The marriage that divided a nation - The Princess is not one to miss.
What inspired you to write a novel about Princess Diana?
WH: I’ve always been fascinated by her. She was only a few years older than me when she married Prince Charles, so she was around for a large part of my life. I live and work in London, so my jobs in glossy magazines took me into her world to a certain extent; we were even at the same parties a few times. But it wasn’t just that. Her trajectory was so dramatic; from innocent teenager to world-famous icon. What writer wouldn’t be interested? I also felt, as it’s a quarter of a century since her death, that she was now a proper historical figure and so deserved a historical novel.
Your previous two books in this trilogy also look at strong women. What draws you to write about strong women in history? And specifically, what is it about Diana and her life that you were so drawn to?
WH: With all my ‘Windsor Women’ I’ve been interested in the same thing. Marion Crawford, Wallis Simpson and Diana all came from backgrounds very different to the royal one they entered, and they changed the institution for ever. This is especially true of Wallis and Marion, whose backgrounds were almost the opposite and neither of whom had any money. Diana may have been an aristocrat, but thanks to her parents’ divorce her early life was extremely difficult. Perhaps of all the three she was the least prepared for what she entered into.
Diana was an internationally loved figure and continues to be remembered and revered. What do you think it is about her that resonates with so many people?
WH: She was intensely human and vulnerable, and people responded to that. She had a completely instinctive gift for putting people at ease, and that came from her own feelings of insecurity and worthlessness. She was brave and impassioned about the causes she believed in, but also very funny and loved to joke. Crucially, and unusually for a royal, she wasn’t at all pompous. And of course, she was beautiful and glamorous!
The Princess looks at the backstory of young Princess Diana. What was involved in your research process?
WH: Reading, reading and more reading! I read everything about her I could get my hands on, and watched endless TV footage. But all the time I was forming my own take on her story, and this revolved around her route to the altar, and how difficult it was. From the outside, to the adoring public, her engagement to Charles seemed to breeze along, but the truth was the exact opposite. There were a couple of times when it almost didn’t happen at all. I was riveted by the amount of manipulation that went into it, by so many people, all with their own vested interests. My job was to try and imagine this vulnerable young girl with her idealistic convictions about love, caught in this pitiless machine.
While researching Diana’s life for this novel, did you come across any information that you found particularly surprising or interesting?
WH: Practically endlessly! Diana’s route to the altar was like a sort of social Grand National. She had to jump over endless hurdles, which took the form of weekends at the polo, staying at Balmoral and so on, all the time under the closest scrutiny. Imagining her stay on the Royal Yacht Britannia was especially fun. She would have had to admire Prince Philip’s special stormproof candlesticks, which plugged into an electric strip on the table. Less amusingly, I discovered that her grandmother gave evidence against her own daughter – Diana’s mother – at the Spencers’ 1969 divorce hearing. This must have made a painful situation even more agonising.
What was the most rewarding and challenging part of writing this novel?
WH: I set out to tell the story of the unknown years of the world’s most famous woman. The difficulty was deciding from which and whose angle to approach it, as so many people were involved. In the end, I opted for multiple points of view, the whole framed by a single character, and I think it has worked brilliantly. I am so proud of this novel, I think it is my best ever.
How much of your novel is historically accurate? And did you ever struggle to reconcile the history with the fictionalisation of her story?
WH: It’s completely accurate in that it fits all the dates and events as they actually happened. But it’s my imagining of her story too; how she felt and what she thought. That’s what makes it a novel and not a biography. I don’t think I ever struggled on anything major, but sometimes when I had to find out, for example, what people took on shooting lunches at Balmoral. Getting all the details right was crucial.
This is the final book in your trilogy about royal outsiders – how does it feel to be saying goodbye?
WH: I am delighted with my trilogy, so believe I have done these amazing ladies justice. The Governess, The Duchess and The Princess together shine a bright and very revealing light on the murky inner workings of the British Royal Family in the twentieth century. The Windsors are often called a soap opera, but I think they’re far more than that. They are grand drama, on a huge scale, with colossal characters.
What are you working on next?
WH: Aha! You will have to see. More history, more fascinating women, but I’m not saying who or when!
Please share with us a few interesting Diana facts you came across and included within the book.
WH: Before her engagement, the teenage Diana shared a flat in London with three friends, and a goldfish they called Battersea. Diana was the landlady and organised the cleaning rota, which she was very strict about. She had a sign on her bedroom door saying ‘Chief Chick’.
She completed several cookery courses; chocolate roulade and borscht were her speciality dishes. But her idea of a perfect dinner was a bowl of Harvest Crunch cereal in front of the telly. Her favourite TV programme was Crossroads, the motel-set Seventies soap opera starring Noelle Gordon.
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