JANE CLARK, as television viewers now know, once threw an axe at her persistently philandering husband, 'Love Tory' Alan Clark. Mrs Clark regretted the action once the weapon left her hand and so was glad that it missed its target. But at the end of last Sunday's BBC documentary, she faced the camera to say that her husband had been destroyed by women. Did she just mean that he had gone down with Mrs Thatcher? Or had the whole programme been deflected to become a better aimed missile, the title of which could be Alan: Portrait of a Serial Adulterer?

She had initially told Michael Cockerell, the programme's producer, that she would not appear on television. But one day he came upon her on the lawns of the castle: 'We started talking and she began to spill her heart out,' he says. 'It was like being on the psychiatrist's couch or in the priest's confessional for her. For 35 years he had been in the limelight one way or another. Throughout her life no one ever said: 'Who is Jane Clark?' She was at home baking his cakes and feeding his peacocks and all those sorts of things that old-fashioned wives do and no one asked her what she thought.'

Now, she is rather enjoying being asked, if coaxed. She was alone at the castle on Thursday when I rang to ask if I could talk to her about the programme. Did she regret having appeared in it? 'Oh no,' she said, 'I think Michael did it terribly well. It doesn't seem to have done any harm. I believe that instead of people saying, 'Why can't we be more French?', they're now saying, 'We should be like Jane and Alan Clark'.'

Sheltered in her Norman stronghold, did she realise that millions of viewers, glued to revelations about Clark's adulterous bonking, missed Lady Chatterley on the other channel? What a bastard, was the consensus. 'An old-fashioned sort of shit - and she is something out of the Ark,' said another political wife, Silvia Rodgers, soul mate of the SDP founder Bill Rodgers. 'She put my teeth on edge. What a doormat] I felt no compassion for her.'

The strong impression is that Jane Clark was Alan Clark's tabula rasa, a mirror that would unquestioningly reflect him and his values. She was only 14 when the exceptionally handsome, 28-year-old son of Lord Clark of Civilisation spied her on the beach at Rye. She was reputed to be a mature girl at her convent school in Hastings and Clark wooed her in his Cadillac.

She was convinced from the first that he was the man that she was going to marry and so she did, two years later in 1958, just turned 16. Clark's father was chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority at the time so the wedding was featured on the ITN news with its luminous guests like Margot Fonteyn. Then they went off on honeymoon to Positano where Christena, by all accounts the nicest of his mistresses, turned up - the rest, she says, were 'rubbish'.

Clark wanted her to be 'more French', to accept a code in which a man of position has his mistress. So why did she stick with him? Why didn't she distribute his vintage wine round the village or cut off the sleeves of his pounds 1,000 suits as Lady Sarah Graham-Moon did? More importantly, I asked her, was she ever tempted to give him a taste of his own medicine?

'Not remotely,' Mrs Clark replied, robustly. 'I love men, but I haven't been even fleetingly tempted because for me it would be quite different. My marriage vows mean more to me than other women. I'm not likely to put them to the test. To me they are serious. They have given me my strength. If you feel that your husband doesn't really love you then perhaps you could, but if he can't live without you it's another matter. He always used to say, 'If you could see what I've written about you in my diaries'.'

Michael Cockerell has another theory. 'Relationships and attractions are multi-layered,' he says. 'For such a single-minded serial adulterer, he's not just an out-and-out bastard. There are other aspects of him she still loves. He's charming, scarcely ever utters a dull sentence, they share a black sense of humour and he has a spiritual side.'

I asked Mrs Clark if I could broach a personal question. 'Is it the same one that Lynda LeePotter asked? Do we still have sex?' she said. (They do.) She 'didn't like' the Daily Mail writer much. 'She wanted to know if we'd ever done it in the pool. Alan said not in the pool but by the pool. I said, why did you tell her that? You know it isn't true.' What I had wanted to know was what exactly Mr Clark had done to provoke her axe attack. 'Oh that. It was years ago, back in the Sixties.' She told me the reason. 'But you won't put it in will you?'

Alan Clark comes from the Bongo-Bongo Land school of race relations. He has recently said that Britain should have signed a peace with Hitler in 1941. Yet he is a complex man, and very sexy (one elderly woman told Michael Cockerell: 'That man walks like a bantam cock'). He is anti-fur trade and anti-hunting - vegetarian, even, he said on the programme. 'That's not actually true,' Jane Clark said, her little axe firmly grasped in her hand. 'He's not really a vegetarian. He does eat meat, not from the butcher's but game that has been killed on the estate. The peacocks see their own reflections in the Porsche and try to fight themselves. We drive around with blood all over the car. We tell people we ran into a charity cycle race.'

There is a theory that upper-class men philander because they grow up hanging over the stairs of the baronial mansion, their mothers glittering off in their evening gowns to a party or dinner with the greatest minds of their generation. All women must be radiant. They never see the nitty-gritty of married life. And Alan Clark seems to be that rarest of Englishman: one who is attractive and adores women. Did Mrs Clark think such an upbringing produced her husband? 'I think he had quite an unhappy childhood,' she said. 'When you're young you're easily bruised. I don't know about adoring women. There's a part of him that hates women.'

