Spencer is back - but this time no applause

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Somebody called it `the divorce of the decade' which is, of course, wrong. His sister and brother-in-law hold that title. But certainly it is compelling, combining modern miseries and old-fashioned aristocratic fecklessness. Perhaps, says Glenda Cooper, that is the Spencers' lot.

There is no real contest for bad man of the week. Earl Spencer is that man. The details of the divorce case being played out in South African court are epic. The numbers alone are startling: it is alleged that he had 12 affairs in five months. He is said to be worth pounds 100m and was attempting to fob off Victoria, his wife of five years, with pounds 300,000. What he is alleged to have done and said to her is as shocking as it is rivetting.

Yet it is less than three months since Charles Edward Maurice, the Right Honourable ninth Earl Spencer, was hailed as a sort of national hero; on the day of his sister's funeral, an occasion which he did not allow his wife to attend, his tribute was so moving and so perfectly captured the mood of the country. In it he attacked the Royal Family in scarcely veiled fashion and lambasted the press in round terms. Among the striking things about this week is the press's relish at his discomfiture and his remarkable insensitivity to his wife problems, including the same eating disorders that afflicted Diana.

How could a man who could articulate the grief and anger many felt at Diana's death so accurately, be so stupid that he could tell his wife at a particularly vulnerable time that he had never really loved her or tell such dreadful jokes about sticking with her through thick and thin - "she was thin and certainly thick".

The divorce case has , of course, made tremendous viewing. His wife turned up with one of his former mistresses Chantal Collopy on the first day of the hearing. ("He's the sort of man who makes women unite against him," said another former flame Sally-Ann Lasson).

Then the countess alleged that he had had slept with 10 or 12 women in the five month she spent at the exclusive Farm Place Clinic in Surrey, where she was treated for drink problems and anorexia nervosa.

Her lawyer added that Earl Spencer told his wife their marriage was over as he lay in the bath, saying "he didn't love her any more and she was no good as a wife". In a letter sent to his "paramour" Mrs Collopy, (reproduced opposite) the Earl described himself as "vicious, cruel and a bully" towards Victoria.

Not that the Earl's side let his wife have it his own way. The Countess could not have the pounds 3.75m she demanded because she wouldn't be able to cope with it, said the Earl's lawyer. Leslie Weinkove told the judge: "There is a question mark over her ability to manage such an award, given that she has a 12-step approach to life dealing with each problem day to day." (a reference to the "Twelve Step" programme of self-help addiction recovery).

Then at the end of the fourth day of the couple's divorce hearing, David Horton-Fawkes, the manager of Lord Spencer's Althorp estate in Northamptonshire, spoke out on behalf of his friend saying Countess Spencer had been persuaded to launch a "malicious" campaign against her husband in the hope of financial gain.

"Far from claiming he was brutal, she lovingly and touchingly thanked him for his tolerance and support," he said.

Part of this obsession with his divorce has been our fascination that the rich - especially the aristocratic rich - are different. When Lady Spencer's lawyer expresses horror at only being offered pounds 300,000 for a house and says she would only be able to "get a house in a very unattractive distant suburb with problems, perhaps, of crime", the rest of us roll our eyes.

But mainly Earl Spencer had set himself up for it. He took on the press so nakedly at the time of his sister's death - he called his sister "the most hunted person of the modern age", accused editors of having blood on their hands and concluded "my own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum". The media, cowed by the flak they took at the time of Diana's death, had been skewered by the Earl more than anyone else. This week was payback time.

How can a man intelligent enough to construct the tribute at Diana's funeral be stupid enough to try to get a gagging order to stop the press reporting the divorce hearings. And how was it that a man who could sum up Diana so accurately - childlike, insecure and helping others as a way of improving her self-esteem - could be so cruel to his own wife?

Part of this at least lies in his own upbringing. The nation may feel that they have been unfortunate in having the dysfunctional Windsors as the Royal Family . But we should think ourselves lucky we didn't get the Spencers.

Charles the youngest Spencer was only four when his mother Frances Shand Kydd left home. He developed a fear of the dark and would cry: "I want my Mummy. I want my Mummy."

His father Johnny had bullied Frances and had forced her to take gynaecological tests when she did not produce the all-important heir. Charles was the fifth child of the marriage - an earlier son had died.

During the divorce Johnny made no attempt to hide from his children the acrimony between himself and Frances and fought tooth and nail to get custody of the children whom he then left to be brought up by nannies and au pairs. When he married for a second time to the-then Raine Dartmouth (who Charles had met and disliked), he left it to Charles's headmaster at Eton to tell him that they had married.

Add to the casual cruelty that he had seen his father display to his mother, Charles was also brought up as heir - not only an earldom but a house and 8,500-acre Northamptonshire estate. Anachronistic as it may sound he was part of something that had been in his family for generations. Hostility to "acid Raine", as he and Diana named their stepmother, was due in partto her selling off family heirlooms.

