‘The Crown’: What to Read and Watch About Diana

By Roslyn Sulcas

If Season 4 has fueled your interest in one of royal history’s most glamorous women, you’re in luck. She has inspired many a book, documentary and article.

In Season 4, Diana (Emma Corrin) transforms from an unknown teenager into one of the most famous women in the world.
In Season 4, Diana (Emma Corrin) transforms from an unknown teenager into one of the most famous women in the world.Credit...Des Willie/Netflix

LONDON — The shy daughter of an ancient aristocratic family. The pretty nursery-school attendant engaged to the Prince of Wales. The glamorous, philanthropic beauty. The insecure, needy bulimic. The wonderful mother. The manipulative schemer. The victim of a neglectful, unfaithful husband. The self-empowered survivor. The tragic heroine whose shocking death, at 36, sent Britain into mourning.

Diana, Princess of Wales, was a protean figure, both accessible (Tony Blair, then prime minister, described her in 1997 as “the people’s princess”) and an enigma. There are well over 200 books and memoirs, several dozen documentaries and movies, novels and even a musical about Diana, with no sign of public interest abating. She is also a central focus of Season 4 of the Netflix series “The Crown,” which explores the politics and social history of Britain through the prism of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.

Season 4 begins in the late 1970s, with the 30-ish Prince Charles meeting the teenage Diana. It ends in 1990 with their marriage splintering on the rocks of infidelity, insecurity and emotional deprivation. To guide you through the events of “The Crown” and the thickets of “Dianamania,” here are eight books, articles and films that provide a range of perspectives.

This as close as we’ll ever get to Diana’s autobiography, based on a series of long-denied interviews that she and several close friends gave to Morton, a journalist who had covered the royal family for the British tabloid press. Diana’s firm intention in collaborating on the book was to reveal her side of the story, and the book is unashamedly partisan.

When it was published in 1992, there were already rumors about the shaky state of Charles and Diana’s marriage. But the revelations of Charles’s affair with Camilla, and of Diana’s eating disorders, self-harm and suicide attempts, shocked both the nation and the royal family. The book was the catalyst that eventually led the queen to allow the couple to separate and, eventually, divorce. “I don’t think she ever truly thought of the consequences of her actions,” Morton wrote of Diana in a forward to a revised edition of the book after the Princess’s death.

Here is the gossipy, compulsively readable account of Diana’s life that departs from more sober biographies. Tina Brown, a magazine editor with access to elevated social circles, loses no time in establishing her access to the Princess in her 2007 biography. “I had lunch with her at the Four Seasons,” Brown writes on page 2, going on to describe Diana’s transformation “from the tall, soft-cheeked English rose I first met at the American Embassy in 1981” into a sharply sophisticated, “phosphorescent” celebrity.

Brown’s access to Diana and her world stands her in good stead as she analyses her childhood, upbringing and life with and without Charles, in a muddled stream of insight, gossip and reportage. She is particularly fascinating on social class in Britain (“It’s not cool any more for upper-class girls to be as directionless as Diana was in the 1970s”), on Prince Charles (“Unlike other royals, Charles looks rich, which he is”) and on Camilla Parker-Bowles (“Women who love horses usually love sex”).

Brown is also excellent on a topic she understands perfectly: Diana’s manipulation of the media as a weapon in her divorce, and her tragic lack of anticipation of the consequences.

In this brilliant 2017 essay for The Guardian, the novelist Hilary Mantel meditates on Diana’s intimate, fraught relationship with celebrity. “She could not have imagined how insatiable the public would be, once demand for her had been ramped up by the media and her own tactics. In her circle there were no solid witnesses to the nature of reality,” Mantel writes about the cult of Diana, “the princess we invented to fill a vacancy.”

Mantel had already written an incandescent essay in 2013 about Kate Middleton (or, more accurately, the idea of Kate Middleton), the wife of Diana’s son William. In her piece on Diana, Mantel comments with sharp poetry and perception on the way the Princess was trapped by her own myth, and by her performance of that myth. (Read it here.)

This visual survey of New York Times stories about Diana, from marriage to death, has a striking image under its headline. Diana has turned away from a cluster of photographers all eagerly snapping behind her, and seems to be looking forward at something. Her expression is hard to read — resigned? content? complicit? — and her left hand is raised in what seems like a beckoning, come-hither gesture. It sums up the ambivalent relationship of need and resentment that Diana had with the media by the end of her life, and prefigures her death.

The survey begins with Charles and Diana’s marriage at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and proceeds through landmark moments in the Princess’s life: meeting the Reagans in Washington; dancing with John Travolta; on a family holiday with the two small princes William and Harry; divorcing; and visiting land-mine-infested Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, in 1997.

Each photograph is accompanied by a short text with quotes from and links to the Times articles around each event, so you can delve through part, or all, of a life lived in the camera’s eye. (Read it here.)

This National Geographic documentary uses the taped interviews that Diana made for Andrew Morton’s book as a voice-over, alongside archival footage. The documentary moves through her life, her death and its aftermath, and at almost two hours, it gives a good sense — if not always a flattering one — of Diana’s insecurities, victimhood and the chasm between her public image and private experience. Arguably the best part is the near-silent compilation of footage around her funeral, showing the genuine, overwhelming grief her death elicited, and the almost unbearable images of her two small sons walking behind her coffin. (Stream it on Netflix.)

This new documentary, made by Channel 4 in Britain, makes very heavy weather of the way in which Martin Bashir, a young reporter for the BBC, managed to secure his tell-all 1995 “Panorama” interview with Diana, in which she spoke candidly about the affair between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, her own infidelity, depression and bulimia.

In fact, the questionable circumstances around the interview were made public a long time ago (a BBC graphic designer said that he had been asked to produce fake bank statements with the idea of persuading Diana that she was being investigated).

The payoff for this drawn-out back story is seeing the footage of the Panorama interview, a pivotal moment in Diana’s life. Twenty-three million viewers in Britain watched as she uttered the immortal line: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” The reverberations would lead to divorce and send shock waves through the British establishment.

This film, written by Peter Morgan, the creator of “The Crown,” and directed by Stephen Frears, isn’t exactly about Diana. But it takes place in the week after her death, and gives a wonderful account of how the monarchy battled to respond to the outpouring of public grief that followed. The film also shows how Diana herself — with her un-royal volatility and lack of stoic acceptance of the status quo — had changed both the emotional temperature of the nation and forced the royal family to change. (Stream it on Netflix.)

This 2017 documentary by Nicholas Kent and Ashley Gething is the only one to feature Diana’s sons, William and Harry. As you might expect, it largely ignores the scandals and media frenzy over the more salacious aspects of Charles and Diana’s marriage and divorce. Instead, the film loosely sketches Diana’s life, drawing on family photographs and the memories of the two younger princes, who offer recollections of their mother taking them to visit charities and encouraging them to show compassion and support for others.

There are, nonetheless, some exquisitely sad and personal moments. “It’s still raw,” Harry says, looking at a photograph of a pregnant Diana holding William. (Stream it on HBO.)