Season four of The Crown season four introduces Lady Diana Spencer, the future Diana, Princess of Wales, who married Prince Charles and later had two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
In the series, Diana (played by Emma Corrin in The Crown cast) has a seemingly fairytale wedding and introduction to the royal family, but behind closed doors she is deeply unhappy and develops a serious mental illness, bulimia nervosa.
The Crown shows Princess Diana’s bulimia in several episodes, beginning when she finds herself isolated and under intense public scrutiny prior to her wedding in 1981.
But how accurate is The Crown’s portrayal, and how did Diana’s bulimia become public knowledge?
Did Princess Diana have bulimia?
In June 1992, Andrew Morton’s biography Diana: Her True Story was serialised as a world exclusive in The Sunday Times. The revelations were a shock to the public; Diana, contrary to popular opinion, had allegedly been “deeply unhappy” for most of her married life.
Morton alleged that Diana had attempted to die by suicide on several occasions during the early years of her marriage, and that she had bulimia nervosa, a serious mental illness which is characterised by cycles of ‘bingeing’ (eating large amounts of food) and later ‘purging,’ caused by, for example, self-induced vomiting or taking laxatives.
According to Morton, the bulimia was triggered not long before Diana’s 1981 wedding to Prince Charles, when the groom-to-be put his arm around Diana and made a comment about what he perceived to be her chubby waistline. “Shortly” after the joke was made, “she made herself sick. It was a profound release of tension and in some hazy way gave her a sense of control over herself.”
The couple’s honeymoon on the royal yacht Britannia saw Diana frequently visit the kitchens, where she asked staff for bowls of ice cream and puddings. At Highgrove, she reportedly raided the fridges late at evening, and a footman at Windsor Castle caught her eating an entire steak and kidney pie.
Diana’s eating habits apparently came to the fore when she fainted at a public event, at the Vancouver Expo in May 1986. A concerned friend, Carolyn Batholomew (who shared a flat with Diana before her marriage), urged her to seek medical help, and Diana began seeing specialist Dr Maurice Lisedge.
“Before she began her treatment she was regularly sick four times a day. Today, this is reduced to once every three weeks,” Morton wrote in an extract published by The Sunday Times in 1992.
“Diana driven to five suicide bids by ‘uncaring’ Charles,” was the Sunday Times headline; and, “Marriage collapse led to illness.”
Three years later, Diana would confirm that while she hadn’t directly spoken to Morton, she had allowed her close friends to speak to the biographer. “I was at the end of my tether. I was desperate,” she told the BBC’s Martin Bashir.
Diana was also interviewed by a friend who taped their secret conversations, before the tapes were provided to Morton for his book.
What did Princess Diana say about her bulimia?
Diana, Princess of Wales’ interview with Martin Bashir on BBC One’s Panorama was broadcast in November 1995. In the interview she famously discussed her failed marriage and the love triangle with Camilla Parker-Bowles (“There were three of us in the marriage”), in addition to confirming rumours of her “destructive” mental illness bulimia nervosa.
“I had bulimia for a number of years. And that’s like a secret disease. You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable. You fill your stomach up four or five times a day – some do it more – and it gives you a feeling of comfort. It’s like having a pair of arms around you, but it’s temporarily, temporary. Then you’re disgusted at the bloatedness of your stomach, and then you bring it all up again. And it’s a repetitive pattern which is very destructive to yourself,” she told Bashir.
She also described her bulimia as “a symptom of what was going on in my marriage. I was crying out for help, but giving the wrong signals, and people were using my bulimia as a coat on a hanger: they decided that was the problem – ‘Diana was unstable’.”
Two years earlier, Diana had appeared to acknowledge her bulimia when she spoke an international conference on eating disorders, but she “stopped short of a full confession” (The Times, 28th April 1993).
What did the palace think about Diana’s illness?
In The Crown season four, the rest of the royal family are shown to be aware of Diana’s bulimia, but don’t offer her help or advice.
When Diana sought professional help with her eating disorder in real life, Prince Charles allegedly “derided her efforts. At mealtimes he would watch her eat and say: ‘Is that going to reappear later? What a waste’,” according to Andrew Morton.
Catherine Mayer’s biography of Prince Charles, ‘Charles: The Heart of a King’, indicates the royal may have been emotionally unprepared to cope with Diana’s mental health issues, saying: “He courted Diana only briefly before the engagement, itself just five months long. He didn’t understand her at all or recognise the baggage she carried from an upbringing as difficult in its way as his own. The more he sensed she was not the jolly country girl he had assumed, the more she revealed her vulnerabilities and began to succumb to the eating disorder that would dog her for much of the rest of her life, the more he struggled with the prospect of marriage.”
In her Panorama interview, Diana said bulimia was her “escape mechanism” from the pressures of royal life and her troubled marriage. She described how those around her at the time would accuse her of “wasting food”: “It was just,`I suppose you’re going to waste that food later on?’ And that was pressure in itself. And of course I would.”
What was the reaction to Andrew Morton’s biography?
The first full serialised extract from Andrew Morton’s 1992 book focussed on Diana’s mental health, including her bulimia and her alleged attempts to die by suicide in the early years of her marriage, the first said to have been when she threw herself from a staircase at Sandringham in January 1982 when she was three months pregnant with Prince William.
The day the extract was published in The Sunday Times, several public figures denounced the book and its contents. Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, a Tory MP, called for Morton to be put in the Tower, according to The Times.
Prime Minister John Major refused to answer questions about the book’s allegations during his visit to the US to meet President Bush, while back home in the UK, Labour MP Clare Short found the serialisation distasteful: “Quite a lot of women suffer from post-natal depression, and none of them should have to expect that splashed over the pages of the newspapers. It’s outrageous.”
Lord St John of Fawsley, a high-profile monarchist, said on BBC radio that institutions like the monarchy were “fragile,” and that “self restraint” was required from the public in order to protect them.
Across the pond in the US, one American newspaper urged Princess Diana to leave her allegedly unsympathetic husband; “Throw the Bum Out” read Newsday’s headline. The New York Times also released an opinion piece stating that public sympathetic was firmly with Diana, especially given her “gutsy solidarity to friends with AIDS” (which The Crown season four covers).
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, you can speak to BEAT, The UK’s eating disorder charity.