Alexandra Marshall

Marriage and death; wishes and fears

Originally published in The Boston Globe, September 5, 1997

In our family it had already been a wedding day, the night the princess died.

Just in time that morning, the sun burned its way through the persistent fog, and, in a grove of mature white pines, a perfect couple married each other, passionately. Their intense premarital deliberation yielded a pair of love letters, from each to each, and their own words about each other sounded truer than their more familiar, solemn marriage vows did. They know what they're getting into without the benefit of a failed first marriage. They've been paying close attention.

And so we assembled witnesses were able to play our parts confidently, and under a perfect blue sky our opened hearts promised our combined, wholly devoted support. Yes, we could be counted upon; and vice versa. The day almost ended on this euphoric note, but for the then still "breaking news" from Paris. An hour later, "ever after" was forevermore foreshortened. Before our eyes, best wishes converged with worst fears.

This convergence of wishes and fears is what a fairy tale is, and yet, as in his book "Fairy Tales and After," Roger Sale writes, "No fairy tale I know distinguishes real from unreal, to say nothing of fantasy from fact." With the graphic news from Paris, fact and fantasy are suddenly made distinct from each other. This can't happen. In a fairy tale we're not required to imagine dying.

It would be our task, more simply, to put ourselves into the place of, for example, a rather ordinary girl chosen to be the prince's princess But now here's the very problem: In addition to our having put ourselves in her place, she proved to be uniquely capable—unprincess-like—of putting herself in our place. Like those photos of her, stolen from miles away with weapon-like lenses, the distinctions are blurred. The fuzzy images could be anybody's, even our own. What we weren't prepared for were the consequences of this identification.

Yes, I watched Lady Diana marry Prince Charles, and, on our couch in the middle of that long-ago night, I had tucked under my arm—it was his request to be wakened for it—a little boy whose father had died recently. We two attended the royal wedding as if we were personally invited, and, I sensed at the time, it served as an act of consolation for a boy whose own worst fears had been realized, so who was in desperate need of some new wishes. Even with the worldwide demand for renewed hope, there seemed to be plenty to spare. Nor was it a fatal problem, seemingly, that the royal marriage was arranged to provide for a next of kin, but of course this was because we didn't know it was also pre-arranged, to fail. That boy and I were happy to link our own hopes to Merrie Olde England's, and did.

But perhaps because a story always has to fold back in on itself to generate meaning, as it happened it was that same boy, now grown, who escorted his sister—the bride—down the aisle,into her own profound desires. Watching his face, I found myself thinking, therefore—only hours before Diana's death—about a fairy tale wedding and famously modern aftermath. Here's my question: Are marriage and death, deaths and marriages, fated to intersect?

Once, in a public discussion, the writer-scholar Carolyn Heilbrun wondered aloud why it is that, in novels, the women characters always either die or get married. I admitted, shocked, that I was guilty of this in my first two novels (where the first dies and the second one relents to marriage), so I promised myself I'd try to do better in my next two. In my next two you could say I did worse, and for the obvious reason. I'd come to understand that, for women and men both, the future hangs exactly in that balance between our fears and our wishes, between the real and the unreal, in the blur of fantasy and fact. We're not sure which is which. It doesn't matter.

Our hearts opened. "That could be me," we half-believed, no matter that in a million years, we actually couldn't ever be that ruffled, ribboned couple gliding down the cathedral's red-carpeted aisle. Why such power, then, in the fantasy? Because, to our credit, we'd all prefer to be—not smaller than life, but—larger than life. The complete surprise was in this princess demonstrating with the example of her entire life, "It's more than that you could be me. I could be you."

In this death of hers, we understand that, after all, she was us. No wonder we can't be consoled.