Once it was impossible to fathom a more hideous fate for the former Princess of Wales than dying at age 36 in a dark Parisian tunnel amid the staccato pop of flashbulbs. But now there is one: being resurrected as the drab protagonist of Monica Ali’s dreadful new novel, Untold Story.
In the acclaimed British writer’s historical reimagining, Diana survives the 1997 car crash, only to stage her own presumed death by drowning a month later. Abetted by her loyal former private secretary, Diana washes up in Brazil—convenient, given her need for appearance-altering cosmetic surgery—then settles seamlessly in the North Carolina town of Kensington, which is nothing like her previous home (the palace), to escape media glare. Under the name Lydia Snaresbrook, she works at a dog rescue, has a nice but dull insurance-claims-adjuster boyfriend, and spends nights gossiping with the girls over pinot grigio.
The character is referred to as a “fictional princess” on the dust jacket, which is rot: Lydia/Diana combs through celebrity mags for glimpses of her beloved boys, for whom she selflessly plotted her disappearance, believing the palace was out to kill her and that she’d have constricted their lives. Then, in a coincidence that would make Dickens blanch, the past shows up in the form of a British paparazzo who espies Lydia’s “mesmerizing” aquamarine eyes (she carelessly ditched her brown contacts) and realizes he’s onto the scoop of a lifetime. Their final, clever cat-and-mouse standoff provides the novel’s scant dramatic tension.
The novel, published in Britain last month (it’s out in North America in June), has been lambasted for exploiting the royal nuptials’ buzz—never mind that it’s a ridiculously sympathetic portrait of Diana or that the wedding is already shadowed with “what-if-Diana-had-lived?” speculation. Imagining the former glam golden girl at age 50, which she’d be this year, is a polarizing sport: opinions on www.theroyalforums.com range from her becoming a Nobel Peace Prize recipient to a cosmetic-surgery junkie wrestling for the spotlight with her future daughter-in-law.
Reviving Diana so that she shapes her own tragic destiny is the most audacious example in the speculative historical fiction now clogging bookstore shelves. Given mass investment in the overworked “princess of the people” mythology, it’s even more perilous than imagining Hilter had not committed suicide and Germany had won the Second World War, as Robert Harris did in his well-received 1998 novel Fatherland. Since then, everyone’s playing God in prose: Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America sees Charles Lindbergh winning the 1940 U.S. presidency; Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife portrays a first lady, clearly modelled after Laura Bush, who realizes she has compromised her youthful liberal ideals; Jeff Greenfield’s new book Then Everything Changed boldly offers three alternative histories: of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan; in Stephen King’s next novel, due this year, his central character, a time-travelling schoolteacher, attempts to rewrite history by stopping JFK’s assassination.
Historians, formerly the world’s memorists, are not all thrilled about the trend. In his engaging new book, The Future of History, John Lukacs discusses novelists’ increasing movement to fictionalizing historical characters or injecting fictionalized characters in historical scenarios. Melding fact with fiction, dubbed “faction,” creates “twisted and false history,” he writes, as if history is objective science.
For novelists, “what-if” scenarios offer the obvious appeal sequels provide Hollywood producers: familiar characters whose backstory has been written; the opportunity to cash into every crackpot conspiracy theory out there; and the biggest bonus—the marketing is ready-made (no surprise, Untold Story, the movie, is in the works). Just mix, match and project. The possibilities are endless: Carla Bruni as a Berlusconi operative? Elvis alive, running a pawnshop in Vegas? If the aristocratic, tragic Diana can find happiness anonymously mingling 24/7 with American commoners, anything is possible.