Friday morning a small crowd, some bearing bunches of flowers and birthday cards, gathered in front of the Belgravia terrace house that is the Princess of Wales' London residence. Rarely in the United Kingdom these days, Diana is here for her 50th birthday. The celebrations, at her request, are to remain low key - lunch at Claridges with daughters, Natalie (11) and Clémence (10) and sons, Harry, the Duke and the Duchess of Cambridge; Covent Garden in the evening for a performance by students of The Royal Ballet School, followed by a late supper at home with a select group of close friends, Wayne Sleep, Anne Sinclair, J.K. Rowling, and Simon Cowell among them. Still radiant as she enters her sixth decade, she nonetheless shuns the cameras and has not given an interview for almost 13 years.
All this is a far cry from the Diana of 1997, the Diana who would have sought to attract as much press attention as possible, whether for her charities or to further her cause in the not-so-secret war with Charles and the Establishment.
Her extraordinary life-change was a subject that came up during our last meeting in May when we managed a brief afternoon tea at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, after our pilgrimage to Degas' Little Dancer. The city still holds many painful memories for her, and it is clear she continues to be deeply affected by the death of Dodi Fayed in the accident that nearly killed her too.
"It changed my life, Penny."
1997 had been a difficult year for Diana. Her divorce from Charles, finalized the previous August, had given her the liberty she craved yet that freedom came with a cost - the lack of protection she was once afforded as a member of the royal family. She was on her own, and making mistake after mistake. In consequence, her popularity with the press was waning. By the August of 1997 speculation was rife that Diana was about to become engaged to playboy Dodi Fayed, and that she was pregnant. "I know people thought I was on the rebound from Hasnet, but I wasn't. I was very much in love with Dodi, and when you're that head-over-heels, you're not thinking straight. I was so angry with the way I'd been treated, so determined to prove - well, to be honest, I'm not sure what I wanted to prove - but I was going to marry him."
In the weeks and months
after the fatal accident, Diana fought her way back to health. She also made a huge journey in consciousness. Despite having suffered severe memory loss in the crash she came to believe that it was no accident, whether in the sense of destiny at work or something a little more Machiavellian. "I couldn't prove the crash was engineered - and you know how hard Mohammed tried to make the case for assassination - but whether it was or it wasn't, if I was still alive, there would surely be other attempts to get rid of me."
She believed that in continuing to pursue a very public life, championing controversial causes and perpetuating the rivalry with Charles, she was signing her death warrant.
"I had to be playing a dangerous game. I mean, how could Charles marry Camilla, how could they be accepted as a couple, with the Queen of Hearts popping up all the time like an embarrassing rash!"
"In a way, I'd given my life for others and, as I lay in bed, day after painful day, I came to understand that what I'd really wanted all the time was a happy marriage and a proper family life. All that running around the world - chasing something I could never find, looking for validation at the end of a camera lens?"
She gave her last televised interview on 31 August 1998, choosing Andrew Morton as her interlocutor. It was here that she announced her withdrawal from public life, making a plea for the world to respect her privacy.
What clearly helped Diana's decision to end her public life was her close friendship with physiotherapist, Dr. Emile de Saint-Exupéry, whom she married four months later on Christmas Eve in the pretty village of Gordes in Provence, near their home. Nine months almost to the day, a much longed for daughter, Nathalie-Frances, arrived and in October of 2001, Clémence. Despite a continuing effort by the world's press to chart her life in seclusion she managed to maintain a low and dignified profile, and eventually people gave her what she wanted, as they had Jackie Kennedy and Greta Garbo before her - privacy.
As we sat and chatted in the Musée d'Orsay's restaurant, the late afternoon sun pouring through the windows and lending an aura of unreality to the occasion, I asked her whether she had any regrets about giving up her role as a champion of the world's victims.
"I loved my work. It gave my life meaning, and it was hard to walk away from it. But, you know, William and Harry are picking up the baton, Catherine too, and I'm so incredibly proud of them, so I don't feel I let anyone down."
Her contentment with life is palpable. Like all women who feel loved and who are fulfilled at the helm of their family, there is no edge to her, she is all softness and serenity. Her once blonde hair is now steel grey with a shock of white just above the forehead, which she wears swept back, accentuating the periwinkle blue of her eyes. Heads turn to look at her but none let their gaze rest too long. She could be just another elegant Parisienne pleasantly idling away the remains of the day.
With her 50th birthday a couple of months away it seemed an appropriate moment to reflect on her life so far and to speculate on the future.
"These last 11 years have been the happiest of my life. Emile and the girls are my world, and, as you said all that time ago, Cancerians are mothers first and movers and shakers last! Of course, William and Harry are an integral part of my French life and, with so much water under the bridge, Charles and I have a good relationship at last. I'm proud of the things I achieved as the Princess of Wales but it is almost as though the person I was then was somebody else. Maybe when the girls are older I'll think about doing a lot more humanitarian work - I see Angelina Jolie out there, and I wonder..."
On the way back to my hotel, I found the words of Oscar Wilde coming to mind: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy..." and I thought how strange that different as Diana believed she was from her mother, she had ended up following in her footsteps. Frances Shand-Kydd had turned her back on society after her divorce and escaped to the remote Scottish highlands and Diana had similarly abandoned the shores of England and a very public role for life in a quiet village in Provence. But there was one significant difference. While her mother had remained something of a recluse for the rest of her life, Diana had found love.
Diana's 50th birthday occurs on a solar eclipse -- something I mentioned to her during our meeting that day. She asked what it meant, remembering that William had been born on an eclipse and the accident in the Alma tunnel had occurred a couple of days before another. "It's a whole new chapter," I replied.
She threw back her head and guffawed, "Oh, dear God, not another one!"