Princess Diana: Yorkshire author publishes book looking at life of Princess Diana before she joined the Royal Family
The flags across London were at half-mast. It was a strange sight to behold as Wendy Holden sailed along the River Thames on that late summer day in 1997.
Her parents had made a rare trip down from West Yorkshire, so they hopped on a morning boat ride to take in the capital. Meanwhile, the world was still waking up to the news that Princess Diana had died after a catastrophic car crash in Paris.
The silence around Kensington Palace, which they walked to even before the floral tributes enveloped its gates, was also a jarring experience for Wendy.
Growing up in Cleckheaton, she had pored over Lady Diana’s glamorous lifestyle as a young ‘Sloane Ranger’ and devoured the coverage of her wedding to the future King Charles in 1981. “Now, we live in an age where everybody knows everything about everybody, pretty much, but in those days in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, huge areas of British society were still pretty hidden,” says the author, a former magazine journalist.
Hearing about Diana and her circle’s rich London lives at that time “was like discovering a completely secret society,” she says.“So I was always interested in her and I followed the royal wedding completely breathlessly - I just thought it was completely fascinating, the whole thing.” But it is those formative years as Diana Spencer which inspired Wendy to write the third novel in a trilogy about misunderstood women involved with the royal family - those she calls the “disruptors of the House of Windsor”.
The Governess came first, with its plot based on Marian Crawford, the Scottish teacher who was a big influence in the life of Queen Elizabeth but who, as Wendy puts it, was “basically cancelled by the royal family” for The Little Princesses, the 1950 book she wrote about them after retiring from service. Then there was The Duchess, about Wallis Simpson - King Edward VIII famously abdicated the throne to marry her. The Princess, then, could only be about one person. Diana was “probably the most disruptive woman the House of Windsor has ever had,” says Wendy.
However, the author realised that she did not really know how it came to be that Diana first became involved with the royals and engaged to Charles.
“I started to look into it, and found that it was a much more complicated story than I’d ever imagined, involved so many people, and had so many different motives from all sides. But it quickly became the most fascinating story to put together and perfect for a novel,” she says.
The story is told from various perspectives - Diana herself, fictional school friend Sandy, Prince Charles’ valet Stephen Barry, the British press and the Queen Mother.
“One of the things that became apparent to me and was really fun to write about was the fact that the route to the royal engagement was like a kind of social Grand National - it had different jumps,” says Wendy. “All the women that Charles had been out with had fallen at different fences, for different reasons.”
It was also the more pedestrian but joyful moments in Diana’s young life at school and living in London which Wendy has put into fiction.
“She was living in this flat in Kensington with all these Sloaney girlfriends and I just wanted to get across an idea of what fun that was and how happy she was, and how ordinary and normal it was in the sense that she used to watch Crossroads eating bowls of cereal and they had a goldfish called Battersea,” says Wendy. “They used to go to the Benetton sale and have spag-bol suppers.”
Back at the house in Hill Street, Cleckheaton, Wendy spent her own teenage years trying to embrace the Sloane Ranger lifestyle - as much as was possible in Yorkshire at that time. Named after the upmarket Sloane Square in Chelsea, it described a certain type of posh young socialite living in the capital. It was a lifestyle immortalised in The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook by Ann Barr, published in 1982 with a picture of Lady Diana on the front.
“I completely wanted to be one,” admits Wendy. “It looked so glamorous, it looked so fun, but it was difficult, obviously in Cleckheaton there weren't many Sloanes around so I had to kind of make it up myself and I went all the way to York to get a Laura Ashley skirt and the right shoes all the rest of it, and started adopting a sort of posh voice, which horrified my parents, as well it might.”
Wendy studied English at Girton College, Cambridge, where, ironically, she discovered that she didn’t really want to inhabit the “limiting” role of a Sloane Ranger anyway. She did operate in that world, though, as a journalist for magazines such as The Diplomat and Tatler. “I ended up not meeting Princess Diana to talk to but I was in the same place as her on a number of occasions, such as a Buckingham Palace garden party. I did see her and I was in her kind of world for a bit and then when I moved to Tatler she’d just died. So almost my first job as deputy editor was to ring up as many of her friends as I could get hold of and ask them about her unique sense of humour.”
Her career as a novelist started around her time as deputy editor of the Style section in The Sunday Times, where she found herself ghostwriting the column of a real royal friend, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.
“To my complete amazement, and everybody's amazement, it became really, really famous and really, really successful.” But for Wendy the novelty wore off. While Palmer- Tomkinson was jetting around the world, going to the Oscars on the back of the column and getting publicity and sponsorship deals and having a great time, at dinner parties, people would be talking about the socialite, much to the chagrin of Wendy, who’d protest that she wrote the columns. “I was almost at the point of resigning from the job because I just thought, this is so humiliating, it's so miserable, I don't like it. And then I thought, oh my goodness, this novel I've always wanted to write, here it is right in front of me. This is the perfect subject.”
Simply Divine, her first book, came out in 1999. She now lives in Derbyshire and has children Andrew, 20, and Isabella, 19, with husband Jon. “I can't tell you how I almost missed it. And I think it's terrifying really, because to me, that was the beginning of my writing career, that novel, and it became really successful,” she says. “So if it wasn't for Tara, I wouldn't have been a writer,” she says.
The Princess - which is dedicated to Vanda Symons, her English teacher at Whitcliffe Mount School - is her 20th book. And it is not just a story about one woman, says Wendy, but a tale concerning all of us and our country. “One reason I wanted to write about Diana was that it's been a generation since her death now. We are able to see her and the times in which she lived in context. She is a proper historical figure and so I thought she deserved a proper historical novel.”
The Princess, published by Welbeck, is out now