photograph: George Biard
What makes a woman great?

Is it celebrity, like Marilyn Monroe? Is it saintliness, like Mother Theresa? Is it political ambition, like Cleopatra?

Or is it something more elusive than any of these?

It is now fourteen years since Diana, Princess of Wales, died in that horrific car smash in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris, yet the anniversary of her fiftieth birthday last year saw a fresh outpouring of public grief.

For a major celebrity, Diana was remarkably self deprecating: "I don't even know how to use a parking meter, never mind a phone box." Her greatest talent was in being nice to people: "I want to walk into a room, be it a hospital for the dying or a hospital for the sick children, and feel that I am needed. I want to do, not just to be."

Did this make her a great woman? Her critics said no, because she never held any position of political power. But in a BBC poll she was voted third of "100 Greatest Britons", easily outranking her former mother-in-law and placing her above Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton and Nelson.

This infuriates those who argued that she achieved nothing in her life. They ignore her tireless work for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines - the victims of anti-personnel mines were and are mostly children. The ban was effected shortly after her death, and in a world seemingly run by arms dealers this was no small achievement.

My mother certainly thought Diana was a great woman. She was no royalist, the only other Windsor she had time for was the Queen's mother. She was of the generation that lived in London during the Blitz and still remembers that Queen Mary didn't leave London during the bombing - she stayed "with us".

She reckoned Diana was of the same stripe. Mum even once owned a Princess Diana doll. It was about two feet tall, and looked more like Barbie on steroids, dressed up for a day at the races. It was a real talking point in her house for many years, (along with the inflatable two metre high kangaroo in the backyard.) Diana's greatest virtue, in her words, was that she wasn't "stuck up". 

photograph: Rick
She had the common touch. And for East Enders like my mother, that was everything.

Few women in history have inspired the same kind of adoration as Diana. Perhaps because she said things like: "HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug: heaven knows they need it."

Yet opinion about her remains divided, as with any famous person. One of her more spiteful biographers wrote that she was a "demanding shopaholic ... obsessed with her public image"; her brother eulogized her as "the most hunted person of this modern age."

She was certainly an enigma: she appeared to be a woman on a desperate search for love yet she once said: "People think that at the end of the day a man is the only answer. Actually, a fulfilling job is better for me."

She will be much written about in the future, I guarantee. In a hundred years historical fiction authors like me will pore through the history files looking for the facts about her for their own stories. But what will those facts be?

Every saint has a dirty secret; even a monster may have an adoring grandchild. The really interesting thing about famous people is not how many lovers they had, how many battles they won, or countries they ruled. They become truly interesting when they have a human face. Great virtues side by side with obvious failings can be very appealing.

Diana was certainly very human. It was part of her charm. She had the opportunity to help the less fortunate and took it wholeheartedly; she went about doing good while most of us just go about.

It is too soon to write the first unfettered historical novel about her. But I suspect she will become one of the most enduring women in history. God knows there have been few enough men or women of true celebrity and glamour who have done so much for others while remaining as fallible and earthy and flawed as the rest of us. 

See Colin Falconer's latest novel, Anastasia, here, 
and more history from Colin Falconer at  

From History and Women

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Sue Bursztynski said…
Great post, Colin! When she first arrived on the scene, who would have thought this sweet young thing was going to be more popular than the rest of the Windsors put together? And she earned it. I'm not a royalist, but she'd have been welcome to have tea at my place any time and I would have supplied the ottoman so she could put her feet up.
Unknown said…
Thanks Sue. I feel the same way - she put a human face on royalty. Her popularity has never waned and that popularity has carried over her to her kids. I believe her place among the great women of history is assured.
Anonymous said…
Lovely post about Diana. If she didn't have something very special about her, she wouldn't continue to evoke such feelings, especially in those who didn't personally know her.

This is so true when writing about someone whom the facts only give a surface glimpse into: 'They become truly interesting when they have a human face. Great virtues side by side with obvious failings can be very appealing.'