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Queen for a New Day

24 minute read
Jay Cocks

Britain’s Lady Diana, at 19, the fairest of them all

Past the classic first editions bound in leather, pages leafed in gold. Past the photographs, all framed in hand-worked silver. Past the old oak tables crowded with souvenirs of distant, long-lived lives, toward a deep chair washed in the dim gold light of a British late autumn.

The man there looks up. He is of indeterminate age but clearly senior bearing. He smiles slightly, then turns down the volume of an old radio that is playing a familiar fragment from Mouret’s Symphony and Fanfare for the King’s Supper. He crosses his legs, letting the toe of his bench-made oxford dangle a little above the floor and occasionally—at moments of infrequent agitation—allowing it to graze the surface of the carpet underfoot.

He arranges his book in his lap, keeping his place casually with a finger, as if he does not expect to be interrupted for long. He settles back. He speaks.

“Good evening. I’m Alistair Booke. Welcome once again to the 50th anniversary of Masterpiece Theater, and the third chapter of our series Monarchy in Love. We have already seen the dedicated and rambunctious Prince of Wales—who had not yet become Charles III—in the sunset years of his bachelorhood, struggling to maintain his independence while hewing to a royal role that sometimes interfered with the imperatives of young manhood.

“Now young Wales, as he was known to intimates, was fully aware of the importance of his position, and worked tirelessly at the endless ceremonial duties the Prince must perform. One of these duties did not come so naturally to him as the others, however. That was marriage. He applied himself to that particular inevitability with not quite as much stamina but fully as much ingenuity as he devoted to mastering the steeplechase.

“It will be recalled from our first episode, Where’s Charlie?, that the Prince took several nasty spills on the course about this time, and many of his subjects, who were aware that two previous Kings had died after horseback catastrophes, fretted about his wellbeing. Charles’ attempts to find a suitable bride—or the attempts by the press to find one for him—resulted in many false starts, much bruised feeling and the occasional contretemps that seems, in retrospect, almost comic. At the time though, his quest was no laughing matter. Anthony Holden, one of his biographers, recalls that Charles became ‘obsessed with the subject of marriage’ and often noted, with a touch of sadness, that most of his friends were wed. We saw the feelings of his parents, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, turn from indulgence to impatience until, one long weekend when the Prince was away and unreachable, the Queen gave vent to the slightly petulant and now famous question that lent the episode its title.

“Last week in our second episode, Separate Stables, we watched Charles, by now a ripe old 32, reach back into his past, and turn the girl-next-door into his Queen-to-be. The announcement of his engagement to Lady Diana Spencer, who was just 19, was greeted with sighs of editorial relief and good will throughout what was still rather wistfully recalled as the British Empire. Wars, assorted political crises and the irresistible flux of world events had buffeted Britain badly. The empire had not existed in fact for over 30 years. But it lingered in memory. The romance of it. The pomp of it. And it was the new promise of pageantry that seemed, in the first tumultuous year of a most troubled and tumultuous decade, to be a kind of rejustification. A reassertion, if you will, of a dream.

“The fact that Lady Diana was such an ideal choice to play her magisterial role contributed greatly to what I recall was the giddiness, even the magic, of the occasion. She was beautiful, she was young, and she was—in every sense of the word—fresh. Much was made of her virginity at the time—the very notion having become, by then, something of an antique novelty and perhaps, in some circles, even an embarrassment—and the palace did all it could to keep Lady Diana unspoiled. No interviews. Not too much exposure. But Lady Diana had a mind of her own that soon showed the nickname given her by the press, ‘Shy Di,’ to be wide of the mark.

“Her first public appearance with Charles, when she wore a strapless gown, caused the kind of minor sensation that seemed to belong to a more innocent age. In those first early days, as she was preparing for the wedding and preparing to be Charles’ consort away from the gaze of press and public, she had already become an instant part of popular mythology, an indelible woman of the new decade, as we will see in Dressed to Thrill, Chapter 3 of Monarchy in Love.”

“May I kiss the hand of my future Queen?” asked Nicholas Hardy, 18, proffering one golden daffodil from the far side of a police barricade.

Lady Diana, who had landed at Dean Close School only moments before in a helicopter piloted by her betrothed, took the flower, considered the proposition and smiled prettily. She seems, after all, to know no other way. “Yes, you may,” she said, extending her hand. Nicholas kissed, schoolboys laughed, and the Queen-to-be giggled, “You will never live this down.”