Now 51, she has two sons, 33 and 31. The first has been divorced twice. The second was married last month. His bride is 10 years younger.

'Men are such shits,' I said. 'They can be,' she replied, 'I don't know why one loves them.' Perhaps her husband would mellow? 'No hope. I'll have to go on sharpening my axe and practising my aim.'

The mind of Mrs Clark remains opaque. She paints, though. One picture is of a heart surrounded by barbed wire. 'Perhaps when she is a widow the barbed wire will come down,' Silvia Rodgers says. We should not count on it. Jane Clark belongs to a class which is too well bred to show its feelings. Adulterous liaisons are carried on through a code of manners. The worst thing a wronged wife can do is to let the side down by undignified displays of jealousy or possessiveness.

On Tuesday, another BBC series begins, this time on adultery. The star of its final episode is Angela Fox, now 80, mother of the actors Edward and James Fox. More than 50 years ago she, too, entered into upper-class marriage, putting up with what Jane Clark has put up with, never questioning then or now her husband's right to hurt her - though he did, badly. Married at 22, pregnant not long after, she was making up her face in the bedroom, her husband lying on the bed reading the Times, when he said to her: 'Of course you know I'll never be faithful to you.'

He was cruel, she says, very cruel. When Edward was born, he disappeared with his mistress. He told her she was too bloody perfect, that was why he was going off with another woman - she's a right bloody tart, he said. She cried while she packed his clothes. She was crying over his ironing one day when a friend came in and told her: 'If you look as repulsive as that I'd go too if I were him.' So she went upstairs and pulled herself together. If there is one thing that upper-class men can't stand it is uncivilised behaviour.

But Angela Fox liked him: 'I'd rather have him awful than any other man I've ever met,' she says. 'We were very, very good friends. If he entered a big room where we would be with masses of other people, even if he had his latest mistress on his arm, he would look across the room and I would exchange a glance with him and we would know, for better or worse, what we meant.'

Silvia Rodgers is right. Marriages like the Foxes' and the Clarks' are something out of the Ark, the fag end of pre-war upper-class morality. The aristocracy have always practised adultery. Companionate marriage - the intimacy and devotion of the couple - was an invention of the 17th-century middle class, which received a big re-investment in the 1970s when 'honesty' became all the rage in relationships. Jane Clark may have been paying close attention to the Princess of Wales's use of the media successfully to undermine her husband's idea of the public wife and the private mistress.

'One of the things about the upper classes is that they have never been faithful,' says Zelda West-Meades, the spokesperson for Relate. 'That was something they used to leave to the moral middle classes. These men are from a different background where adultery was the norm. They are outward-going men who are very attractive but who constantly need their egos boosted. It can be an avoidance of intimacy: they want to be close but part of them fears that intimacy.' As you would, if you saw your mother for half an hour a day, if that. 'But if Alan Clark was a young man marrying in the Nineties he wouldn't find a young wife who would accept his unfaithfulness,' West-Meades argues. 'She would insist on an open marriage.'

Among all social classes, adultery is on the increase - between 60 and 70 per cent of all married men and 40 per cent of married women have affairs, according to Relate. In the Sixties it was commonplace to argue that monogamy was as outdated as saving oneself for the wedding night. In that decade, according to statistics, a marriage lasted 14 years before the first affair; now it is down to four years.

But there has been no real increase in tolerance for adultery. 'More people are in open marriages, but not substantially more,' West-Meades says. 'The couples who can handle it are few and far between. Where the grief comes is when one of them falls in love and that undermines the open marriage. For most people, affairs are devastating.'

Yet, she points out, marriages survive them. There is no evidence that Alan Clark has ever wished to leave his wife. Why should he? Marry your mistress and you end up where you started. 'Alan Clark's power base with women is based on needing them to need him and moving out quickly. Men who need brief and contingent relationships have to stay married,' says Janet Reibstein, author of Sexual Arrangements: Marriage, Monogamy and Affairs.

Nor do women necessarily leave because their husbands have had an affair. A single act of adultery is no longer seen as an important enough reason for breaking up a marriage - yet there are more women leaving if their husbands have had lots of affairs. Many middle-class, educated women today have fewer incentives - either in terms of financial support or social status - to put up with a husband who makes them unhappy. 'Until recently, the only way for a woman to get near power was to marry it,' Silvia Rodgers says. No longer. It is well-established that the majority of divorces are now initiated by women.

As Alan Clark's power declines - he is 65 - that of his newly vocal wife seems to be increasing. What did he think when he saw the film? Apparently, he sat in silence for six minutes, perhaps contemplating his reflection in his wife's faithful mirror at last.

The BBC2 series on adultery begins on Tuesday at 9.45pm.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments