This was the thing about her: she grew. When Diana Spencer was introduced to the British public as the betrothed of the Prince of Wales, she was just 19, and seemed the epitome of the shy, pretty, slightly dim girls who spend a few years in London before returning to their natural environment among the landowning old money of the countryside. Her family was an ancient one, with estates in Norfolk. Much as if she was a horse (an animal with whom the aristocracy was better acquainted than it was with independent women) she was widely thought, in the circles that counted, to have good breeding, which she would pass on to her sons she was bound to have sons hence guaranteeing the future of the royal line.
The fact that Diana Diana as a phenomenon as much as Diana the girl was an anachronism, mind, did not stop the British public taking her to its collective heart. To understand why, it helps to be old enough to remember just what Britain was like in 1981, the year of the royal wedding. The cities were racked with race riots, the economy was in ruins, and the government of Margaret Thatcher this was before the Falklands war or the grudging appreciation that strong medicine was needed to save the country was, quite literally, hated by half the population. The wedding of Charles and Diana, on a gorgeous summer's day, injected a welcome note of glamour, romance and fun into a miserable land. Through all the drama that followed, she never lost the goodwill that she won on her wedding day.
But as Diana grew and grew up, she added to that goodwill. She had been pretty, in a coltish way; she became beautiful. She had been frumpish; she became stylish. She had known her place, known how to hide the pain of a marriage that was doomed from the start by the fact that she had never been Charles' true love; but she learned to speak out. She had been country; she became London, with all London's innate rebelliousness. And so, over the years, as the fairy tale faded, it became strangely apparent that what the royal family had thought was the safest of safe choices had turned into something quite different into a person whom those marginalized in British society quietly saw as one of their own. She had gay and black friends; she reached out to aids victims; she spoke of her bulimia and postpartum depression; she died with her Muslim lover; she was (as Tony Blair said in the phrase for which he will always be remembered) "the people's princess."
And, oh, how the people honored her. It has become fashionable, in the years since, to say and think that Britain went collectively mad in the week after Diana and Dodi Fayed died in Paris to dismiss the crowds, the flowers, the tears, Elton John and I Vow to Thee My Country as a ghastly aberration. In fact, it was a liberating celebration of a life that spoke for what Britons now wanted to be; not defined by cups of tea and stiff upper lips; not deferential; not condemned to live in a nation of perpetual, autumnal decline; not quiet; not old-fashioned; not dull; not sexless. Diana was a revolutionary. She could never have articulated it didn't know it, probably. But somehow or other, Britons know, and are grateful