A Young Diana
Diana Frances Spencer was born in a time warp. It was 1961, when hip music fans were already
on to the Beatles, and soon-to-be-swinging England was about to knock the stuffing out of its
own shirt. But on the Norfolk estate of the Viscount Althorp (later the eighth Earl Spencer)
and his wife, life proceeded as if it were the '20s. Diana and her two older sisters - joined
in 1964 by a brother, Charles - were surrounded by servants, including a butler and the
governess who had originally taught their mother. The children ate their meals with the nanny
in a house that was originally used as a kind of annex to Sandringham, the royal family's
country place near the North Sea. It was, Charles recalled, an "upbringing out of a different
age, a distant way of living from your parents."
When Diana was 6, that distance grew wider and more difficult to breach. Her parents separated: her mother had fallen in love with Peter Shand Kydd, a wallpaper tycoon, and was named as correspondent in his divorce. The viscount and viscountess soon divorced in a most ungenteel manner that the tabloids devoured. (Both had numerous links to the royal family. Diana's maternal grandmother was a Woman of the Bedchamber and a close friend of the Queen Mother's. Her father had served as equerry to both George VI and Elizabeth II, who was godmother to Diana's brother.) After a nasty custody battle, the children began shuttling between their parents' houses. Diana could not bear to take sides. When each parent gave her a new dress to wear to a cousin's wedding, she was all but paralyzed. "I can't remember," she said later, "which one I wore, but I remember being totally traumatized by it because it would show favoritism."
Despite their creature comforts, which included a swimming pool and a tennis court, Diana and her siblings were anything but comfortable. "The whole thing was very unstable," Diana recalled. "I remember my mother crying. Daddy never spoke to us about it. We could never ask questions. Too many nannies." The Spencer children went through a string of them, including some Dickensian ones, such as the woman who disciplined Diana and her brother by whacking their heads together, and another who metered out laxatives to the older girls if they misbehaved. Small wonder that Diana was so anxious not to have her own marriage fail.
At day school, as the only students with divorced parents, Charles and Diana were uncomfortably conspicuous. She stood out less at boarding school, to which, like many upper-class Britons, she was shipped at the age of 9. As a teenager, she grew too tall to be the ballerina she had hoped to become. She was high-spirited, athletic and uncommonly compassionate, cheerfully volunteering at a mental hospital, where she crawled on the floor with the patients. That good nature helped offset her dim academic record. (She once sent her father a newspaper clipping about poor students who blossomed later in life. As an adult, she casually referred to herself as "thick as a plank.") At 16, after failing all her "O" levels, standardized tests for British students, she left school in England and spent a semester at a Swiss "finishing" school, where she improved her skiing and her French.
In 1979 her parents set her up in a London flat, which she shared with three other young women. She was one of the "Sloane Rangers" - the A-list women who were habitués of the fashionable Sloane Square area. But she was more than that too. Lady Diana worked as a part-time nanny, a house cleaner and a part-time kindergarten staffer, the last job she had before signing on as Princess of Wales. It's easy to forget how young and unseasoned she was, despite her moneyed background. At 18 she was still very much a young girl, whose idea of a lark was covering a boyfriend's car with an egg-and-flour mix or looking in the phone book for people with odd names and calling them up. She retained not just a child's sense of fun but her virginity, perhaps divining its pecular importance for brides of future kings. "I knew I had to keep myself tidy for what lay ahead," she said quaintly. Like her mother, Diana was married very young, to a man 12 years older than herself, and quickly became disenchanted. History repeats itself not just on a grand scale but on an intimate one, and sometimes at a terrible cost.
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