Battle royal: Diana proves to be mouse that roars


June 10, 1993|By Nigel Dempster and Peter Evans

In the final part of a five-part excerpt from "Behind Palace Doors: Marriage and Divorce in the House of Windsor" by Nigel Dempster and Peter Evans, Diana's friends tell of the princess' plans to divorce Prince Charles and seek happiness in the arms of another man. The princess of Wales began 1985 determined to overcome two problems: She had to defeat the bulimia that she knew had become a serious risk to her health; and now that she had dutifully delivered "the heir and the spare," she had to overcome the royal family's attitude that she was simply an ornamental but redundant bimbo in their midst. Princess Anne's observation that Diana's dresser Evelyn Dagley had eight "O" level certificates, qualifying her for higher education, whereas her mistress had but two -- implying that the Princess of Wales wasn't even smart enough to dress her dresser -- hurt Diana a lot.

She had lost her way since the early days of her fame. She had let herself slip out of the popular limelight that she had naturally commanded in the beginning of their marriage. What she had to prove to the family, to her husband, and especially to the queen, was that she still had a role to play in the royal show, her father had told her a few months earlier when he warned her of the increasing part that Mrs. Parker Bowles was playing in her husband's life.

The choice was simple: either the Windsors must embrace her -- or ignore her at their peril! What she must not become, her father had told her sternly, was another beautiful, vacuous, spirit-broken Queen Alexandra to Charles's Edward VII, the royal rake and lover of countless married women. She certainly must not give Mrs. Parker Bowles a free run to reprise her great-grandmother Alice Keppel's role as Charles' mistress.

Lord Spencer, who in many ways was the embodiment of the aristocrat of the past, and a keen student of old-fashioned backstairs politics, had been impressed by the way in which his mother-in-law, Dame Barbara Cartland, had used the modern media, and especially television, to boost her popularity and to sell her books.

"If the public likes you, it gives you tremendous power over your publishers," Dame Barbara had remarked to him once. And if television worked for Dame Barbara why shouldn't it work for Diana, who was young, modern, telegenic? If she was going to stand up to her husband and the Windsor mafia she would first have to win the hearts of the people, Johnnie Spencer told his daughter. And to reach the people she had to take route 1 -- and that was television.

The opportunity to launch the new confident Diana came in April after a long break from international duties. She had been devoting herself to motherhood, went the official line; in reality she had been sidelined by the palace because of her unreliable )) relationship with Charles. Now Diana was invited to accompany the prince on a state visit to Italy. The "Italian job," Diana called it, and she was determined that it would also be a hatchet job on Mrs. Parker Bowles's continual portrayal of her as "a mouse."

Her spirits revived by the Italian sun and the warmth of her reception, Diana began to glow. She even started being funny again. When Charles told her to mind her head as she ducked beneath an arch in Sir Harold's magnificent garden, she said: "Why? There's nothing in it." That should have warned him that things were changing. The Italians loved her. Never had the great divide between Diana, superstar, and Charles, supporting player, been exposed so deeply.

"Di ti Amo"

The Italians could not get enough of her. Graffiti proclaiming "Di ti Amo" became so prolific on the ancient walls of Florence that the local anti-British neofascist party claimed that the British Council was paying young unemployed Italians to paint the slogans in the dead of night. . . .

Charles knew, and Diana knew that he knew, that he had been completely upstaged again. It was like old times: she was the star. "He, poor duck," said the former embassy staffer, "having been brought up on this public appearance thing, knew better than anyone the nuances and warmth, or lack of it, of a public reception. There was no kidding him over exactly what was happening."

Upstaging with a vengeance

In London, as reports and television coverage of the royal visit came back, the palace knew that the Upstage Problem had returned. "But this time," said one of Diana's former boyfriends, "Diana knew exactly what she was doing. She may not have had as many 'O' levels as her dresser, but she was a fast and thorough learner." After Italy, each week she seemed to grow more confident -- as Charles, some thought, grew uneasier.

(From that point on things grew worse, and in December 1992 the prince and princess formally separated.)

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