Is Diana`s reputation now at the mercy of time?

The British are fickle about the reputations of great women. Take Nell Gwynne: she was the inspiration behind Charles II founding the Chelsea Hospital, but we only remember her as his mistress. And what of Diana? Amanda Foreman asks whether, in 25 years’ time it will be the hemlines rather than the humanitarian causes that we remember, the love affairs rather than the lifelong altruism.

The evil that men do lives after them. Mark Antony observes in Julius Caesar, “The good is oft interred with their bones.” Women should be so lucky. Few enjoy any posthumous reputation at all and even when they do it is often a travesty. Death seems to have become the last bastion of male chauvinism. It may seem unimaginable now, while the media still feels a little guilty about its role in Diana’s life, but her reputation faces a bleak future. By 2025, it will be virtually unrecognisable to the generation who knew her when she was alive. Her legacy, if she has one at all, will be a rampant commercialism surrounding her name and image. The woman herself will have long vanished.

Time is cruel to women. The worst thing a woman can do, it seems, is to grow old. In life, it renders her invisible; in death it sends her to oblivion (unless, of course, she happens to die in her prime, as both Marilyn Monroe and Diana did). Even today, women remain the silent partners in history. When they do appear on stage, they rarely have speaking parts, except as queen or mistress. It is no wonder that much of women’s history is about reclamation. For the past three decades, historians have been rescuing once-famous women from the dust heap. Recent rehabilitations include the playwright and spy Apha Behn, the linguist and adventurer Lady Jane Digby, and Mary Carpenter, the 19th-century founder of Britain’s industrial schools. In fact, so many fascinating figures have emerged that the claim to have rediscovered yet another lost reputation is fast becoming a cliché. Critics groan every time they hear of another “brilliant” woman who “defied convention” to become a cultural/social/academic leader. They may have a point about the prevailing sense of déjà vu in women’s history, but the work still needs to be done if society is to take the contribution of one half as seriously as it takes the other.

I didn`t know that I would be doing my own bit for women’s rehabilitation when I began to research the life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. But the first thing I discovered was that the intelligence and the cultured voice in her letters bore no resemblance to the oft-repeated description of her as an “aristocratic super-tramp”.

Georgiana’s erasure from history was typical. Women don’t completely disappear they are just trivialised out of existence. Even today, it is an easy matter to remove women from the historical canon, much harder to reinsert them. Rosalind Franklin, one of the three scientists who traced the structure of DNA, has a better chance of rehabilitation than most. Her death at the age of 38 was untimely and her erstwhile colleague J. D. Watson rather downplayed her contribution in his memoirs. But in 1968, 10 years after her death, the first of many articles began to appear which questioned Watson’s account. Rosalind Franklin currently inhabits the nebulous realm of “historical controversies”, which is where she will remain until historians reach a consensus about her significance.

For the moment, Diana also inhabits this realm. It is far too soon to judge her legacy. Until all the papers of the present Windsors enter the public domain in perhaps 50 years’ time or more judgements about her life and character will be no more than educated guesses. Of course, that won’t stop people trying to make judgements. Nor will it protect the real Diana from being analysed out of all recognition. By 2025, there will be many competing versions, most of which will have been tailored to suit the prejudices of the 21st century.

The revision of Diana could go two ways. If Britain in 2025 is an insignificant region within a European superstate, the image of Diana may become a symbol which reminds people of their British identity. Like the Romanovs today, her life will become imbued with nostalgia and romance. She will be adored and revered as an icon of a lost Britain. On the other hand, if Britain has become a republic, with a dour, egalitarian attitude towards its past, Diana might symbolise the bad old days of privilege and a parasitic aristocracy. The name Diana will have the kind of negative resonance which was once so firmly attached to Marie Antoinette. It will become newspaper shorthand for upper-class self-indulgence. Either way, she will not resemble the Diana of our generation.

The danger, meanwhile, lies in the very real likelihood of Diana’s reputation being hijacked by the entertainment industry. Her immediate legacy is not going to be the resurgence of community charity not an advance in women’s rights, but a Diana industry which peddles a mixture of royalty, glamour and mystery. It will not be dissimilar to the other industries that have grown around Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Jackie Onassis. The mix of show-business, politics and untimely death has proven to be a goldmine for anyone willing to exploit it. Conspiracy theorists are still making money out of Marilyn’s suicide. There is every reason to expect that Diana will provide several decades-worth of material of her own, particularly since Mohamed Al Fayed seems determined to spend his vast wealth keeping the conspiracy stories alive.

Exploitation followed by appropriation is a nasty prospect. Nobody approves of the ideal, and yet Diana will not, by any means, be the last woman to lose her reputation to casual misogyny. There have been great gains in equality before the law and in the workplace, but the afterlife belongs to old-fashioned prejudice. Men enjoy the same status afforded to paintings death can make their value soar. But women are like cars their reputations depreciate the moment they are no longer on display. Two generations on, and the achievements of an actress, a fashion designer or a poet have often shrunk to a footnote. A hundred years later, and their best hope of rediscovery is a PhD thesis.

Diana may have to wait a long time indeed.

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