Raine Spencer: Friend not foe

As the rift between Diana and the royals grew, so did her closeness to her stepmother

They knew what they were up to, those Grimm boys. Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and many more tales in the collection which W H Auden described as one of the founding works of Western culture. What's the one thing they all have in common? A wicked stepmother.

For several decades now, Raine, Countess Spencer, has fulfilled that role in the British popular imagination, most particularly among newspapers for whom tabloid is a mindset rather than a mere paper size. Her reviled status as the classic stepmother grew in inverse proportion to the popular love accorded to that fairy-tale princess, Diana, Princess of Wales, whose father, the eighth Earl Spencer, Raine married.

But in fairy stories wheels turn. The lovely Diana was cast out by the Royal Family when she divorced Prince Charles, and so the stepmother was recast transmogrified, as all the best fairy stories demand from foe to friend. If you believe the countess's testimony in the witness box this week, that is.

For lovers of the memory of Diana, still unreconciled to a cold-hearted Royal Family that hurled the beautiful damsel into exile, there was comfort in the words of Raine, Countess Spencer as she prefers still to style herself, though she lost entitlement to do so when she remarried after the earl's death.

She testified at the inquest into Diana's death that the princess truly was "madly in love" with Dodi Fayed, the man the establishment regards, we were told, as "an oily bedhopper". It was "highly likely" that Diana and Dodi would have married, or at least started living together, she said, though she also disclosed, in support of royal views of Diana's unstable dippiness, that the princess was "obsessed" with fortune-tellers and soothsayers.

Demythologising this stepmother a woman who has over seven decades and three marriages variously been Raine McCorquodale, the Honourable Mrs Gerald Legge, Viscountess Lewisham, the Countess of Dartmouth, the Countess Spencer, the Dowager Countess Spencer, Countess Jean-Franois de Chambrun and Raine de Chambrun is no easy task.

She was born in 1929, the only child of Alexander McCorquodale, an army officer who was heir to a printing fortune. Her mother was the gossip columnist and in those days sensationalist novelist Barbara Cartland. If that background was solidly middle class it was also glittering. Cartland was a London socialite, renowned for her beauty, charm and outr parties; she famously rejected 49 proposals of marriage before settling on Raine's father.

Raine was just seven when her parents went through a scandalous, high-profile divorce. The charges and counter-charges of infidelity ended with her mother marrying the man she had been accused of dallying with: her husband's cousin, Hugh McCorquodale, another army officer, with whom she had a long and happy marriage and who became Raine's stepfather. But the glitter continued, and in 1947, at the age of 18, Raine came out and was named Deb of the Year.

But she was no flibbertigibbet. Though she had 16 bridesmaids, in crinolines, when she wed Gerald Legge, a City accountant and handsome heir to the earldom of Dartmouth, she threw herself into local politics and, at 23, was elected the youngest member of Westminster City Council. Over the next 17 years she worked hard at local government, serving on Westminster's town planning, parks and personnel committees, before being elected to represent Richmond on the Greater London Council. She took a particular interest in environmental planning and historic buildings.

She did all this while bringing up four children and gathering new aristocratic titles. In 1958 her husband inherited the title Viscount Lewisham, and she became the viscountess. Then in 1962 she became Countess of Dartmouth on her husband's succession to the earldom.

But then, in 1973, she met another earl, Johnny Spencer, on an architectural heritage committee. (She was variously at this time chair of the Covent Garden Development Committee, European Architectural Heritage Year, and a government working party for the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm.) The pair caused a scandal in London society by falling in love, and three years later she was divorced. Just two months afterwards, in 1976, she married the eighth Earl Spencer, LVO.

Spencer had been divorced for more than a decade. His wife, Frances, had run off with the wallpaper heir Peter Shand Kydd. The Earl was given custody of their two children, Diana (the future Princess of Wales), aged six, and Charles, three. Both children were devastated by the separation. They did not take to their new stepmother when she arrived some years later.

Diana and Charles, aged 15 and 12 when their father remarried, dubbed his new bride Acid Raine. Their Christmas present to her that first year was a biography of Marie Antoinette, a woman whose most aristocratic achievement was getting her head cut off. The book turned up, signed and dedicated, in an Oxfam shop many years later.

It has been reported that what the children took against was Raine's household economies at the family estate, Althorp, in Northamptonshire, where she cut the domestic staff, opened the ancestral seat to public viewing, and sold off more than 15m worth of treasures that had been in the family for generations.

