Welbeck Fiction Limited, Great Britain, 2023
An imprint of Welbeck Publishing Group
Cover design Simon Michele
Cover images Irene Gittarelli/Trevillion Images, Shutterstock
This is the third of Wendy Helden’s historical fictions focussed on women considered to be disrupters in the glittering sphere of the British Royal family. The Princess is a fictionalised version of the early life of Diana Spencer, the first wife of (now) King Charles.
The first in the series was about Marion Crawford, the governess of the then princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, the second about Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who, after a deal of scandal and his abdication, married Edward, formerly King of the United Kingdom, thence to become Duke of Windsor.
Telling the story of such a well known and loved character as Diana, and providing a novel view of it, is a difficult task, one which Wendy Holden achieves admirably. He insightful observations of the machinations of the royals and the various personalities involved in this story make it entertaining reading, albeit a story as sad as the reality on which it draws.
The author depicts the child Diana growing up lonely and somewhat forlorn after the tempestuous divorce of her parents. She finds solace in reading the heady romances of Barbra Cartland and forms a world view steeped in notions of true destined love, in which one eventually marries the prince of one’s dreams and lives happily ever after – not without enduring and passing numerous quests and tests.
In fact, what we see in the background of her dreamy teenage years is a young person cruelly and cynically manipulated to suit the need of the royal family to perpetuate itself through marriage and heirs. Diana proves an easy target for the scheming of the royal puppeteers, here seen as led by the also generally revered Queen Mother.
Diana’s eventual move to the palace after her formal engagement to Charles is the beginning of a period of extreme isolation, confusion and loneliness and, with the omniscience we have as readers of this story, we can see the seeds of the tragedy to follow.
Wendy Holden is at pains to stress that this is a work of historical fiction and that she has invented as much as she has found through research. However, the work rings true and royalists and non-royalists alike will find the tale riveting in its depiction of predatory behaviour.
The author’s keen grasp of human psychology makes it credible and absorbing fiction. We can but feel appalled at the cruelty of this abuse of an idealistic and very young woman (indeed a teenager at the beginning of the process), so beautifully possessed of emotional intelligence and grace.
Wendy Holden’s insights into British society, the class system, privilege and entitlement are searing. Apt too are her subtle observations of celebrity, media, marketing and the role of both public and press in accepting and hence promoting bad behaviour. Sometimes powerful systems harm even those who ultimately benefit from them. This book makes that patently clear.
The Princess, whilst fiction, makes a worthy contribution to our knowledge and views of the British Royal family and their role in society in the 21st century. It is accessible reading cleverly constructed, with the story delivered both by an all-knowing writer and in the ‘voice’ of the princess herself in confidences to her school friend, the character of Sandy, who becomes a sort of Greek chorus.
As audience we lap it up, not merely out of voyeurism but to unveil mysteries and to seek a form of truth and justice.
Thank you to Welbeck Fiction Limited for my review copy, and to Wendy.