Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess – Sally Bedell Smith (1999)

diana.jpgSince there was a rather large English wedding that occurred the other day, my curiosity was triggered to learn more about one perspective of another former royal: Princess Diana.

(Especially after reading two of Bedell Smith’s other books: Prince Charles (good but no blog post for this one) and The Queen.)

(I know, I know… I’m English and typically we tend to rather roll our eyes with respect to the monarchy and the American obsession with them, but it was still an interesting read. Besides, loads of Americans frequently ask me (as the only English person they may know) to explain some of the finer points of this, so I was also just curious. I’m doing it for the people, man. 🙂 )

Bedell Smith is an American writer who is good at her craft and seems to approach her subjects with a pretty well researched and balanced perspective. They’re not academic tomes, to be sure, but they are readable and seem balanced for the most part. Sort of like an in-depth People magazine article of a kind.

So, this title was about the life and death of Princess Diana in respect of how she ended up marrying Charles and then all the drama that came with that. (And there was a LOT of drama.)

After reading this book, the feeling that I end up with is one of pity for everyone involved, really. (Keep in mind that I didn’t know any of the parties though… 🙂 )

And so it seems that most of the drama was actually created by Diana herself most of the time (at least according to this author). Diana seems to be mentally fragile for the majority of this book. Barely educated (no thanks to her parents) and then probably mentally ill on top of that.

If this book is true (and I don’t know that it’s not true, TBH), then the match between Charles and Diana was a mess from the beginning and then stayed that way throughout their lives. I think that the initial impression that many Americans had of Diana immediately after she died was that she was a golden and angelic woman who was stuck with a boring old codger, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

(Whether she was mentally ill or not, she does come across in this read as a particularly high-maintenance personality in a very unhappy relationship that probably should have never happened.)

Bedell Smith uses source after source to show the reader that Charles as not, perhaps, the evil monster that he was portrayed as in the 1990’s, and the end result was that he was just doing his best with a slightly unbalanced wife who he shouldn’t really have married.

I’m not sure what to think really, and since I don’t know them in any way, there’re probably few out there who really do know the events. This was certainly one perspective that doesn’t apologize for either of them in the end.

By sticking to her journalistic sources, Bedell Smith seems to give a fairly balanced view of this messy marriage and I have enjoyed the read.

If you like a fairly chatty tone to your non-fiction, but one that’s also supported by annotated facts and a large bibliography, you might like this author. It’s certainly not rocket science, but it’s still a pretty good read for when it’s hot outside and you don’t want to think too much about anything in particular.

So, not a bad read. Not a great read. Just somewhere down the middle.

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Gone with the Windsors – Laurie Graham (2006)

This book had been well recommended at one of my favorite hang-outs on the interwebs which is Readers’ Paradise . Trusting my reading friends there, I ordered it with anticipation and then once it arrived, duly placed it on the tottering TBR pile to sit there for ages gathering dust. I had a hankering for an epistolary novel and a royal related one, and if it could be light-hearted and rather English, that would be great as well.

Graham’s novel fits the bill on all levels. It’s focused on the love affair of American divorcee Mrs. Wallace Simpson and the abdicated King Edward and is from the hilarious (although accidentally funny) view of one of Wallace’s close childhood friends from the US.  Maybell Brumby, the author of the fictional diary we are reading, is extremely funny in places, but is even funnier because she doesn’t mean to be hilarious. Others have compared her to the role of Bertie Wooster in P. G. Wodehouse and I think that is a fitting comparison – a sort of “blundering but well meaning idiot” type.

Maybell is a newly widowed wealthy lady from the bluestockings of Baltimore and has known Wallace (or Wally as she calls her) since they were school friends and Wally was a charity student at their posh school. Always having been filled with dreams of a grand life, Maybell achieved it through marriage, and then had watched Wally aim for the same thing. “Grand life” and “rich English men” rather went together as they had, much as they had during Victorian times (a la Downton Abbey), and so the book follows Maybell moving to England (at the behest of her sister who was also there) and then what happens when Wally arrives on those distant shores, meets the Prince and changes the path of the British Constitution and royalty for ever.

Maybell is an ideal foil for the canny and manipulative Wally who seems ruthless and determined to live the life of wealth and ease signified by marriage into the Royal Family. However, the path of love is not simple and as is commonly known (especially since the film, The King’s Speech was released), Wally was not crowned Queen and David (who was previously called King Edward the something) was forced to choose between throne and love. He chose love, which, according to this book, really really annoyed Wally who had much higher aspirations than living in exile with an excommunicated prince.

The names were a bit confusing at first as the royal men seemed to have constantly changing first names. Edward was also David was also Prince of Wales was also Duke when he abdicated. Bertie was Albert who was also King George the something and was his younger less well prepared brother. I did have to keep referring to the royal family tree to keep these straight and work out where the current Queen of England fitted in, but that was the only downside to the whole book.

Oh, and it could have been edited towards to the end. Once the abdication had occurred and the former royal couple were in exile, it was also the start of World War II and Graham has a great grasp of all the players, both big and small. But again, it was a bit confusing about who was who and doing what. Various equerries popped up and popped down and then there were also other members of staff who had roles. Minor quibble though.

It was very clear that Graham had done her research as the plot was detailed and spot-on as far as I could tell. (However, I am not an expert in these areas. Seemed good to me though.) And there were places when I just snorted out laughing in reaction to what Maybell writes in her mistakenly oblivious and very human way  — Edna Piaf, for example, was one of these errors and Harrold’s the department shop.  Close enough but no cigar as they say, and these ongoing errors were purposely made by the author and helped to make Maybell very human and real to me.

I am wondering if Graham is as hilarious in other books. I have previously read (pre-blog) her The Future Homemakers of America, but don’t remember much so may have to reread that. And then I have just ordered Perfect Meringues which was one of her back list books. Regardless of whether she is as funny in her other work, she gets a tip of the hat for being hilariously wicked in this one.

🙂