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BOOK REVIEW / Raine never lets up: 'Raine and Johnnie' - Angela Levin: Weidenfeld, 17.99

NOT TO be confused with Bonnie and Clyde, Johnnie and Raine are the late Earl Spencer and his countess, now reincarnated as de Chambrun. Actually the book would have been much better without 'Johnnie', who frankly seems a bit of a bore. James Whitaker claimed recently that he was wont to beat his first wife, Princess Diana's mother, but Angela Levin does not mention this exciting allegation.

Trained from the cradle by her mother, Barbara Cartland, in the arts of presentation, Raine was giving interviews to Vogue and winning elocution prizes while still in ankle socks. The aim, Ms Cartland explained, was 'to produce her as a beauty', and success crowned her efforts in 1947 when Raine, primped and painted and engulfed in her trademark crinoline, was voted Debutante of the Year. She made the requisite 'good' marriage to Gerald Legge, the future Viscount Lewisham and Earl of Dartmouth, and, despite her mother's watchword that 'No man wants a clever woman]' went on to develop a formidable career in local government. But in 1974 she suddenly ran off with Earl Spencer.

They were madly, passionately in love. The fact that Raine sailed through his funeral smiling gaily might seem to contradict this, but it is merely an illustration of her belief that it is bad form to show grief. Her resemblance to Mrs Thatcher is striking - iron hand in enamelled glove; a man's woman with a deep distrust of other women; a heart capable of great kindness but also extraordinary tactlessness and insensitivity; a control freak whose control extends to her own emotions. Like Mrs Thatcher, she arouses either love or loathing but nothing in between.

Angela Levin has not tried hard enough, in my view, to overcome her dislike. But she is good on all the bizarre details of Raine's lifestyle - the fresh linen sheets washed and ironed every day, the half dozen changes of clothes (she changes for tea), the frequent 20-minute makeup sessions and tornadoes of powder after every bath, and, most peculiarly of all, the potty she keeps by the bed to save walking the few paces to the bathroom. I particularly liked the account of life at Trade Winds and Hacienda, the two houses at Bognor that Earl Spencer bought as a retreat from Althorp. These houses are on the sea but Raine never ventured to the beach; in fact she never went outside if she could help it because the salt air might damage her complexion. Her housekeeper told Levin: 'She would have her lunch negligee, her tea negligee, her evening negligee and so on.'

Trade Winds and Hacienda were bought from the proceeds of the sale of Althorp heirlooms which the Spencers conducted with increasing abandon throughout the Eighties. Angela Levin has done some good digging to discover what was sold when and to whom: there seems no question that many treasures were let go absurdly cheaply in order to keep the transactions sub rosa. Raine was always keen on selling things - she put her own clothes in auctions and even sold her mother's wedding dress without consulting her - but Earl Spencer's motives seem more complex. He may have resented the fact that his father seemed to care for Althorp more than he did for his son.

Angela Levin is the journalist who invented the 'Room of my Own' series, so she has a good eye for decorative detail. But I do wish she had the same eye for punctuation and generally more zest for her subject. Raine Spencer deserves an exotic passion fruit pavlova of a book: this is merely a solid, serviceable English pudding.