Louise O'Neill: a 32-year-old man marrying a barely 20-year-old woman isn’t a fairy-tale and it never was

This season of The Crown highlights how very young Diana was during all of this — and it’s uncomfortable to look at that through a modern lens
Louise O'Neill: a 32-year-old man marrying a barely 20-year-old woman isn’t a fairy-tale and it never was

Princess Diana (Emma Corrin): The Crown costume designer wanted to create something that wasn’t an exact replica of Lady Diana’s original dress but which captured the same spirit and style of David & Elizabeth Emanuel’s iconic design

Like everyone else this week — according to social media, at least — I have been binging the fourth season of The Crown on Netflix. There’s much to admire, not least of all the eerie vocal work being done by Emma Corrin, the actor playing Princess Diana; at times, if you close your eyes, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. The royal family are reportedly none too happy with the idea of such a painful period in their history being dramatised to entertain the unwashed masses and honestly, I think they’re right to be worried. The PR rehabilitation of Charles and Camilla has been nothing short of masterful.

These days, most of us respect Charles’s conservation and environmental work, and the campaigning Camilla does for the Rape Crisis centres across Britain is hugely important; more than that, they are thought of as a true love match, a couple destined to be together.

It’s a far cry from the way they were vilified after Diana’s death. (I was 12 when she passed away and even then, I had extremely strong opinions about the “there were three of us is this marriage so it was a bit crowded” situation.) I’m an adult now and less inclined to moralise; relationships are complicated and it’s clear that Diana, while an extraordinarily charismatic and compassionate woman, had her own issues and frailties, like all human beings do. But what this season of The Crown highlights is how very young Diana was during all of this; only 18 when she started dating Charles, 19 when they became engaged, and it’s uncomfortable to look at that through a modern lens. A 32-year-old man marrying a barely 20-year-old woman isn’t a fairy-tale and it never was.

Princess Diana
Princess Diana

Diana isn’t the only towering historical figure brought to life in this season, of course. The Iron Lady herself is played with aplomb by Gillian Anderson. I used a very bad word to describe Margaret Thatcher (“Louise!” my mother cried. “Language, please!”), but even I had to sympathise with the character when she went to Scotland to spend time with the royal family in their country estate at Balmoral. 

I never thought Maggie Thatcher (the fictional one, anyway) and I would agree on anything but it seemed hellish there; the disapproving, silent servants, the ‘tests’ to see if guests are ‘U or Non-U’, the parlour games after dinner, the insistence that guests go stalking a giant stag in inclement weather. 

And again, while much of The Crown is fictionalised, it’s difficult not to sneer at the bowing and curtsying that’s going on. We’re talking about a group of people who have been described as inbred, lacking in intellectual curiosity, and, in the case of the Queen, lacking in formal education; apparently, she had lessons for 90 minutes and then spent the rest of her day learning how to dance or to horse ride. And because of a quirk of birth, British people are supposed to consider them their superiors? To call them ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ and bow their heads in respect?

It’s absurd, and I say this as someone who has always been interested in the royal family. I have enjoyed the glamour and the jewels and the dresses. I have residual affection for Diana’s sons, embedded deep in my psyche from the day I, like millions of other people around the world, watched as they walked after their mother’s coffin. But it’s been clear for a while now that the family appears to be deeply dysfunctional — a man with links to a convicted sex offender/paedophile has retained his titles but Harry and Meghan, the first biracial woman to be a senior royal, cannot actively use theirs. 

If this was a soap opera, the two most interesting characters have just been written out of the show and the ratings are about to plummet — and the institution itself doesn’t bear close examination, as it is imperialist, colonialist, nonsense. I would not have been an advocate for burning the Big Houses if I had been alive in the 1920s but I do think those houses should have been given back to the Irish State; the same way that I believe all the art and artefacts that currently ‘belong’ to the royal family should be returned to the countries from where they came. (Or more accurately, from where they were stolen.) 

But for now, I will continue watching The Crown and I will be interested to see the wider cultural impact it has. Will the 20 years of painstaking damage-control that was done to legitimise Charles and Camilla’s relationship be undone with 10 hours of television? Will Prince George ever ascend the throne or will the royalty be abolished before then? In a post-Brexit world, dealing with a recession-induced by the Covid-19 pandemic, how much longer is the British public going to tolerate Christmas Day messages given in front of a gold piano? Be careful, I say. Hold on to your heads.

Louise Says:

Listen: Up De Flats. Gemma Dunleavy’s EP is gorgeous and it’s such a pleasure to hear an artist singing in an accent that is undeniably Irish. The video for the title track (also titled Up De Flats) was released recently and it’s irresistible.

Watch: Pen15. Comics, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, play versions of themselves as teenagers at the turn of the new century. Painfully funny and cringeworthy but it has a lot of heart too.

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