I met Princess Diana in 1991, when I was 11 years old. I belonged to the choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, and we sang services for the royal family on occasion. Diana came to talk to us boys in the cloisters after one such service, being the mother of sons close to our age. The conversation was mostly about the hardships of boarding school, and one of our number admitted to missing his family. “Me too,” she replied. I remember it seeming curious at the time–isn’t she with her family?–but I am old enough now to realize that her reply was characteristic of Diana, at least as the public came to know her: expressive, empathetic and giving of herself, perhaps too much so.
It was this Diana who would give a nakedly confessional interview to the BBC’s Martin Bashir in 1995 as her marriage to Prince Charles was breaking down. She spoke of adultery on both sides and of her struggles with bulimia. Instead of being a future Queen of the country, she said, she wished to be a “queen of people’s hearts.” The British press sneered.
Yet now, 20 years after her death, on Aug. 31, 1997, this is her legacy: less a queen of hearts, perhaps, than a queen of the heart. Demonstrating the courage to break out of a rigidly hidebound establishment to expose not just her failing marriage but also her wounded feelings–that wasn’t something people did in the mid-’90s, not in Britain.
Those were changing times, however. The ruling Conservative Party that gave us Winston Churchill, Harold McMillan and Margaret Thatcher was then coming apart, and the political establishment with it. Its place would be taken by New Labour and Tony Blair, who would become in May 1997 the youngest Prime Minister in almost two centuries. It was a generational handover; the country went from being governed by the gray patricians of postwar Britain to being led by a new, youthful establishment ready to usher in the 21st century.
Just a few months after Blair took power, Diana–by then divorced from Prince Charles–met her end. The seismic shock of her passing caused immense ripples of grief across the country that lasted to her funeral and beyond. The mourning of Diana marked a sea change in how Britain exhibited its emotions. Where once we might have buried our feelings beneath a reflexive reserve, with Diana we felt entitled to let them out into the open. We channeled our sorrow in public, and to extremes, as the streets surrounding her Kensington Palace home teemed with flowers. Soon the grief turned to anger–at the paparazzi, who some believed chased Diana to her death, and at Queen Elizabeth for her perceived indifference to it.
In the years since, the currents of our feelings in Britain have run nearer the surface. We are quicker to weep, quicker to rage, quicker to rise up. Periodically, these extremes of feeling exhibit themselves on a national level. When Blair led the country into war with Iraq in 2003, the boiling opposition brought millions to the streets in protest. When toddler Madeleine McCann vanished from a holiday resort in 2007, never to reappear, it was as if parents across the country had lost a child of their own. In 2012, when London hosted the Olympic Games, the nation was gripped by positivity and good feeling. But grief and rage are never far from spilling into the public sphere. The disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower in London earlier this summer brought both. At the same time, the deference we once gave to the establishment as a matter of course has dissipated. Our vote to leave the E.U. last year was a defining symbol of a newfound defiance against the country’s elites.
These shifts would have happened without Diana’s death, of course. The global economy’s collapse, the rise of social media and changing immigration trends are all fatter threads in the warp and weft of British society over the past 20 years. But Diana’s passing came as the U.K. was learning to be a different kind of country. And the type of person she was–emotionally honest, sensitive to feeling–would have allowed her to thrive in 21st century Britain, had she lived. Just look at the work her sons are doing, not just fulfilling their royal duties but also admitting their own struggles with mental health and encouraging Britons to reach out for help if they need it. The queen of the heart would be proud.
For more on these stories, visit time.com/ideas
This appears in the September 04, 2017 issue of TIME.
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