Image via Getty.

Twenty years after Diana’s death, every detail of her life and death has been excavated and studied with microscopic furor. The cause of the crash, the lurid details of a gruesome accident, the Queen, the mountains of flowers, the callous ex-husband, and the two pitiful princes are all histories that have been written and re-written; they have been scrutinized and televised, spun into memoirs and tabloid stories and movies. They have been transformed into touching essays and remade into every single mode of expression that mankind has in its arsenal.

The details thus parsed and feeling exhausted, there is little left to know except for, perhaps, Diana herself. But to know Diana—the flesh and blood woman—is impossible; she is fundamentally unknowable, swallowed by narrative at the moment of her birth. There is Diana the poor little rich girl; Diana the commoner; Diana the girl who had everything but dreamed of more, and Diana the girl who daydreamed of becoming a princess. Of course, she became a princess and there more fictions awaited her: Diana the virginal blushing bride standing on a balcony, waving to crowds seen and unseen, promising them the happily-ever-after that’s the obvious conclusion to every princess’s story.

Diana’s great tragedy is that the happily-ever-after never manifested. The “People’s Princess” never gifted her people the very conclusion they desperately expected. Instead, Diana was consumed again by myth, transformed into a pure spectacle of feminine vulnerability. Perhaps it was inevitable since the princess myth needs darkness to breathe; it needs physical and emotional vulnerability of women in order to live. Princesses need to be rescued, if not from a shadowy villain, then from their own self-made chaos.

The so-called “Revenge Dress.” Image via Getty.

The glamour of her haute couture—those broad collars, memorable hats and expensive jewels—gave way to whispers of an unhinged wife undone by infidelity, an affair, it was whispered, of her own making. Then too, there were rumors of an eating disorder, depression, suicide, and self-harm. “Diana refused to take any blame in the collapse of her marriage,” the Post wrote in June, “to acknowledge that her increasing hysteria — her constant self-harm, suicide attempts and rage-filled tantrums — were enough to push anyone away.” The Post’s description is melodramatic, exasperating in its Victorian conflation of suicide and self-harm with hysteria. And yet, it quite accidentally draws a direct line between the two intertwining fictions that narrated—and continue to narrate—the phenomenon of Diana: the princess and the hysteric. Diana the virginal princess bride wearing white taffeta simply does not exist without Diana in a fitted, black revenge dress. They are the bookends of her “iconic” style; both visual citations of the myths that proceeded their making.


It’s uncanny that after Diana was pulled from the tangled remains of a Mercedes-Benz, she was taken to the Pitié-Salpêtrière, a renowned hospital in Paris’s 13th arrondissement. It was at the Salpêtrière that doctors would work for two hours to save Diana before declaring her dead at 4:00 a.m. And it was at the Salpêtrière, a century before Diana’s arrival, that the myths that formed her, fueling her phenomena, were revamped for modernity but remained, in essence, unchanged.

The making of the Salpêtrière into an institution of international renown was a long project, begun in the late 19th century by Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot, the “father of neurology,” the “Napoleon of neuroses,” the physician who put his “finger on the wound of today,” transformed the Salpêtrière from a dingy, forgotten asylum where unwanted women were locked away into a “Temple of Science.” He did so by reinventing a disease as old as mankind: hysteria.


Hysteria existed long before Charcot, identified first in an ancient Hippocratic text as a disease of the womb. Long after the Greeks determined that the illness of women could be accounted for with a wandering womb, Charcot intervened, relocating the source of the disease from the womb to the brain. Charcot might have wanted hysteria to be gender neutral, but he was unable to disentangle it from its frenzied history of ovaries and wombs. Instead, hysteria’s very shapelessness—its broad and endless list of symptoms—adhered to the bodies of women.

At the Salpêtrière, everything from tics to twitching, muscular spasms to emotional distress, sexual deviancy to extreme penitence, energetic ramblings to comatose silence, self-harm, restricted eating, and excessive menstruation to none at all were potential symptoms of hysteria. And Charcot, along with his band of followers, men who became synonymous with modern medicine (Babinski, Freud, Tourette), asserted that hysteria was a neurological disorder, the result of an undiscovered lesion on the brain. Together, they diagnosed thousands of women, cataloging every detail of the hysterical body with a microscopic fervor.

Brouillet, A Clinical Lesson at the Salpetriere, 1887. Image via Wikipedia.


