Princess Diana 20th anniversary death commemorative magazine covers

I don’t just like royalty, I’m a monarchist, a firm believer that the royal family is good for Canada, Britain and the 14 other nations with Elizabeth II as their head of state. As a royal watcher and journalist, I’ve got two walls of books on the topic, carefully classified by subject.

Just don’t ask me about Princess Di.

She did an enormous amount of good. She embraced AIDS patients at a time when many thought the virus could be spread through touch. She was openly affectionate with her children in front of the cameras, something that the royals had traditionally reserved for private times. She made sure William and Harry saw what life was like outside palace walls. She engaged with the general public in a warmly confident and casual way never seen before in the royal family.

However, there were also some notable faults: in order to get the upper hand as her marriage to Prince Charles disintegrated into acrimony and divorce, she selectively leaked stories about her unhappiness and their marriage to the media, then denied having done so. She dragged her children into the mess, tipping off the media as to their location, and using them to publicly bolster her parental bona fides. She was emotionally volatile, regularly discarding friends and relations who displeased her, harassing one married male friend with nuisance phone calls.

I’m a Diana agnostic. She was beautiful but, like every human being, flawed.

Yet, 20 years after she died in a car crash in Paris, when her car, pursued by paparazzi, smashed into a concrete pillar in a tunnel, many of her of her fans still cling to their treacly memories of the woman British prime minister Tony Blair famously called “the People’s Princess.”

It’s beyond normal remembrance. It’s a cult, determined to tear down anything and anyone who threatens the perfect princess, including the marriage of Charles and Camilla. It has to end.

In the week between Diana’s death and funeral in 1997, I worked 18-hour days creating endless numbers of video montages of Diana at CTV News, watching a world unhinged with grief. Mourners planted fields of flowers at palace gates and complained that flags were not flying at half-mast. The crowds bayed to see their dutiful Queen shed her famously reserved persona to show open grief for a woman who threw mud, rocks and then flaming torches at the monarchy. It was unnerving.

In those tear-soaked days after her death, the ideal of Diana hardened into a pop culture legend: She was the perfect mother, style icon, tireless humanitarian, an innocent who rebelled against a stultifying royal system. Even now there is no escaping Diana. She is forever a beautiful 36-year-old ghost gliding through the gilded corridors and state rooms of Britain’s royal residences, haunting the House of Windsor.

It drives me nuts that so many people continue to harp on about events that happened decades ago and won’t give Charles and his second wife, Camilla, a break. Perhaps years as a royal watcher and as a media fact-checker means I can’t see the Charles and Diana story as black and white. I’ve learned life is an endless gradation of grey, from dove to charcoal.

The origins of the Princess Diana cult

Princess Diana books biographiesLike millions, I followed the Diana fairy tale from the beginning, hoping that the marriage of the future king to the coy, aristocrat nursery school assistant really was the “stuff of which fairy tales are made,” as the archbishop of Canterbury said at their 1981 wedding. With the wisdom of hindsight, I’m not sure why anyone, including me, ever thought it would work.

Diana was an immature 20-year-old with an insatiable penchant for attention; Charles was an old-fashioned 32-year-old known for his stubbornness and petulance. They had nothing in common but their children. The marriage withered and died, killed by revelations of adultery, and by petty cruelties and jealousies, with bad behaviour on both sides. Both were damaged, but Diana emerged victorious in the eyes of the public.

It helped that Diana was a tall, willowy blond with sparkling eyes, a ready smile and a warm hug. She understood the power of a picture to frame a story. The world forgave her flaws, blaming those blemishes on an uncaring, unsympathetic royal family instead.

Even now, Diana’s many fans still can’t forgive Charles for the sins of their marriage or give him any credit for his part in raising their sons. “He’s been this man in the middle, yet through his suffering, I think he helped bring about a more normal life for William and Harry,” says author Sally Bedell Smith, whose latest royal biography, Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, paints a nuanced view of both Charles and Diana. “Royal life is never completely normal, but they certainly have been able to achieve something close to that.”

The bittersweet remembrances of Princess Diana’s sons

Diana’s two sons remain her biggest fans. Increasingly, Prince William and Prince Harry are publicly honouring Diana, as is their right. They loved their mother, were traumatized by her death and are determined to ensure her memory lives on. This summer, in an authorized documentary celebrating Diana, they talked of “the best mother ever,” a woman whose motto was “you can be as naughty as you want, just don’t get caught,” as Harry remembers.

Along with bittersweet remembrances by Diana’s sons, this summer has seen a deluge of regurgitated tabloid stories and documentaries examining every bit of gossip and intrigue, with Charles and Diana reprise their old roles: She is tragic perfection, her ex-husband the villain. The results cast deep shadows over Charles and the House of Windsor, spitting drops of acid on his future title of king. In a new ICM poll, only 22 per cent want him to be the next monarch.

Though his charitable achievements are impressive and varied—every year the Prince’s Trust helps 60,000 young people move into work, training and education while another effort helps rebuild the historic crafts area of Kabul, Afghanistan—it’s inevitable that the first lines of his obituary will focus on the traumatic breakdown of his first marriage.

The Princess Diana cult’s No. 1 enemy

Meanwhile, critics reserve their strongest venom for Charles’s second wife, Camilla, who Diana nicknamed “the Rottweiler.” That’s a pity because Camilla is funny, smart and, above all, a good match for Charles. She grounds him in a way Diana never could.

He’s noticeably relaxed in her presence. She’s got an oddball sense of humour that more than matches that of Prince Charles. Get them near food or drink and they turn into a royal double act, as happy to pull pints of beer in a pub as drink them. The same applies to sharp weapons. “Behave yourself,” warned Camilla as she brandished a large knife near her husband at a winery in Australia.

What really sends Diana acolytes into a tizzy is the idea that Camilla, the “other woman” during Charles and Diana’s marriage, may end up with the title of queen instead of the compromise moniker of “princess consort.” Two years ago, 35 per cent of Britons wanted Camilla to pass on the regal title “out of sensitivity to Diana,” the YouGov polling firm reported. Now, only 14 per cent believe she should get the ultimate title of Queen.

Sure, they resumed their love affair while Charles was still married, yet Diana also broke her marriage vows. Charles and Camilla haven’t whitewashed their past wrongs—at the blessing of their nuptials, the couple confessed “manifold sins and wickedness” from a stern 1662 prayer of penitence. They deserve to be happy, without the endless comparisons.

There comes a time when bitterness and recrimination just stop. The past is the past. The People’s Princess died 20 years ago. The woman who holds Charles’s heart will make a good queen.

The cult of  the perfect Princess Diana must be consigned to history.