Meantime, in an unaccustomed position just outside the direct center of attention, the Prince of Wales looked on, watching his intended turn the crowd to putty. Hers was an adept, admirable performance on an occasion of mundane princely politesse. Charles had come down to Cheltenham to meet the local constabulary, who keep an eye on the country house, Highgrove, where he and Lady Diana will spend what time they can manage away from the royal routine. “I couldn’t have married anyone the British people wouldn’t have liked,” he said last month. That statement will now want a little contemporary emendation: he couldn’t have married anyone the British people would have liked more.

“Come on,” he said to her as the visit drew to a close. “We’re going to talk to the police dogs now.” Canine conversation may be one of the few social skills the new Princess of Wales will not have to master, but if her performance at Cheltenham is fair indication, she will be a fast study for all the royal requisites. Right now, with Charles in the midst of a tour to New Zealand, Australia and the U.S., Diana is closeted in Clarence House, the residence of the Queen Mother, getting a cram course in monarchical ps and qs. The presence of Diana’s grandmother, Lady Fermoy, lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mum, will bring a reassuring familiarity, just as the Queen Mother herself will set a perfect example. Now 80, the Queen Mother also came to the royal family from titled aristocracy. “Diana will learn simply by being around her,” says a longtime friend of the Queen Mum’s.

Diana’s mother, Mrs. Frances Shand Kydd, is also pitching in with assorted wardrobe advice, and an old friend and onetime assistant private secretary of Charles’, Oliver Everett, has been brought back from a diplomatic-service posting in Madrid to help order and arrange Lady Diana’s new life. Although she is consulted, all plans for the royal wedding are under the aegis of Lord Maclean, the Lord Chamberlain who is head of the Queen’s household and master of pomp and ceremony. Under him, Lieut. Colonel John Johnston and his full-time comptroller’s staff of 13 are planning carriage processions and orchestrating protocol with the sort of zealous concentration and elaborate tactical deployment usually reserved for NATO war games.

Even if Lady Diana seems deprived of her nuptial prerogatives, there is more than enough to keep her busy. Learning to accommodate herself—indeed give herself over entirely—to the royal agenda is a daunting prospect. “It terrified me,” says Charles of his first forays in public. As the first Princess of Wales since 1910—and only the ninth since Joan,”the fair maid of Kent,” hitched up with Edward the Black Prince in 1361—Diana is automatically down on the books for about 170 official engagements a year. Royal Ascot. Trooping the Color. Opening of Parliament. Badminton Horse Trials. Chelsea Flower Show. Wimbledon. Garden parties. Cowes Regatta. Even Opening of Grouse Season. And never mind all those factory visits and ribbon cuttings, ceremonials and inaugurals.

On lengthier excursions, such as voyages of good will to foreign shores, she will tote as many as 50 pieces of luggage, each packed with outfits appropriate for every occasion (even something in black, in case she is called home by a royal death) and complete with careful schedules for repeat wearings. She will be mistress of one London residence and two houses—Highgrove, a 347-acre estate in the Cotswolds, and a bungalow in the Scilly Isles. The Princess will not want for pocket money: her Prince, whose total fortune has been estimated at $450 million, has an annual income of about $1.25 million, half of which he voluntarily turns over to the government (as a royal, he is exempt from income tax, which would be more than 60% in his bracket).

Last year it took upwards of $46 million to keep the royal operation afloat, and even in a time of serious unemployment (10.3% of the work force are jobless), there are surprisingly few complaints that the country is not getting its money’s worth. Almost 90% of polled Britons want to retain the monarchy, and recently, when Labor’s William Hamilton made a solitary exit from Parliament after another of his frequent excoriations of the extravagant royals, Conservative M.P. Geoffrey Finsberg scoffed, “Those who share Mr. Hamilton’s view will doubtless have left the chamber with him.” What Hamilton wants is a wedding—or, in his phrase, “jamboree”—financed by the families of the bride and groom, “both exceedingly wealthy.” In a rational debate, Hamilton might be hard to argue down. But this is a question of spirit, not logic. There is nothing at all rational about a royal wedding, which is part of its charm. It may also be—reluctant though anyone would be to admit it—part of its point.

The National Theater of Britain is not located, as the tourist maps would indicate, on the south bank of the Thames. The real national theater rests in the giddily solemn panoply of a state occasion. Old glories. Ancient splendors. Honored rituals. Nobody does it better. Or, for that matter, more shamelessly, which is how it is done best.

