I’d like to take issue with the statements about Aids in Hilary Mantel’s otherwise wonderful Princess Diana essay (The princess myth, Review, 26 August). It is not right to say that in 1987 only the ignorant or bigoted thought that casual contact would infect them – or perhaps it’s more true to say that the ignorant and bigoted made up the majority of the population.
In 1987 the US banned HIV-infected immigrants and travellers. 1987 was the year President Reagan first mentioned the disease in public, and the beginning of the UK’s “Don’t Die in Ignorance” campaign. It was also the year that the activist group Act Up was founded, meaning the very beginning of concerted public information. There wasn’t just ignorance about transmission, but widespread uncertainty in the medical community itself. As the New York Times reported in February 1987 in an article entitled Facts, theory and myth on the spread of Aids, “Experts say there is no danger in a peck on the cheek of an infected person but they recommend against any exchange of saliva and deep kissing with an infected person.” Stigma played a huge part in the ongoing nightmare of an Aids diagnosis, and whatever else one may think of Princess Diana, her gesture in touching a person with Aids did occur in a climate of widespread and unnecessary ignorance and prejudice that she did her best to dispel.
• Ms Mantel dismisses in a one-liner Diana’s impact on the Aids “epidemic” of 1987 referring to “legend”. As best friend and executor of Ivan Cohen, I wish to put into context the very real threat perceived and not restricted to the “bigoted and ignorant”. Ivan was the only person in the special wing of the Middlesex Hospital willing to be photographed with the princess and only on condition that he was photographed from behind. The stigma associated with Aids is difficult for an outsider to gauge in retrospect and Ivan certainly saw it as such. She was indeed instrumental in highlighting the incongruous attitude.
Lewes, East Sussex
• In 2013 Hilary Mantel wrote a piece for the London Review of Books entitled Royal Bodies, in which she took an erudite and articulate swipe at Kate Middleton and Princess Diana among others. She also referred to a theory, not her own, that attempted to attribute Henry VIII’s terminal decline to the McLeod syndrome, and his wives’ recurrent failed pregnancies to Kell blood group incompatibility causing haemolytic disease of the fetus and newborn.
I wrote to LRB to point out that the theory was based on several false premises and was untenable. Hilary Mantel graciously replied to acknowledge my contribution and to explain that she had raised the matter merely as an interesting idea that encourages us to think more kindly about Henry and his unfortunate wives. She finished her response with a touching personal aside and her observation that “a bit of posthumous sympathy doesn’t go amiss”. The public response to Diana’s tragic death may have been excessive, but it was in part driven by the perception that a vulnerable young woman with psychiatric problems had not been given the support she needed. What’s Hilary Mantel’s problem with royal women?
Dr Gerald Smith
• Hilary Mantel both elevates and skewers the princess myth in her brilliant exposition on Diana, the people’s princess. The comparison with Marie Antoinette is apt: “Diana’s experience as daughter of a landed family did not prepare her for Buckingham Palace, any more than Schönbrunn prepared the teenage Marie Antoinette for Versailles.”
In 1770, the marriage of the Hapsburg princess, Maria Antonia, to Louis Auguste, heir to the French throne, was arranged for political reasons. Marie Antoinette, as she would thenceforth be known, was introduced to her prospective husband, for the first time, two days before the wedding. She was 14. He was 15 and shy. It is not surprising that their bedding ritual at Versailles was observed to be unsuccessful. The non-consummation of the marriage for the next seven years frustrated all interested parties. A couple of teenagers were responsible for the great union of France and Austria that their marriage symbolised. It had to work. This was politics.
The ex-King Louis XVI was taken to his execution in a carriage. Marie Antoinette was put in an open cart for the hour-long trip to the guillotine in Place de la Révolution on 16 October 1793. Aged 37, in a white dress, hair shorn, hands tied behind her back and on a leash, she could hear the crowd screaming “Autri-chienne!” (Austrian-bitch).
Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, Ireland
• Referring to Lady Diana’s boyfriends as “non-white” (Diana was society’s warning, 31 August) is the fallacy that Plato drew attention to, of dividing all the people in the world into the Hellenic race and the rest, alias barbarians, as is shown if we describe Prince Charles’s second wife as “non-black”.
• Twenty years ago this week a woman died whose charitable work was legion and whose care for others was universally known. Has anyone recognised in writing or broadcasting the memory of Saint Teresa of Calcutta? Thought not.
• In reviewing Diana: Seven Days, Tim Dowling says (G2, 28 August) the outpouring of public grief caught those in charge on the hop. Maybe, but one amazing aspect of that amazing week was the speed with which those in charge made and sometimes changed the arrangements for the funeral. The princess died on a Sunday morning. By Monday it had been decided to invite representatives of the charities with which she had been involved to walk behind her coffin to the abbey. On the Tuesday I was chosen as one of the London Lighthouse representatives. We were told the procession would start from St James’s Palace. Then we heard that we would be walking the longer distance from Kensington Palace. Then it was decided that the coffin would start from Kensington Palace but that we, with Earl Spencer and the royals, would tag on behind the coffin when it reached St James’s Palace.
After I had carefully chosen my shirt, tie, socks etc, I got a registered letter from the lord chamberlain saying: “There is on this occasion no formality in what you should wear,” and that I should, if possible, wear a T-shirt with the London Lighthouse logo. These had to be specially made. We were supposed to get them on the Friday but, in the event, I didn’t get mine until the Saturday, the day of the funeral. Luckily it fitted. That was a day I’ll never forget: the heavy silence, broken only by the sound of the horses’ hooves, the tolling of the abbey’s tenor bell and sobbing from the crowds.
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