Photo: Kippa Matthews
Flora Harding Animates Diana and Charlotte, Two Would-Be Queens
In a Q&A about "The People's Princess," the British author discusses how two women, born 150 years apart, were widely adored and died tragic deaths / BY Rosemary Counter / March 15th, 2022
English writer Flora Harding has penned everything from Buckingham Palace travel guides to historical romance novels to a PhD on the disposal of waste in Elizabethan York, and yet somehow it all comes together wonderfully in The People’s Princess. In the weeks leading up to Diana’s ill-fated wedding, Harding imagines Diana imagining Princess Charlotte, a forgotten, real-life, would-be British Queen during the Napoleonic Wars, whose portrait hangs in Buckingham Palace. In a Zoom call to York, Zoomer chats with Harding about two surprisingly similar princesses, love in the monarchy, and the very interesting lives of the servants who scrub Royal toilets.
Rosemary Counter: I hope you booked off a good chunk of time today, as I can talk about the Royal Family all day.
Flora Harding: Funnily, I didn’t actually know much about either of these princesses before I started this book.
RC: You didn’t know much about Diana?!
FH: Of course I know about Diana, but what do any of us really know? This became so clear to me as I was researching. We make these assumptions about these people and what they’re like and how they feel, but we don’t really know anything. They seem to be all over the place, and we certainly see them all the time, but these people live lives that the rest of us have no access to. There’s something very compelling about that to me.
RC: I really thought I knew a lot about the monarchy, but somehow had never even heard of Princess Charlotte. How is this possible?
FH: I only discovered her while writing a history of Windsor Castle, because she’s buried at St. George’s Chapel. I came across an account of her funeral, which was elaborate and extraordinary, because the whole country was said to be in mourning for the woman who would have been their queen, which of course sounded very familiar. I started researching her and discovered this wonderful, strong, independent character. I didn’t realize princesses could be like that!
RC: So why did her memory disappear?
FH: I think that when Princess Charlotte died, very young and in childbirth, the country replaced her quickly with Victoria. The public was longing for a young, fresh queen that they’d hoped Charlotte would be, and they got that in Victoria. So the story changed, just like that, and it became Victoria’s story. History would have been different had we instead had a Charlottian age, and all because that poor girl died.
RC: Reading the book was so emotional just because you know the whole time how both stories will end: Badly.
FH: That was the hardest part in writing this book, to keep it uplifting even though the reader knows what happened. I tried to leave it on an uplifting note, at least for Diana, that her real love story was with the public. And her boys, of course. There are different ways to find love, aren’t there?
RC: Still, I was kinda screaming, ‘don’t do it! Call off the wedding!’ Which, interestingly, Charlotte does, while Diana does not.
FH: The overlaps – and also the differences – between these two princesses constantly surprised me. Diana is the modern princess, but she was a real romantic who subscribed to old ideas. It seems now almost barbaric the way they shut Diana up in the palace and ignored her. Charlotte lived more than century and a half earlier, but in many ways she’s much more modern and fights the idea of what it is to be royal. One is born a princess and another wants to become one. Both are constrained by marriage, but only one manages to make it work. Both are warm, open people who fall in love all the time.
RC: For people like me who think they know everything about Diana, how do you come up with something new?
FH: Writing about such a famous person is always a challenge. I made a real effort to let go of everything I had thought before and read about her as if I was reading about someone new. I reminded myself that every account, even hers – even mine – is an invention. People experience things so differently, and remember things so differently. Biographies have to look for the facts, but novels like this get to explore the space between those facts, and ask, “How might they feel? What would it have been like for them?” I love non-fiction too, but “faction” is a nice halfway house for me, between history and imagination.
RC: What will you imagine next?
FH: My next book is purely fiction, but it’s going to be the servants at the palace witnessing the abdication of Edward VIII and coronation of George VI. I’m thinking more about the people behind the Royal people, the ordinary people who make Royal life possible.
RC: You want to know about who’s cleaning those royal toilets, I bet.
FH: I do, yes. But I think you mean chamber pots.