But it wasn’t enough for the disorder to simply to exist; spectacle has always been hysteria’s real power. Hysteria demands to be seen, its invention demanded an audience. And so Charcot produced an audience. Every Tuesday, he welcomed physicians and writers and the Parisian intelligentsia into a lecture hall at the Salpêtrière. There, Charcot and his assistants would put one of his prized hysterics to demonstrate the dramatic seizures of grande hystérie. He would hypnotize the women (grand hypnotisme) and, while Paris watched, the women would go through the phases of Charcot’s hysteria, a series of seizure-like movements, contortions infused with suggestive sexuality. André Brouillet’s painting, A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière (1887), captures the melodrama of Charcot’s lectures. Charcot stands upright, finger pointing in emphasis, his students lean in to listen to his observations as Blanche Wittmann, the “queen of hysterics,” is all visual counterpart, limp and half-undressed, suspended still in a hypnotic state of a hysterical attack. It is a “tableaux of sympathy,” Elin Dimond argues, “in which fallen women/hysterics occupy the paradoxical position of passive victim and star of their own spectacular theater of suffering.”

The theater of suffering was popular in Paris. Visitors and tourist came to see Charcot’s hysterics, including Sara Bernhardt—the Divine Sara, the “princess of the gesture,” so celebrated for transforming tragedy into art. And indeed, Charcot’s three favorite hysterics, Blanche, Augustine, and Geneviève, became micro-celebrities, on display every Tuesday, captured and disseminated in hundreds of photographs documenting the details of their disorder, the details of their suffering. At the Salpêtrière, hysteria might have been a neurological disorder, but its etiology was gender. The bodies that twitched, that bore the marks of self-harm, that shook from nervousness, or wept without ceasing, or were too thin from disordered eating all belonged to women. All of the symptoms surely only pointed to hysteria.

Some twenty years later, it was Charcot’s students who declared their teacher wrong. Hysteria was a real disorder, Babinski and Freud both argued, but its source was psychological, not somatic. It remained, however, was the province of women. It was at the Salpêtrière—its own self-produced images so transparent that there was no need for metaphor—where enduring myths about vulnerability, suffering, and gender were spun. At the Salpêtrière, hysteria was reinvented as more than a disorder but a metaphor for the suffering of women. Charcot’s hysteria became a ghost of sorts, simultaneously real and fictitious, metaphoric and literal, somatic and psychological. These contradictions haunt because they are impossible to capture and thus exorcise. And so hysteria remains, haunting our perception, playing out in the lives, and on the bodies, of the women who are suspiciously hysterical.


Image via Getty.

Diana was one of those women. The princess-fallen-from-grace, the not-so-happily-ever after had already punctured princess myth. Once in tatters, feminine fragility needed a new costume. Diana, public and perpetually photographed (eventually open, too, about her struggles with bulimia and self-harm), lent herself to the diagnosis of hysteria. She was persistently visible, the traces of the disorder easy to identify and inscribe on her body.


And, even twenty years after her death, writers are happy to oblige. The emotionally unstable, vindictive ex-wife, and the suicidal discarded princess live easily next to the beloved Diana, the Diana renowned for her charity work, the Diana victimized by a cruel husband (who nobody likes, anyway). Here is the Diana that “stalks” an ex-boyfriend, “calling his home 300 times”; the Diana who wasn’t bulimic enough; and the “virgin of choice” who was “unstable, even dysfunctional...she quickly began to go off the rails.” She was also “bulimic, self-harming, suicidal, paranoid and contrary to a maddening degree,” a mesh of unrelated symptoms, strung together to point to one single problem. Then there is the tragically hysterical Diana, the one included in a slideshow titled “Celebrity Cutters: 7 Beauties Who Hurt Themselves,” a visual spectacle of suffering, of beautiful women hell bent on destroying their good fortune.

There are inevitably more examples—there are hundreds, of course—but the point is made. The spectacle of hysteria lingers, inflected with a rabid appetite for suffering or a frothing derision that are unique to rendering women’s pain. The princess and the hysteric are two sides of the same mythical coin.

Diana’s phenomenon, Hilary Mantel wrote, is “self-renewing as the seasons, always desired and never possessed.” The princess myth, Mantel authoritatively argues, lives beyond Diana simply because we grant it life, renewing it every year in remembrance and mourning. And surely, the myth of Diana undone, the princess turned hysteric still haunts, too. The medical narratives spun at the Salpêtrière—the hysterical women that lived behind the hospital’s walls, preserved in photographs—still tap us on the shoulder, urging us to treat Charcot’s discovery and innovation as natural, eternal truths. But perhaps, as with the princess myth, we want to preserve hysteria, the myth of uniquely feminine vulnerability. Perhaps we want to be haunted. Perhaps hysteria is too bound up to romantic myths of princesses and feminity—myths that we are unable to part with—to be exorcised.