There is a scene in the latest series of The Crown in which a 20-year-old Princess Diana, played by Emma Corrin, is dressed in layers of thick ivory taffeta, a veil over her face – the royal approved virgin bride – before she makes her way through the gilded hallways of Kensington Palace towards her new life as a member of the royal family.
The Crown costume designers recreated the famous Emmanuel dress, the original of which was embellished with 10,000 pearls and appliqued antique lace, down to its 25-foot-long train, for just over 60 seconds of screen time. Viewers don’t even see the full gown, it lingers only in the back of shots, out of focus, before one final take shows it in full length from behind as Diana walks towards her future – a prescient warning of a life that would see her face insurmountable personal struggles and ultimately lead to her untimely death.
The image of the ghostly bride is as haunting as the scene’s accompanying score – not Wagner’s Bridal Chorus, but a choir performance more befitting a horror film. By the time the royal wedding came around, the young Diana had lost so much weight the Emmanuels had to sew her into the dress. She would later open up about bouts of bulimia she suffered as a way to cope with the stress of life with the Windsors, of her adulterous husband and of her subsequent loneliness.
The series was released as allegations resurfaced that BBC journalist Martin Bashir used unscrupulous methods to secure one of the most memorable interviews of the 20th century – when Diana uttered those immortal words: “There were three of us in this marriage.” The interview, when re-watched, appears increasingly to have been conducted under a level of discomfort.
The parallels between Diana and Meghan Markle are inescapable. An outsider struggling to fit in with regal protocol, praised by members of the public as relatable and human, hounded by the press for the same thing. Meghan being the wife of the little boy who was reportedly told not to cry as he walked behind his mother’s coffin makes these parallels evermore poignant.
But Meghan refuses to let history repeat itself. Enough is enough, was the couple’s approach when they announced they’d be leaving the grip of the firm to break out on their own, shortly after Meghan admitted she was “not OK” in an ITV documentary.
Since leaving the fold, the couple has taken on the media, thrown themselves into charity work and opened up about their political opinions, most recently with Meghan announcing her support for the Black Lives Matter movement and denouncing systemic racism.
Her viscerally painful essay for The New York Times, in which she reveals she suffered a miscarriage this summer, is the latest in a line of examples of her allowing herself to be human and refusing to let someone else tell her story. The essay describes the moment Meghan experienced the loss. “I knew, as I clutched my firstborn child, that I was losing my second,” the duchess writes. Meghan describes sitting in hospital and “watching my husband’s heart break as he tried to hold the shattered pieces of [hers]”.
The essay comes shortly after model and writer Chrissy Teigen shared a photograph of herself in hospital on Instagram following the still birth of her son. The reactions to Teigen’s Instagram post were a mixture of compassion from friends, gratitude from hurting parents who had suffered similar losses, praise from charities for her openness, and scorn and spite from those who deemed it too personal to share. Her pain was splashed across television screens as a jumping off point for whether we “share too much” on social media. The point of her post completely missed in the process; her pain swept under the carpet.
Many of the reactions to Meghan’s essay have already been the same – and she will have been braced for them. The cruelty of Twitter knows no bounds, and Meghan has faced the wrath of racism, sexism and nationalists who see her as an outsider.
Which is why her essay expanded to be about more than her personal experience. The duchess cites the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and an anecdote about a woman she once saw crying on the pavement in New York City, as she implores people to be kinder.
Watching season four of the Netflix series has been a stark reminder of how heartlessly Diana was treated by her husband, the wider royal family and factions of the press. Parts of the series have been embellished for dramatic effect by creator Peter Morgan, leading the series to be reportedly dismissed by Prince Charles. But much of it was inspired by Diana’s own words, and from many who were close with the family at the time. Much of it we know to be true – we remember watching it unfold.
Meghan and Harry are using their new roles as exiled royals to be the human touch the monarchy has continually railed against but that it has badly needed for so long. This essay is more than just a starkly personal confession – though it will have a positive and wide-reaching impact for those one in four women who suffer miscarriage – it is a heartfelt plea.
And it’s enough to make us wonder, once again, when people will stop and start to listen.