Charles & Diana: A Fractured Fairytale

The views shared in this article are strictly reserved to the character portrayals of Charles and Diana written for Peter Morgan’s television series The Crown, and are not intended to reflect or critique the actions or motivations of the real historical figures.

Netflix’s The Crown took the world by a storm in 2016, a television drama created by Peter Morgan, focusing on the private and public lives of one of the most popular families in European history: The House of Windsor. Beginning with Queen Elizabeth II’s marriage and coronation, the show has followed the lives of the British royal family, slowly edging up to the present day. November 2020 finally revealed the highly-anticipated season 4, which follows a plotline largely centered on the riveting fairytale/tragedy of Charles and Diana. The season begins with Prince Charles facing pressures from his family to choose a bride and secure his legacy as first in line to the throne. Enter Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin): an obscure, beautiful, unassuming girl of nineteen, who captures the hearts of the royal family and the rest of the world in one fell swoop.

In episode one (“Gold Stick”), we get our first look at Charles and Diana on their chance encounter through Diana’s sister. Diana is very young, shy, idealistic, and empathetic—all unique qualities which catch Charles’ eye. When they meet again a few years later, Charles is again struck by Diana’s kindness and empathy, recognizing her maturity as ideal for the life of a future queen. Diana quickly wins the rest of the family over on a weekend trip to Balmoral Castle, and all the stars seem to be aligning for a forthcoming royal wedding. However, Charles is torn between his sense of duty and his passionate feelings for Camilla Parker-Bowles, his long-time, forbidden love (as she is a married woman). Unfortunately, his hesitancy to marry Diana is an eerie foreshadowing of the couple’s future unhappiness together.

The royal wedding is a historic moment, an international phenomenon, a royal triumph, and declared to be the stuff of fairytales. Shortly following the honeymoon, however, cracks in the marriage begin to show. Charles bemoans his suffocating existence to Camilla, and Diana continues to shrink as her eating disorder (wrought from extreme stress and anxiety) wreaks havoc on both body and mind. Their Greek tragedy of a marriage comes to a tense apex during the couple’s tour of Australia and New Zealand—in an episode entitled “Terra Nullius,” or “nobody’s country.” Charles’ attitude toward Diana is increasingly cold and sardonic as he nurses his own wounds of feeling uncared for, unappreciated, and disrespected. As public approval swings to utter adoration of Diana, Charles grows increasingly jealous, angry, and consumed with self-pity. In turn, Diana laps up all the attention she can get from her adoring fans in a desperate attempt to fill the absence of attention she gets from her husband.

Sin: A Deadly “Curving Inward”
Historically, general opinion has often vilified Prince Charles as the principal cause of Diana’s unhappiness and their failing marriage. However, Peter Morgan’s take on Charles’ and Diana’s relationship in The Crown suggests a more complex story, where responsibility for the failing marriage lies on both sides.

The root of the marital malady is best understood by the theological term: incurvatus in se, a Latin phrase coined by Martin Luther, describing the nature of sin as humanity “curved inward upon itself.” Derived from Augustinian theology, this “curved inward” state—as Luther understood it—is an “ingrained love of self, [an] egoism that constitutes the state of sin,” making mankind “his own end and idol, [bending] him to his own interest” in manners both spiritual and material.1 Instead of dealing with their individual hurts, fears, and insecurities, Charles and Diana each resort to curving inward, simultaneously curving away from one another. As “Terra Nullius” suggests, their marriage has truly become “nobody’s country,” a place where both partners have no connection or sense of belonging, afflicted with inconsolable loneliness and unquenched cravings for love. Both partners have curved inward to nurse their own wounds of want, rather than giving love and grace freely to one another.

One evening, while on tour in Australia, Diana pressures Charles to defend his secret attachment to Camilla, asking where in the world she “fits in” to such an impossible marriage. Charles suddenly dispels the argument by blurting out: “You fit in because you’re my wife. Because I love you. I do.” Suddenly, all the resentment and fear which set them against each other is dispelled. Love has been spoken and affirmed, and all other reasons for quarreling forgotten. Temporary harmony is restored as Charles and Diana recognize that they have both been seeking and needing the same thing: encouragement, support, appreciation, love. They vow to do better, to intentionally express love, appreciation, and respect for each other—and for a while the tour continues blissfully. Dances, parties, and speeches are now accompanied by the genuine joy and mutual affection of the couple, instead of the prior facade. Unfortunately, the rekindled felicity lasts only a few days. By the time they return to England, the couple has mutually succumbed to the throes of jealousy, resentment, and bitterness again, parting ways in separate cars for opposite parts of the country.

The True Fairytale
Throughout The Crown, the tragic irony of Charles and Diana lies in the public’s ignorant perception of their fairytale relationship, which we know is far from a fairytale within. Fairytales, as they have long been known, are wonderful tales which begin “Once upon a time” and end with “happily ever after.” But at their essence, fairytales are not self-fulfilling tales in which the key figures are supremely happy by caring for and loving only themselves. True fairytales always have an outward-facing aim: love. In its deepest and most beautiful sense, love is always outward-facing, outward-giving, self-sacrificing, extravagant, and costly. As the Scriptures define it, its attitude is one of complete self-emptying. It is patient and kind. It “does not envy…does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” It “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV). These are the qualities of a true fairytale which are painfully absent from Charles’ and Diana’s marriage, save for the brief moment in the hot outback of Australia when we get a glimpse of what their relationship might have looked like had they chosen a path of continued grace, generosity, forgiveness, and self-emptying.

The Charles and Diana fairytale ultimately cracks because of their sinful natures, which instinctively turn inward, bent on self-protection and self-fulfillment. Theirs is a sobering story which invokes some serious reflection and self-examination: how many of us could honestly recognize the same selfish, inward-curving nature in ourselves? How many of us have nursed insecurities and injuries instead of offering grace, instead of asking forgiveness of our fellow humans? Fortunately for us, the false fairytale of Charles and Diana reminds us of the real fairytale—the anti-tragedy—of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which remakes and redeems, curves outward, opens wider and wider with grace, forgiving our sin and making us whole. “Only grace,” Luther asserts, “can correct the…abusive practice” of a human soul curved inward—a task not wrought from “the powers of his nature,” but from “some more effective help from outside.”2 It is by this outward, self-emptying aid of Christ that even the greatest tragedy can be made into a true “happily ever after.”

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By Elizabeth Clayton