Ten years on, there is still something dreamlike about the week that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Was central London really carpeted with flowers? Did every U.S. TV network throw out its schedule to cover, at length, the funeral of an English divorcé of uncertain prospects? Did the most levelheaded folk you know choke up about 10 times that week, snuffling into their tissues, "I can't imagine why it's gotten to me so much"?
Yes, and yes, and they probably did. To be sure, quite soon after Diana's death, a school of thought argued that the raw hugs-and-tears emotionalism of her funeral was an embarrassing aberration, a fake sentiment tricked up by the mass media, keen for a good end-of-summer story. But that's not a line that convinces. The memories are too real for that, the significance of them too apparent.
In Diana's funeral week, what had been considered the virtues--the Roman virtues, an earlier generation would have called them--of restraint, stoicism and quiet, private mourning were tossed overboard. For Diana, you were allowed public gestures and declamations usually reserved for the final act of an Italian opera. That this happened in Britain of all places--home of the stiff upper lip and the sort of strangulated emotional life that has provided Hugh Grant with endless paychecks--only added to the oddity of the events. Those in other nations who thought they knew the British wondered what sort of people they had become.
To which the correct answer would be: a modern one. The traditional, expected reserve of the British was a function of a system of authority put together in Victorian times by the sort of upper-middle-class men (not women) who dressed for dinner in the far reaches of the Empire to keep up appearances in front of the natives. They stressed the benefits of order, hierarchy, muscular Protestantism and good sportsmanship. Even in its Victorian heyday, of course, not many in Britain behaved in this way. The world's first mass working class, shuffling from factories to boozy music halls, reveled in a raucous sentimentality. In the cities, Protestantism (or any religion), be it rugged or weedy, rarely got a look, and sportsmanship meant cheering on your local soccer team after downing a skinful of beer. But by the late 20th century, all the elements that had held the old order together were gone. The Empire had become a matter of history; the established Protestant Church of England had become an irrelevance; and any deference to hierarchy had long been lost in the slaughterhouse of the Western front in World War I, where British soldiers were, in the phrase their German counterparts coined, "lions led by donkeys."
It was the new, modern, undeferential Britain that celebrated Diana as a rebel against authority, scandalizing those who still clung to Victorian ideas of order. Tony Blair, a new Prime Minister in September 1997, instantly understood what was going on and, by eulogizing Diana as the "people's princess," skillfully aligned himself with the politics of emotion. It was that sort of time--one when politicians proved their authenticity not just by being in touch with their (and your) feelings, but also by telling you until you were sick of it just how in touch with their bloody feelings they were. Less than a year earlier, after all, Bill Clinton, the hugger in chief, had crushed poor Bob Dole, a war hero who had made a whole career out of keeping his emotions, and his physical pain for that matter, well hidden.
But I wonder if we are not seeing the age of emotion come to a close. Anyone who was in London on July 7, 2005, when terrorist bombers hit the transit system, would testify that stoicism and the stiff upper lip are not dead in Britain. That day they were quietly but thrillingly on display as the city went about its business uncowed. Britain's new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is a son of a minister of the Church of Scotland--Protestantism does not get more muscularly reserved than that--and his political appeal is based much more on experience than empathy. In the U.S., by the same token, Mitt Romney (like Brown, a man born to wear a dark suit) is running on competence rather than feeling. As for Hillary Clinton, that good Methodist, she can wrap her arms around someone, but in the hugging game she is not, let's say, Clintonian.
I thought modern Britain showed the best of itself in the week after Diana died: a feeling and a compassion and an openness to emotional expression that it had for too long kept bottled up. But perhaps--as stock markets stumble and wars drag on--these are sterner times than the mid-1990s, ones when the virtues of reason, reserve and order become apparent. You can't fuel a society on flowers alone.