Pulp fiction: the millionaire socialite, the English Lady and a book too far

Lily Safra claims 'Empress Bianca', a novel by Lady Colin Campbell, is a thinly veiled version of her life - and she wants it stopped
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Yet the legal bills are rising by the minute as an aristocratic authoress and a woman said to be the richest widow in the world slug it out over whether thousands of copies of a novel should be pulped.

Lily Safra, 67, a wealthy benefactor who counts Prince Charles among her friends, claims her life has been "stolen" in a new book by Lady Colin Campbell, 55, the best-selling biographer of Princess Diana.

Mrs Safra, thought to be worth around £650m, called in lawyers because she claimed the main character in Lady Colin's debut novel, Empress Bianca, was a defamatory, thinly disguised version of her life. The publisher has agreed to withdraw the work from bookshelves and destroy the unsold copies - at vast cost.

But, unwilling to be silenced, the writer has hit back, insisting the plot has nothing to do with Mrs Safra, and is threatening to counter-sue unless she allows it into the shops.

While Mrs Safra is relying on the discreet communication skills of Mark Bolland, former PR adviser to the Prince of Wales, Lady Colin has gone on the offensive, branding her antagonist a "vulgar" publicity seeker.

The main character in the book is scarcely sympathetic. Bianca Barrett stops at nothing to achieve the social status she desires, even murdering two of her four husbands. She is described as "one of the richest widows on earth and ... ranks alongside Catherine the Great when it comes to getting away with murder".

But friends of Mrs Safra noticed remarkable similarities between the ruthless central figure and details of her own life. They brought the matter to her attention and she called in the eminent lawyer Anthony Julius, who acted for Diana, Princess of Wales, in her divorce from Prince Charles.

Gary Pulsifer, the managing director of Arcadia Books which published Empress Bianca, confirmed the books had been withdrawn and were to be destroyed.

"We're still in negotiations with her lawyers. We're a small, independent publisher and we're too small to fight something like this," he said. "We have said we don't consider the book defamatory. It has been in the shops for a couple of months. There's nothing we can do about the books that have been sold."

Mrs Safra moved to London at the start of this decade, shortly after the death of her fourth husband, Edmond, in 1999. She soon became established on a glittering social scene, dining at Buckingham Palace and throwing a gala dinner at Somerset House. She was one of the benefactors of Fashion Rocks at the Royal Albert Hall two years ago.

There are striking parallels. The death of husband number four in a deliberate fire at his Monaco apartment is one. Like Lily Safra, Bianca hails from South America, loses her first son in a car accident on a mountain and has three children by her first husband.

Mrs Safra's second husband, Freddie Monteverde, shot himself in the chest; Bianca's second husband is shot by a hitman who makes it look like suicide.

Lady Colin said: "I am astonished and somewhat entertained by Mrs Safra's lawyer's assertions that she recognises herself as the central character of Empress Bianca. I thought I was writing a story inspired by my second cousin. Out of consideration for the family concerned I disguised some of the material to protect them. I know what I was writing about and if she recognises herself and thinks the cap fits, let her wear it."

Lady Colin has herself led colourful life. She was raised as a boy during her early years in Jamaica and she acquired her title from a short-lived marriage to a brother of the Duke of Argyll.

"My publishers, who are a small company, were intimidated by Mrs Safra's considerable wealth," she continued. "If Mrs Safra does not withdraw her claims and does not allow the book to be sold, I will sue her."

A spokesman for Mrs Safra did not want to comment while legal negotiations were ongoing.