In truth, she did not do much more than many aristocrats have done faced with a large stately home and a small, not so stately income. What rubbed people up the wrong way was the woman's vulgarity. This was, after all, the daughter of the fluffy pink romantic novelist Dame Barbara Cartland. She covered some of Althorp's genteelly shabby furniture in Dralon. She sold the Victorian lampshades and replaced them with nice new pink ones from British Home Stores. The new furniture she bought had, said Diana's brother Charles, "the wedding cake vulgarity of a five-star hotel in Monaco".

She took their father to stay at the Ritz in Paris (how vulgar) where they became friends with the new owner, Mohamed al-Fayed, an Egyptian grocer (more vulgar still). Raine had a "meringue hairdo" like Mrs Thatcher. Her trousseau contained 50 negligees. Her powder-puff tastes, it was said, had turned one of England's finest stately homes into a "tart's boudoir".

There was another side to the woman but it was rarely reported. Only two years after their wedding, the earl suffered a severe stroke and Raine nursed him back to health. And during her reign as Althorp's controversial chatelaine, she spent 16 years engaged in public service with the British Tourist Authority and a dozen other bodies promoting Britain as a destination for foreign visitors.

But such antipathy had built up that when Earl Spencer died in 1992, aged 68, Diana, then the Princess of Wales, reportedly instructed servants to toss all Raine's clothes into bin bags. Her brother, Charles, then 29, delighted in kicking them down the stairs. They refused to let the widow remove any furniture from the ancestral home unless she could produce proof of purchase.

Earl Spencer had provided for his widow with a 4m inheritance plus a 1.5m house in Mayfair. Charles who had been so free with his criticism of his stepmother's sales of the family inheritance as ninth earl, faced with the harsh reality that the estate was losing 450,000 a year, auctioned off five manorial lordships to finance the replumbing.

But Raine continued to attract opprobrium. Within a year of Johnny's death she had remarried, after a whirlwind 33-day romance, to a French aristocrat, Count Jean-Franois Pineton de Chambrun. Diana and her brother and sisters avoided the "nearly royal wedding" of their 63-year-old stepmother. The couple met in Monaco and were reported to have taken 70,000 from Hello! magazine (unspeakably vulgar) for pictures of her wedding.

Yet not long after, the comte wrote a letter to The Times expressing surprise at the extent to which "newspapers will say anything to stir ill-feeling between Raine and her stepdaughter". He had heard Diana say to his new bride at a private lunch: "Thank you so much for the love you gave to my father over all those years." He said the two women "fell into each other's arms and kissed goodbye in the most affectionate way".

As the estrangement between Diana and the Royal Family grew so, it seems, did her closeness to her stepmother. It developed further as relations between the volatile princess and her mother Frances became more strained. Diana paid unannounced visits and the pair lunched together, Raine claimed at the inquest this week. It was at one such lunch, at Harrods with Mohamed al-Fayed in 1996 that Diana joked her stepmother needed a job. Al Fayed promptly gave her one, as a director of Harrods International Ltd.

"She always said that I had no hidden agenda," Raine said of her stepdaughter this week. "I think that so many people, because she was so popular and so world famous, wanted something out of her." They still do. As they do out of the wicked stepmother stereotype that fits Raine Spencer so neatly.

They knew what they were up to, those Grimm boys. Their stories idealise and excuse fathers, even where they are clearly selfish or weak. As to the mothers, it is revealing to note that in the first editions of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, the Brothers Grimm made the villain the children's mother; it was only in later editions that they changed it to a stepmother.

Psychologists suggest, more subtly, that fairy-tale archetypes "split" the mother-figure into "ideal" and "false" personae to reflect the response of the child to what it likes and dislikes in its real mother. What appears in fairy stories, and in tabloid newspapers, then, may not always be the truth.

A Life in Brief

Born 29 September 1929.

Family Only child of novelist Dame Barbara Cartland and Alexander McCorquodale. Married Gerald Humphrey Legge, 1947, four children: William Legge, Rupert Legge, Lady Charlotte and Henry Legge. Divorced in 1976, same year in which she married Earl Edward Spencer, and became stepmother to the late Diana, Princess of Wales and her siblings. In 1992, married Count Jean-Franois Pineton de Chambrun in 1993, divorced 1995.

Career During her first marriage, she served as a Conservative member of the Greater London Council representing Richmond upon Thames and went on to chair the council's Historic Buildings Committee. Currently a member of the board of directors for Harrods.

She says "I love reading my horoscope. We all want a tall, dark, handsome gentleman to come through the door, don't we? But there comes a time when, beyond fun, it becomes too believable. There comes a time when you have to make your own decisions and ignore what the soothsayers say."

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