He is from the aristocracy. She is from the Philippines. He is 69, she is 36. He is pretty useless round the house, she is pretty useful (she used to do for him). They are recently married, and having a baby. Nice! says .

Lord Southampton sees his marriage to his 36-year-old Filipina cleaner as a fairy tale come true. "We fell in love," says the 69-year- old peer. "It is a bit of a fairy tale, and I think most people like fairy tales. Barbara Cartland's agent has been in touch to see if we could help her with a book."

Well, whatever Dame Barbara may think, this is not a fairy tale. For starters, penniless Cinderella did not marry the old guy sitting on the throne. She married the handsome young prince on the dashing white horse. Then they cantered off into the sunset - too young and too much in love to realise that the whole thing was destined to give them saddle sores and a whacking great chance of divorce.

No, the story of the peer and his cleaner - which was broken by the News of the World with the memorable headline "Bed, nob and broomsticks!" - is something else entirely and in many ways it is a thoroughly modern match. But first, a recap of the story and its characters so far.

Lord Charles James FitzRoy, 6th Baron Southampton, is descended from Charles II. The family owes its fortunes to the king's celebrated mistress, Barbara Villiers, so there is a certain tradition to keep up. The present peer's father ran off with a chorus girl when he was 17, and Lord Southampton himself ran off with his first wife, Pamela, when he was 22 and she was only 16. There, however, the wild times end. They were married for 46 years, and had two children, now aged aged 45 and 41, and seven grandchildren. The first Lady Southampton died in February, from ovarian cancer.

Alma Pasqual grew up a world away from all this, as the daughter of a shopkeeper in the village of Tarlac, near Manila. In an arrangement that owes much to the mail-order bride business, she came to Devon to marry an electrician, Bryan Slater, after an 18-month correspondence. The marriage was not a success and, amid financial and other troubles, Alma decided to look for work as a cleaner. Thus, in 1992, she came to be hired at pounds 5 an hour by Lady Southampton to clean Stone Cross, a five-bedroom country house, worth pounds 500,000. At Alma's home, things got worse - "I was treated like a skivvy" - and she started divorce proceedings.

And so the stage was set. Lord Southampton is described as being "impractical around the home". One suspects that this means completely useless, and as a widower he began to rely more and more on Alma. Then, one day, he decided that he needed a new fridge. "He is not very good at shopping," says Alma. "That was the first time we went out together."

The peer told Hello! that he decided to pop the question over a meal in a Chinese restaurant in Taunton. His cleaner was surprised. "Out of the blue he told me that he was in love with me. It never occurred to me what was happening inside of him. I think I said `Bloody hell'. I just never expected it. I told James I would have to think about it." In June, she accepted his proposal. They married last month, and now the new Lady Southampton is pregnant.

Some people claim to be shocked, though whether this is because of the recentness of the first wife's death, the age gap, the fact that the new Lady Southampton was a cleaner, or that she is from the Philippines, is unclear. But all these factors contribute to the reason why we should not be shocked.

Romance and bereavement are no strangers, especially for men. There are many more widows (2.9 million) than widowers (684,000) in Britain. While this is partly explained by the fact that women live longer, men are also far more likely to remarry, and quickly, too. "Men are healthier if they have a partner," says Averil Leimon, a psychologist. "Bereaved men are at considerable risk - it's not unusual for them to die [soon] too. For men it can be a life-saver to find another woman." Often, the dying wife will instruct a husband to find a new wife. Both Lord Southampton and his new wife have said they believe Pamela would have approved of their match.

Nor should we be surprised by the fact that she is a Filipina. The "brides of the Orient" are much in demand these days. Bill Howard, of the World Association of Introduction Agencies, says that there has been a 15 per cent increase in the number of European and North American men marrying Oriental women, and that the former gas chief Brian Clegg is only the highest-profile man to admit to having done such a thing. The 75-year- old former chairman of Northern Gas paid pounds 3,000 in air fares and dating agency fees to go to Bangkok, where he met a 23-year-old Thai waitress called Joom. They wed after a three-day courtship conducted in a shared hotel room. "I'm sure we will be happy," says Mr Clegg. "And when I have gone, Joom will be set up for the rest of her life."

In many ways, it could be said that Mr Clegg has gone out of his way - Bangkok is not an Awayday, after all - to find the ultimate non-trophy wife. But others would see it differently. The men who seek out Oriental brides are usually divorced, and are looking for women with traditional values. The women - and 60 per cent come from the Philippines - are looking to escape the worst kind of poverty. "Almost all Filipina girls marry for economic reasons," says Mr Hunter, "though perhaps the men don't think of it that way."

Not so much true love as true practicalities, then. But it seems to work for many. Charles Black, of Siam Introductions - the firm used by Mr Clegg - conducts a two-year check-up for its clients and reports an 85 per cent success rate. "That's a lot better than most English marriages," he says.

Alma Pasqual was one of those whose penpal husband turned out to be Mr Wrong. Unlike many such brides, she took her future into her own hands and decided that she would rather get divorced and return to the Philippines than live in such an way.

Then came that unexpected question in the Chinese restaurant, and she is now in a rather wonderful and rare position. She is a Filipina in Britain who is marrying a wealthy older man without the help of an agency. She has always wanted a family, and now she is to have children who will be aristocrats (if her baby is a boy the plan is to name him Charles, after the future king). Her husband is thrilled by what he calls his new life. "I am hoping Alma will do the late-night nappy duties," he says. "I don't think I am up to it at my age."

She used to be paid pounds 5 an hour to clean, and now she is rich in her own right. "Neither of us can believe it's happening," she says. "I used to clean this beautiful house - and now it is my home." But, it must be said, she is still cleaning. "We can't really afford staff now, so I'll still do all the housework myself." Spoken like a truly traditional wife. And that's no fairy tale - that's just the way of the world.