ROSIE grew up rich, privileged and cosseted, and assumed that was what life was meant to be like. The daughter of a rich businessman, she spent her childhood in the United States surrounded by servants. At 22, she married an Old Etonian financier who made a great deal of money in the 1980s, and who is now on bail pending an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. They bought a house in Kensington, another in Wiltshire, two apartments in Monte Carlo - 'one for us, one for the children. Well, we did a lot of entertaining' - and 11 Ferraris.

In 1987 Rosie, then aged 32, discovered that her husband was having an affair with her best friend and initiated divorce proceedings. But this was just before the stock market crash, 'which enabled him to claim he'd lost everything'. She used to have three nannies for her four children; now she has none. The children have moved from public to state schools. She had never cooked for them before, and doesn't know how to.

Emma comes from a titled family, and was brought up by nannies in Gloucestershire and London. A Sloaney teenager, she married an Old Etonian entrepreneur called Rupert at the beginning of the Eighties, and spent a decade skiing, sailing, doing up their Kensington flat, and driving a big BMW. Then three years ago her husband's import-export business collapsed. Their marriage, she says, had by then been going wrong for about four years. Now, at 34, she is living in a cold flat with her two children, no proper kitchen and no cooker, worrying about the price of food.

It is often said that this is a middle- class recession. Just as tellingly, it is an upper-class recession. For the Sloanes - public school types from old money backgrounds - who effortlessly transformed themselves into yuppies and bought into the entreprise culture, the Nineties have brought Lloyd's losses, job losses, and collapsing businesses. When these things coincide with divorce, Emma believes 'wives bear the brunt, partly because we have to look after the children, partly because we're not trained to do anything. The expectation was that I would only ever have to be a wife and mother. I feel really strongly now that every woman should learn a profession.

'I was never expected to know anything about our finances. I ran the house on an overdraft at a private bank, and every now and then - rather erratically - Rupert would give me some money. I still don't really know how much we were living on. It's only now I realise how much of it was borrowed.'

Peter George, a partner in top divorce solicitors Charles Russell, says: 'We are seeing a lot of cases where job losses and Lloyd's losses are exacerbating the difficulties of divorce, and some people have suggested that recession itself causes divorce. Certainly, when all these things coincide, there is often quite a lot of hardship.' Dr Mary Archer, chairman of the members' hardship committee, confirms: 'We are aware of cases where heavy Lloyd's losses are exacerbating an already very difficult situation when people are divorcing.'

The hardship is, of course, relative. Emma spent some time living on income support, and is now receiving payments of pounds 450 a month, plus child allowance of pounds 68; but she is living rent- free in converted offices over her father's Chelsea shop. Although she has no cooker, there is a microwave. But the sink is a walk down the hall from the fridge and utensils. Her father says he can't afford to have her living there indefinitely. And her income is low - certainly comparatively: 'I see those yoghurts with separate fruit or nuts and think the children would like them, but they are too expensive at 36p. The children need new shoes, and my son needs good shoes because he has turned-in feet. But two pairs of new leather shoes cost nearly pounds 70.

'I kept the children at a private school for two-and-a-half years, using money I had inherited, but it ran out. The new school's fine, but it's a different atmosphere - the children get teased for talking differently. And one day my daughter came to me and said 'The new school is fine, Mummy, but they don't do much work.' And her face just crumpled.'

Emma's divorce, after an 11-year marriage, has been very bitter. 'I don't want to sound snobbish, but coming from this sort of background, men just didn't behave in this way in the past. They had professions, they were bankers or doctors. But in the last decade half of them started businesses, and because they were well-connected and plausible, banks lent them money. Now they are going bust.

'My husband gave me three days' notice that he was going into voluntary liquidation. I suspect he's still living quite well - I think he's started another company in someone else's name, and lives on business expenses, just as he always did. He's working for this company, but it only pays him a poxy little salary so that the courts can't demand he gives more to me.'

Their pounds 290,000 flat was sold; the couple are now battling over the pounds 90,000 equity. Emma says Rupert wants it to cover his debts; she wants it to buy somewhere to live for herself and the children. 'It is impossible for me to raise a mortgage, because I don't have a job. Who will take on someone like me with a couple of children? I am prepared to scrub steps, but I can't find the work.'

Rosie got an 'enormous divorce settlement - more than a million pounds for me, plus pounds 2,000 a month for the children', but says she hasn't seen a penny of the lump sum. She does get pounds 1,200 a month, although sometimes the cheque bounces, and sometimes her husband has forgotten to sign it. 'My husband says he hasn't got any more. But if he isn't a straight businessman, why should he be straight with me? We had flats in Monte Carlo - obviously he's not going to have his money in this country. I don't think I want to get married again, but if I did, I'd make sure I became best friends with his secretary. You never know when you might need her.

'It seems a peculiarly public school phenomenon: either you turn out a really nice person, or a complete shit. But there used to be a code of conduct, the idea of family used to keep people in order. That doesn't apply any more.'

Rosie kept the London house, which she sold for pounds 420,000, buying another in Fulham for pounds 315,000. She has just sold this for pounds 219,000 because she couldn't meet the mortgage payments. (The country house was sold for pounds 1.2 million, but there was an pounds 800,000 mortgage, and debts to builders. She says there was nothing left). 'I've spent pounds 130,000 on lawyers' fees. I tried to carry on giving the children the kind of life they were used to. It was very difficult for me to adjust. I had never been used to doing anything except shopping and having my nails done. My American Express bill was pounds 12,000 a month; I'd spend pounds 5,000 a week running the house, and pounds 1,000 on flowers for a dinner party.

'In a way, I still have that life, because my friends still live like that - although I know of women in a similar situation who have cut themselves off from friends because they feel embarrassed. I don't mind staying with people - it's just that when we go home, I find it hard to manage to feed the children. I can't iron, I'd never changed a bed. Beds just had clean sheets - I never really thought about how they got there.'

Disingenuous, or what? It is hard to escape the feeling that there is more money around somewhere, something to fall back on; parents and friends may not be hugely rich, 11 Ferraris-rich, but neither are they on the breadline, and there is help to be had. Perhaps eventually too, there is money to be reclaimed from husbands. But meanwhile, there is no doubt that these women are struggling, that in an age of social mobility, it is also possible to go downwards. Emma has an ineffectual electric heater; her flat is all stairs and open to the front door; interviewing her was a freezing experience. 'The Queen saying she'd had a bad year turned my stomach,' she says. 'Her subjects - people, what's more, who used to be part of her circle - are having a much worse time.'