THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

2 posts from August 2017

30 August 2017

‘Candle in the Wind’ and the Cultural Legacy of Princess Diana’s Death

by Dawn Foster

On the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, the British Library is putting on display, for the first time, the original handwritten lyrics to Candle in the Wind. Following Diana’s death Sir Elton John, a close personal friend, asked his collaborator Bernie Taupin, to adapt the lyrics of Candle in the Wind, originally written as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, to reflect the Princess’s life and death. The new version of the song, which opens with the line ‘Goodbye England’s rose’, was sung by John at Diana’s funeral, watched by an estimated 2 billion people. Here, Guardian journalist, Dawn Foster, provides a personal reflection on the memory and legacy of Diana’s death.

 

Flowers_for_Princess_Diana's_Funeral

Flowers and tributes outside Kensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana, 31st August 1997

Credit: By Maxwell Hamilton from Greater London, England United Kingdom (Flowers for Princess Diana's Funeral) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My mother woke us at 5am and said “She’s dead.” Hours later, when we came downstairs for breakfast, she was glued to the television. The next few days were an uneasy haze: news updates were delivered hourly as the public waited for details on how the crash had occurred and they scrutinised the reactions of the Royal Family. Crowds of mourners fed a sea of flowers, toys and trinkets that surrounded Kensington Palace. 

Even at the age of nine it was clear immediately that the death of Princess Diana on the 31st August 1997 was an historic moment, not just in terms of the death of one of the most famous people on the planet, but culturally. Diana’s death raised questions about the media’s behaviour and approach to personal lives, the role of the Royal Family, and how British people saw themselves. Daily newspapers seemed dated when they failed to carry the most recent twists and turns of the mourning period: the public hunger for information birthed rolling news in a quick, makeshift fudge. Radio and television kept up with announcements and developments more swiftly than print could manage, and small snippets of news took precedence over the more contemplative and authoritative polished segments in news bulletins. 

Coming shortly after New Labour swept to power in May of the same year, Diana’s death and the unprecedented public reaction to the tragedy signalled changing British sensibilities. Diana had become a public individual via her work on campaigns and charitable causes while the Royal Family remained distant authority figures. Deference to the Royals seemed outdated after the divorce of Charles and Diana. Many older friends told me women were emboldened by Diana’s decision to divorce and talk openly about the decision, showing that, even in the highest strata of society, it was becoming accepted that remaining in an unhappy marriage didn’t need to be the norm.

Her relationship with the gay community, too, signalled slow but growing acceptance of different sexualities in Britain. The British Library’s current exhibition, Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty, charts the legal changes and cultural shifts that characterised Britain’s attitudes towards gay relationships - from open contempt and criminalisation to a begrudging acceptance - since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexuality following the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report ten years earlier. The exhibition includes a 2016 cover from the gay magazine Attitude featuring Prince William. Diana was both a pin up and a champion for the gay community, and it’s difficult to imagine the Attitude cover without her engagement with gay politics and people. Her work on HIV was part of a celebrity-led effort to increase understanding of the disease, in both prevention and destigmatisation: the fact she shook hands with HIV-positive patients was shocking to some at the time but was a deliberate decision to show prejudiced ideas about transmission were outdated, damaging and needed to be debunked.

As well as her charitable work, her famous friendships with gay figures were notable. When Sir Elton John asked his collaborator Bernie Taupin to rewrite the lyrics of Candle in the Wind to mark her death, he did so not just as a performer attempting to capture the spirit of a nation in mourning, but as a personal friend and confidante of Diana. Performing at her funeral, the mask of the performer slipped as he ended the song. John’s face, wracked with grief, became a conduit for the emotions of the nation. Anything could happen, and the moment felt unprecedented. It was clear a change was occurring in the wake of the tragedy and the cultural character and mores of the country were shifting. 

The perceived reserve of the Royal Family in responding to Diana’s death and the gap between this and the news, celebrity responses such as John’s, and the public’s reaction were stark. John’s song - itself a cover, updated for the death of a close friend, emotional and heartfelt - chimed with the depth of public feeling for Diana and marked a change in British sensibilities which was here to stay.

Dawn Foster image

Dawn Foster at the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition, 2017 © the British Library

07 August 2017

The Puns of Punjab: Edward Lear’s India Letters

Edward Lear (1812-1888) is best known for his nonsense verse for children, but letters recently acquired by the British Library (Add MS 89254) contain information about events in Lear’s real life, and demonstrate his letter writing capabilities. In 1873, Lear and his servant Giorgio Kokali ventured to India (partially for Lear’s health- he was suffering from bronchitis in a rainy London winter). They travelled the width of India and the length of the subcontinent, before settling in San Remo where Lear worked on his Indian commissions: ornithological and landscape paintings for Lord Northbrook. During this time, he wrote letters to his friend, Lady Mary Wyatt, wife of Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt, architect and art critic.

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The period which these letters come from pre-date the financial insecurities which plagued Lear’s later years. These letters comprise correspondence pertaining to real events, for example Lear’s wishes that Lady Wyatt’s husband recovers from a minor illness, alongside a healthy dose of nonsense. One describes an ‘accurate history’ of the tale of 401 cows and 183 dogs. Upon hearing the cries ‘the 401 cows filled the ambient air with their laments… numbers of the cows not only shed tears, but that the little dogs actually dried their eyes with their tails’. The figures of the cows and dogs can be seen drawn on the letter in ink, in a similar style to the illustrations for Lear’s other nonsense works.

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The letter from 24 January 1874 includes many puns, which Lear has underlined:

 ‘I shall send Digby no Delhineations of Delhi, not having been there- nor of Agra- for it would only Agravate him, & he would Be-neer-as happy as he was before… If you had but seen the Elephums & me ariding a top of one! (Which I would not do, as it was in the procession, & I thought it I might be sick just as I came up to the Viceroy)…’

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His nonsensical letters also reference Tennyson in relation to the chaotic community of 183 dogs and 74 calves, whilst punning on various words for cattle:

‘All at once the 183 little dogs by a Nimpulse, swam across the swollen flood, warbling in chorus the beautiful words of the poet, ‘Flow down cold revulet to the sea’ – &c &c, – till on reaching the 74 calves they seized their noses, ears, & tails, and… dragged the whole party to the shingly banks of the shore opposite where their almost despairing parients, cowed by their recent affliction and bullied by the impendious oxident which had occurred, were heiferlastingly stamping in the melancholy mud’.

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Whilst some may think these letters unreadable out of their original context, it is probably more enjoyable to embrace them as a case of the crossover between the Lear’s real life and his nonsense. They capture Lear’s delight in wordplay and nonsense, which span his works, both literary and epistolary.

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by Emily Montford, Modern Archives and Manuscripts Intern