Professor Donald Elder: It was 20 years ago today …..

Aug 28, 2017 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: It was 20 years ago today …..

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Elder, I am stealing a line from a Beatles song, but as we approach August 31 “it was 20 years ago today” (on August 31st) that the world lost Princess Diana.  First of all, as a historian, how much do contemporary historians follow the various kings and queens over in England and in Europe and around the world?

Historiography has changed in many respects over the last 100 years, and especially so in respect to the study of monarchs. In 1917, for example, hereditary rulers reigned in many of the nations engaged in the First World War.

Because of that, it made perfect sense for historians to examine those powerful and influential individuals. That conflict, however, initiated a series of regime changes that left few monarchs in a position of power. Indeed, three hereditary rulers—Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany, Emperor Franz Josef in Austria-Hungary, and Tsar Nicholas II in Russia—lost power during the First World War. Moreover, a number of thrones that survived the First World War would end as a result of the Second World War. Others had their powers severely curtailed.

For that reason, historians have had far less motivation to study royal families in today’s day and age. But this trend clearly has not applied to the study of the English monarchy. Even though the kings and queen of the United Kingdom have had only a symbolic influence for many years, Americans have continued to have a fascination with their history. Thus, while historians pay scant attention to other royal families around the world, they continue to follow the lives of Queen Elizabeth II and her family.

2. Do some historians regard these monarchies as anachronistic?

While historians strive to approach their subjects with a detached impartiality, their biases clearly influence their perspective. For that reason, American historians usually tend to view monarchies with a great deal of skepticism.

While they try to present a balanced appraisal of hereditary rulers, few feel that this model provides a realistic path for helping people have the best path towards a collective well-being. But even with this built-in bias, historians still try to accurately convey the stories of these monarchs. This certainly seems to hold true for books and article written about the English monarchy.

3. Now, on to Princess Diana: how much political influence did she really have? I know in England they have a Prime Minister and the House of Lords and House of Commons…

The short answer is that Princess Diana, during her lifetime, had absolutely no political power. This stems from the fact that the United Kingdom has a constitutional monarchy. This means that the kings and queens of that nation rule subject to clearly delineated limitations.

In the United Kingdom, the royal family can undertake symbolic acts, but those individuals cannot exert any actual power. Princess Diana, on the other hand, recognized that becoming associated with causes could carry a great deal of weight. By 1983, she had therefore immersed herself in charitable work, and helped bring attention to some worthy causes.

4. Her impact on the world: she was the “people’s princess”. What made her so endurable to the British public and indeed the world?

First and foremost, Princess Diana seemed like a genuinely nice person, especially compared to many other members of the royal family. For example, for all of her virtues Queen Elizabeth II seemed pronouncedly aloof to many Britons. If the Britons found her remote, they regarded her son Charles as even more detached. By contrast, Princess Diana gave the appearance that she actually cared about the subjects of the realm. In a similar fashion, the British public found most members of the royal family devoid of any fashion sense, but they saw Princess Diana as possessing a great fashion sense.

Although her husband was young in a relative sense (33 when they married), he seemed much older. Princess Diana, on the other hand, was literally young (20 when she wed).

Finally, Princess Diana became involved in charity work that demonstrated a genuine compassion for humanity. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard came from her outreach to the AIDS community. At a time when many felt reluctant to help people suffering from that condition, she actually reached out to physically comfort the victims.

Moreover, she did the same with victims of leprosy. For many reasons, then, Princess Diana became far and away the most admired member of the royal family. This adulation continued even after her divorce from Prince Charles, and continued until her death.

5. Her legacy: what can you now say in insight, literally 20 years after her death?

Many observers have speculated that Princess Diana would have remained popular no matter how long she lived. Sadly, we will never know about that because of her untimely death. Dying young gave her a certain aura, one that has attached itself to other celebrities like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe who died young.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon came from a song recorded by Elton John. He had originally written and recorded a song about his fascination with Marilyn Monroe that he titled “Candle in the Wind,” but after Princess Diana’s death he re-recorded it with a significant change in the lyrics. Instead of singing “Goodbye Norma Jean,” he sang “Goodbye England’s rose.” This became an international hit, reflecting the fact that by the time of her death Princess Diana truly belonged to the world.

6. What have I neglected to ask about this very sad, tragic loss?

While the loss of any human life is sad indeed, this seems to have been a person who was revered and loved all around the world. The Founding Fathers would undoubtedly be shocked to see how the American public continues to revere the former wife of the heir to the British throne. We had, after all, fought two wars within the space of 40 years against Great Britain, and many citizens of the early republic thought that we would remain bitter enemies forever.

But two members of the royal family helped to change American public opinion. In 1860, Edward, the Prince of Wales, visited the United States, and thousands of Americans came out to see a member of the royal family in person. He seemed to genuinely enjoy visiting the United States, and this helped to give Americans a more favorable impression of the British royal family. Soon thereafter, the American Civil War broke out, and early in that conflict a dispute between the United States and Great Britain threatened to cause a war between the two.

But Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, counseled his wife to allow time for a diplomatic solution, and this intervention undoubtedly helped to avert a war. These two members of the royal family helped change American perceptions, and prepared the way for our nation’s citizens to embrace Princess Diana as they have.

7. Professor Elder,I know you are a historian, and not a psychologist, but one of Diana’s last quotes was “I think the biggest disease this world suffers from in this day and age is the disease of people feeling unloved”. Your thoughts on this statement?

          This quote by Princess Diana can be understood on two levels.

First, it certainly applies to the charitable work that she did. Rather than simply visit hospital wards containing the usual type of convalescent patients. Rather, she chose to visit people suffering from afflictions like AIDs or leprosy. Society usually shunned these people, but Princess Diana felt that these individuals deserved to be treated with respect. Thus, her quote certainly applies to the outreach that she did after she married Prince Charles.

But on another level, she may subconsciously have been referring to herself. It became quite clear to Princess Diana early in her marriage that Prince Charles actually felt deep affection for a lady named Camilla.

From all accounts, this hurt her self esteem. In addition, Queen Elizabeth II never seemed to welcome Princess Diana into the royal family. Treated almost as an interloper, Princess Diana thus suffered even further from issues of self esteem.

Clearly, when Princess Diana said these words, she was talking as much about herself as she was the marginalized members of society.

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