Center stage right now in history’s longest running show is Lady Diana, who entered as an ingénue and was already a star before she got to the footlights. She not only stood up well to the glare, she turned it to good advantage. Hounded by an anxious press, she usually managed to hold her temper and fix her smile. “I love working with children, and I have learned to be very patient with them,” she told Charles with a level coolness that seemed to be much older than 19. “I simply treat the press as though they were children.”

The boys from Fleet Street responded in kind. They found the phone number of the $150,000 South Kensington flat her mother and father had bought for her and which she was sharing with three other young women. Reporters staked the place out and would call up till midnight and as early as six in the morning, badgering Diana for details of the romance. All this moved Mrs. Shand Kydd to write a letter of protest to the Times, and moved her daughter, finally, to tears. After a hectic pursuit from South Kensington to Mayfair, Diana sat and wept on a bench in Berkeley Square, comforted by a friend, while the repentant press slipped a note onto the seat of her red mini Metro: “We didn’t mean this to happen. Our full apologies.” “The press made Diana’s life difficult,” said her father, the eighth Earl Spencer, “but she behaved very well. It has proved to be a test, though it wasn’t meant to be, and she came through with flying colors. I couldn’t have done it myself at 19. I would have collapsed.”

She behaved, in short, like a star. Her usual soft, smiling evasiveness around the press earned her the temporary nickname “Shy Di.” “My name is Diana,” she would say whenever anyone addressed her by the diminutive, a cameo of grace under unexpected pressure that could not have failed to impress the Prince. What the pursuing press interpreted as reticence was more probably caution, even determination. “She’s reserved rather than shy,” reports a former schoolmate. “She’s got her own ideas, and she isn’t easily swayed by what people say. She’s got a lot of go in her.” Diana did develop a kind of protective stoop. Says an old friend: “She never used to put her head down. She was literally ducking the press.”

Once the game was up and the engagement was announced on Feb. 24 and the 18-carat sapphire in its 14-diamond garland materialized on her ringer, Lady Diana straightened up and really stepped out. According to a source close to the palace, she consulted with “someone” in the royal family, then appeared with the Prince in a $1,000 black silk taffeta strapless evening gown. The total effect was stunningly theatrical. A BBC announcer reported “audible gasps,” and as they died so did the notion of Shy Di. R.I.P.

“Lady Diana was saying, ‘Here I am beside my fiancé, able to hold my head high,’ ” noted a friend. Holding her head high was admirable, holding the dress up perhaps even more so. Something else was going on here, though. There was a kind of gleeful collaboration by the Prince’s charmer in the making of her own image. This business had been left up to the news media too long, and they had got it wrong besides. Lady Diana took control of the process of popular myth in a way that would have made some of the old hands at MGM proud. They would have approved the tall, cantilevered figure, added little makeup to the petal-soft skin. But what would really have warmed those Hollywood pros was the instant revelation, as the strobes popped, of star quality. This is something that cannot be instilled, only enhanced. Movie stars were sometimes said to have a royal bearing. Lady Diana Spencer brings star quality back to Buckingham Palace.

MGM would have made only one change: they would have supplied a piquant biography. Color, however, is not wanted in a royal bride. Indeed, several earlier candidates for the Prince’s chosen were dropped from competition because they had been rather too brightly painted in shades of scarlet. One, Fiona Watson, was discovered to have posed deshabille for Penthouse. Another, Davina Sheffield, was scratched after a former swain mouthed off about their life together. Perhaps a double standard should be etched into the royal coat of arms. “I wonder how the British people would react if they knew the extent of Charles’ ‘social’ life,” mused a man connected with court circles. “It is very extensive.”

His bride, however, had to be unblemished. “First on the list was virginity,” insisted H.B. Brooks-Baker of Debrett’s, the chronicler of British bloodlines, who once drew up a few requirements that aspiring Princesses of Wales should meet. “Second was the ability to do the job. Very few people understand how many really dreary things royalty must do. Third, she must be seen to have the potential to bear heirs to the throne [meaning that she should look young and robust].” Presumably Lady Diana has met and passed these obstacles.

Presumably, too, the quiet if not quite unremarkable quality of her early life, the absence of anything but a merely chronological past, brings her even closer to the royal ideal. She is only what she will become. Born to wealth and privilege, Diana Spencer, like the man she will marry, seems to have grown up at some operational distance from life. Not sheltered, exactly. Stashed away, secreted, in the protected closeness of a class and a culture. It is as if she spent every day of her nearly 20 years snug within the emphatic stillness of an English Sunday afternoon.

