considered too grand to edit. Raphael pictured Mary in open grassland while da Vinci showed her in a rocky wilderness.
Tremain’s Telegraph-approved Diana is neither in the sunlight nor the shadow but in the fevered heart of the paper’s collective imaginings, where only one thing is certain: Meghan is the monster now and Diana would be old news.
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The Telegraph is so proud of the story that it’s lowered the paywall so everyone can witness its ‘brilliance’.