Like her mother-in-law before her, Victoria Spencer produced children at a rapid rate - four children in four years until the birth of Louis, Viscount Althorp made the dynasty secure.

Is it any wonder that Charles Spencer seems to have no idea how to behave to women? And yet he is not entirely insensitive either. His wife's lawyers said that in a letter he had admitted being callous, vicious and a bully to Victoria; the full text revealed something more self-aware. He had actually written: "I feel a dreadful bully to Victoria. I've been callous and vicious, trying to force her out of my life. She deserves better than that - a good man, who will love her, give her security and help her deal with her shortcomings."

Writing of his parents he added: "If I can't learn from their mistakes by avoiding divorce, I can at least prevent the unpleasantness that accompanied it.[

His tribute to Diana was masterful and his attack on the Royal Family exact: his references to "blood family", his insinuation that for the first time Diana had found joy in her private life, her eating disorders brought on during her marriage. The Prince of Wales stood accused.

Yet Charles Windsor appears to have treated his wife less cruelly than Charles Spencer. He did not quibble over the divorce, he appears to have kept his one mistress discreet. His bad press came in part from an orchestrated campaign against him; Charles Spencer, one feels, has brought a lot of troubles on himself.

But then the Earl has been sketched in bold lines. He has been a cartoon character to the press right from the very beginning. Within a month of reaching Magdalen College, Oxford (where he got a 2:1 in history), one contemporary remembers he had already made the pages of the university newspaper Cherwell as part of his exploits with the dining club the Bullingdon, who had smashed up a restaurant in Thame. He and his dicey friends have made regular appearances in newspapers since.

But it would be wrong simply to demonise the Earl. Like Diana he has been squashed into a mould he doesn't fit.

He is a man of some intelligence who has at times behaved like a completely stupid and insensitive pillock.

Like most of us he is inconsistent and sometimes stupid. He certainly has the capacity to surprise us. He has done it twice in three months.

The Earl as poet and pundit: the tribute at Diana's funeral

I stand before you today, the representative of a family in grief, in a country in mourning, before a world in shock. We are all united, not only in our desire to pay our respects to Diana but rather in our need to do so.

For such was her extraordinary appeal that the tens of millions of people taking part in this service all over the world, via television and radio, who never actually met her, feel that they, too, lost someone close to them ...

Without your God-given sensitivity, we would be immersed in greater ignorance at the anguish of Aids and HIV sufferers, the plight of the homeless, the isolation of lepers, the random destruction of landmines. Diana explained to me once that it was her innermost feelings of suffering that made it possible for her to connect with her constituency of the rejected.

And here we come to another truth about her. For all the status, the glamour, the applause, Diana remained throughout a very insecure person at heart, almost childlike in her desire to do good for others so she could release herself from deep feelings of unworthiness, of which her eating disorders were merely a symptom.

The world sensed this part of her character and cherished her for her vulnerability, while admiring her for her honesty.

She would want us today to pledge ourselves to protecting her beloved boys William and Harry from a similar fate, and I do this here, Diana, on your behalf. We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair. And, beyond that, on behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men, so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly, as you planned.

We ... like you, recognise the need for them to experience as many different aspects of life as possible to arm them spiritually and emotionally for the years ahead.

The Earl as a selfish sensualist: his love letter to Chantal

Do I want to spend the rest of my life with you? Yes. When I was with you, everything is so clear.

You've been wonderfully patient with me and as for sensible - well, you couldn't have been more wise and considerate. For someone who's screwed up a major part of his life by charging into something he feared and didn't understand - marriage - your control ... has prevented me repeating my error.

I feel sorry for Victoria, for Don and for all six children involved. I never intended to put my children through the hell of a divorce, but I hope these divorces will be more civilised than that of my parents ...

I feel a dreadful bully to Victoria. I've been callous and vicious, trying to force her out of my life. She deserves better than that - a good man, who will love her, give her security and help her deal with her shortcomings ...

It is a time of turmoil, but the potential for happiness is there and neither of us is happy at present.

Deep down, I've always known my marriage was a mismatch, a terrible error, an impulsive whim that I compounded by adding more and more children to my family. There have been good times, but the bad ones have been chillingly awful. I'm not sure whether Victoria can remember them all, but I can, and I never want to go through such desperate lows again.

Part of the problem has been having an immature wife, one who is incapable of dealing with a husband with a strong character, except by going on hunger strike, an alcohol binge, or resorting to drugs. The other side of the problem is that I cannot deal with a woman who does these things to herself and I can't respect such negative reactions and therefore found my love drifting away. There wasn't an abundance of it in the first place.