She was born at Park House, part of the 20,000-acre royal estate at Sandringham, in Norfolk, which the Spencer family rented from the Crown. The Spencers had run with royalty for hundreds of years, and the Earl has been equerry to both George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Diana and Charles may have met a few times when she was a child and he already a young man, but everyone is fuzzy on the details. The Spencers had the only heated pool in the vicinity, and, by the one theory of suburban living that seems to cross barriers of class and station, the old swimming hole attracted the neighbors. When the neighboring residence is Sandringham House, however, and the kids who drop by are from the Windsor family, it is not only a quick dunk that is being shared. It is a sense of community, of assumptions of privilege, of life lived at one remove.

Diana attended West Heath, a boarding school in Kent, where she excelled in sports and recorded a middling result on standard exams known as O Levels. At 16, she spent twelve weeks at a Swiss finishing school, primarily to learn to ski but also to brush up on French, cooking, sewing and typing. Nothing much here for a résumé, but perfectly fine, thanks, for the sort of genteel, pass-the-time employment that came Diana’s way: governess, cook, nanny, kindergarten teacher.

The Prince’s education was a little more rigorous. He was the first heir to the throne ever to go to school outside the palace. At the urging of his father, he was sent, like other boys of his social class, to boarding schools, first Cheam in Berkshire, then Gordonstoun in Scotland. Gordonstoun was a fairly tough place—cold showers in the morning, long runs in the often inclement weather before class—and Charles, despite a deficiency in mathematics shared with his future bride, did well. He went on to earn a degree in archaeology and anthropology at Trinity College, Cambridge, becoming the first university graduate in the royal family, and served as an officer in both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. But if his schooling and military training brought him outside the palace walls, they did not bring him outside his class, any more than Diana’s upbringing did.

In their private lives, the aristocratic cocoon was not entirely protective. After her parents’ messy divorce when she was eight, Diana, her brother and two sisters shuttled back and forth between separate households. Charles was not caught up directly in such marital maelstroms, but he saw at close range how the marriage of his aunt Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon cracked, then tottered and finally fell into little gaudy bits.

Being Prince of Wales was not without its sobering precedents either. Queen Victoria’s son “Bertie,” eventually Edward VII, had to wait nearly 60 years before he became King in 1901, and so dissipated himself passing the time that he was ill-prepared for the task. (Charles may have to wait almost as long, but rejects any suggestion that Queen Elizabeth cut short her reign, feeling that abdication undermines the mystique of the monarchy.) More sobering still was Charles’ immediate predecessor, known after his 1936 abdication as the Duke of Windsor. His pitiful progress from resort to spa was followed by millions. All those awful photographs of the Duchess and the Duke, his skin scalded by flashbulbs, black ashtrays crowding the table like visas from a purgatorial kingdom of nightclubs: El Morocco, the Stork, the Lido. Those craterous eyes, staring off sidelong past the camera into the unforgiving background of history, which would soon reveal him as a dupe of fascism, an anti-Semite and a racist.

Charles, however, had quite another destiny to follow, and stronger men, like his father, to guide him. He was being readied for a kingship that “more and more depends on personal example,” remarked the late Earl Mountbatten, who is considered to have had as strong an influence on Charles’ life as any teacher—or even any parent. The politics of the future King of England are not a matter for the public record, although Mountbatten pointed out that “Charles is completely devoid of color prejudice. He just can’t understand what the prejudices can be about. In this respect, the Queen, Philip and Charles are the complete antithesis of the Duke of Windsor.”

Nevertheless, up against a few of the street realities that the rest of us contend with every day, the Prince often sounds like a football coach (as when he makes one of his frequent appearances on behalf of British trade), or like a referee who is not used to getting his shirt dirty. “See if you can sort things out,” he told a group of wrangling police and black demonstrators. “You cannot go around like this.”

Such statements may lack any hard political sense, but they do not want for a certain lofty finesse. Charles has it in spades. His courtship of Lady Diana was a model of decorum and broken field running. The pair had been seeing each other “on and off,” according to a source close to the palace, ever since they were re-introduced in 1977. They met at a pheasant shoot on the grounds of Althrop, the Spencer’s overwhelming (15,000 acres) and overweening home that also doubles, when there are no visiting royals about, as a thriving tourist attraction. (For £1 sterling, a visitor gets a tour and a how-do-you-do from the Earl and his second wife Raine.) The press did not get onto the romance until an item appeared in mid-August in the News of the World. By the end of September, the Daily Mail’s hard-burrowing gossip writer, Nigel Dempster, had devoted his entire column to Lady Diana (“I’m told she’s ideal”), and a photograph of her weekending at Balmoral was given prominent space.

