The death of the Princess Superstar, ap parently on the cusp of an emotional tranquillity that had thus far eluded her, has a deeper resonance. It offers neither a fairy tale with an unhappy ending nor a morality play with obvious heroes and villains, but rather a Greek tragedy rescripted for modern times.
The princess had long since passed from being part of the royal pageant - its scintillating and its darker side - to reach iconic status. She was up there with the figures that the world knows on first-name terms: Elvis, Jackie or Marilyn, who, like Diana, was 36 years old when the reality of her life was enshrined in myth.
In her transformation from the traditionally passive and pretty princess to active world figure, Diana had also become symbolic of the power of modern woman to steer her destiny.
While men often (openly or privately) sympathized with Prince Charles when the princess went public about her rotten marriage, women cheered her on. She deliberately took the dangerous decision to move her life into the fast lane - not just with her penchant for jet-set life over the stuffiness of the royal court, but in her willingness to bare her soul about her emotions, her bulimia and the infidelities of her husband and herself.
Her critics will see in this a streak of self-destructiveness that foreshadowed the tragic ending.
If Dianas story reads like a soap opera, she contributed to the screenplay. By so obviously enjoying her cover-girl status, and inviting the world to share the roller-coaster ride of her personal life, she became the ultimate celebrity symbol of a media-saturated age.
Diana was, in fact, the first media-savvy royal, a television princess who honed her image to the small screen rather than the big crowd.
Queen Elizabeth had, it is true, invented the idea of the royal "walkabout, " but her dignity and restraint put a glass wall between herself and her subjects.
Diana became master of the one-on one encounter- not just with the sick and distressed, but also with a face drawn from the crowd. And while this made great television and newspaper pictures, it also had an enormous popular impact.
From the reaching out, literal and figurative, grew Dianas role as a quasisaintly figure, whose way of communicating with the old, the young, the victims of Aids or land-mine injuries, crossed barriers of age and language. Instead of the post-Victorian royal image of a family steeped in bourgeois values overlaid with pomp and circumstance, Diana appeared to be reinventing earlier mystical concepts of kingship, when the "laying on of hands" was part of any royal progress.
In an age when conventional religion is often abandoned or deemed inadequate, this "Diana-worship" fulfilled a need.
And whereas it might have seemed mawkish or weird, people believed in Diana because she was so obviously searching for answers for herself. Her unhappy marriage and its aftermath were filled with visits to psychics, psychoanalysts, faith healers and clairvoyants (most recently with Dodi al Fayed, who was killed in the same accident).
Diana therefore became not one of "them"- a distant royal with a gracious interest in ordinary folk- but one of "us. "
In every facet of her life, she appeared to mirror the norm in the late 20th century - especially for her gender.
She was a tireless mother who turned out to have come from a dysfunctional family. People saw her hugging her kids and remembered the story of how her own childhood was haunted by the memory of her mothers departing footsteps crunching down the drive.
From "Shy Di, whose sweet sidelong glance made her look like a startled fawn, she morphed into a business person and working mom, whose causes were big issues in which she proved that one person could make a difference.
Her time off was also like that of ordinary folk. Ignoring royal etiquette, the princess threw herself into races at the childrens school sports days. Her vacations were not behind castle walls, but a glamorized sun-and- sand version of other peoples holidays.
She was venerated for her extraordinary, charismatic beauty, elegance and style - but then revealed that her exterior was as much a facade as her fairytale romance with the Prince of Wales. Then she rebuilt her body and her confidence at the gym, as though to prove that glamour is something that any woman can aspire to.
Even her revelations about her love affair with James Hewitt and her recent flaunting of an intimate relationship can be seen as a mirror image of the "girl power" that dominates the 1990s.
Dianas presentation of herself as a sexual being was an affirmation of the reality of modern womens lives - the diametric opposite of the image of the innocent and virginal princess sacrificed on the altar of royal conformity in her 1981 marriage.
How much of all Dianas life was about manipulation through the media to feed the fantasies of an adoring public? In recent weeks, comparisons drawn between Dianas relationship with the playboy Mr. al Fayed and Jackie Kennedys relationship with Aristotle Onassis suggest that people were not entirely happy with this picture- perfect romance.
By turning so much of her life into a photo op, she reaped the bad harvest of complicity with the media.
Yet the princess, even stripped of her official royal status, had still seemed the best hope of the monarchy for giving itself a purpose, a position and above all a coherent image in the modern world. The reaction of the royal family to her death - its ability to express the emotional grief of the public - may determine its status and even its survival.
When the young Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1953, symbolizing the hope of renewal in a postwar world, her prime minister, Winston Churchill, called her a flash of color on the hard road we have to travel." He said, "we dont know how lucky we are to have her. "
In Britain and the wider world, most ordinary people would echo those sentiments about Diana and feel that a light is extinguished with her death
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