As the Prince made his play, and the press closed in around Lady Diana’s flat and the kindergarten in Pimlico where she spent three days a week tending well-to-do tots, there was a dizzying sense of suspense. Now that matters are settled, tension has given way to speculation about the emotional temperature of the engagement, as if Charles and Diana conducted themselves like Adam Fenwick-Symes and Nina Blount in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies: “Darling, I am glad about our getting married.” “So am I. But don’t let’s get intense about it.”

Intensity, like color, is not highly prized in a monarchical marriage. “This falling in love at first sight,” said Mountbatten, “is not the way that royal marriages are made.” But watching Lady Diana in tears at the airport as her fiancé headed off on his Austral wanderings, one wonders if she might not modify that standard as well. As for Charles, he speaks publicly about his philosophical uncertainties. (“In love?” asked an interviewer. “Of course,” said she. “Whatever ‘in love’ means,” said he.) But it is heartening to learn that he has placed frequent phone calls from Down Under to the girl he left behind.

As bulletins on the romance are issued like hourly weather forecasts, preparations for the royal wedding on July 29 proceed amid a storm of activity. Elizabeth and David Emanuel, who ran up Lady Diana’s black taffeta number, are working on the bridal dress in penumbral secrecy at their Mayfair salon. Reveals Elizabeth: “We keep the shades drawn, because I’ve heard that people with telescopes can peer through windows.” On the home front, Barbara Cartland, mother of Diana’s stepmother and author of 305 widely consumed but ultimately unbearable novels, will be receiving tour groups—”twelve women, I believe. Those rich American widows” —and doing a little entertaining. “I shall give them tea, chocolate cake and meringues,” she announced. “You know Americans have never seen meringues.” The tours, in fact, were arranged long before the royal engagement, and the palace has not tried to stop them.

Although Lady Diana is not much seen just now, what with all the royal tutorials and wedding preparations, she is already being widely imitated. Her haircut is copied. Her outfits are being knocked off. Her husband-to-be met a vanguard of Di clones in New Zealand on his trip, and commented, “Not as good as the real thing.”

The real thing will find herself soon enough in an odd position with real life, a little exalted and, at the same time, perpetually risking compromise. Cautionary romances, like William Wyler’s 1953 film Roman Holiday, have alerted us to the restrictive, hermetic and sometimes suffocating side of royal life. A princess is required to be both an ornament and an exemplar, a rarefied high-wire act that calls for a lot more skill than a good sense of balance. Everyone waits for a false step, and there are even some who will shake the wire. Diana’s older sister, Lady Sarah, was an earlier entrant in the nuptial derby, but was scratched when she remarked one evening, “I really enjoy being with [Charles … but] I’m not in love with him. I wouldn’t marry anyone I didn’t love, whether he were the dustman or the King of England.” One of her companions that night turned out to be a reporter, and the story hit Fleet Street the next day.

No hard feelings but a sobering lesson. “You are always a bit on your guard,” remarked Charles’ sister, Princess Anne. “You know that because you’re royal, anything you say might be given extra significance . . . There are very few people I know whom I would speak to with any degree of freedom.” Freedom does not come with the royal territory, and if Princess Anne is not so well loved as her brother, it may be because she seems aware of this situation, not only more acutely but perhaps more poignantly too.

A princess’s perks remain mightily seductive, however, to a popular imagination fueled on storybooks full of wise kings and gentle queens and tall palaces. One knows Lady Diana read some of those same fairy tales, as certainly as one knows that, when they look to be coming true on July 29, she will continue to shine and star. Always, of course, within the bounds of what is seemly; the consort’s luster must not dim the King. Eventually, as Queen, Lady Diana will wear a crown with the 109-carat Kohinoor diamond as its centerpiece. This royal geegaw has been out of circulation for years. Watching Lady Diana, whether accepting a flower from a schoolboy or negotiating a receiving line, one wonders for a moment if such a crown might not be . . . well, yes, superfluous. Good enough, really, just to see her smile.

Interrupted again. Book closed, legs crossed, smile adjusted, voice not testy, precisely, but a little weary.

“It was also said at the time of the engagement that Lady Diana Spencer was that very special kind of woman who made men unafraid to be giddy. Certainly she had that effect on her countrymen. We shall also start to see what effect she had on her husband, and what effect their wedding had on the nation.

“That will be next time. Chapter 4 of Monarchs in Love, ‘A Doll’s Spouse.’ Alistair Booke for Masterpiece Theater. Good night.” —By Jay Cocks.

Reported by Erik Amfitheatrol and Bonnie Angelo/London

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