Princess Diana and Prince Charles: Separate Lives

Diana is ready to declare independence, putting in doubt the future of the troubled House of Windsor

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The transcript of Diana's conversation with Gilbey makes embarrassing yet poignant reading. Gilbey burbles "darling" repeatedly. He wants to talk about "us." She, however, is very cautious, diverting any intimacy by changing the subject. What she wants is praise, appreciation for her sufferings and a chance to complain (she feels -- with some justification -- that her in-laws are against her and that the Queen Mother is giving her funny looks).

The palace has not denied the authenticity of the tapes, but others do, including veteran royal biographer Brian Hoey. His chief point is that the conversation is supposed to have taken place around 11 p.m. on New Year's Eve, when the Queen Mother's annual party, from which no one is excused, is in full swing.

Gossips thrive on a kind of conspiracy theory that has Charles and Diana each surrounded by cadres of supporters who leak material damaging to the other. In the case of Charles, even palace professionals and police have been < rumored to be fueling the family feud. In Diana's, it is friends like Gilbey and her brother Charles, the new Earl Spencer. If true, she may not be getting very good advice. Last year Spencer decided to head off a rumor about an affair that continued after his marriage by announcing himself that it was true. Perhaps not the sagest fellow to counsel the future Queen.

In a chapter written for the newly released paperback of his book on Diana, Andrew Morton states that the couple made a friendly agreement between themselves to separate. That pact did not survive stormy sessions with Charles' parents, who supposedly would love to see Diana go but resist any concessions. For instance, if a divorce were to occur, they would want her to give up her public work, which is genuinely dear to her. If she were to remarry, the royal family would want her to leave the country and her boys. It is doubtful that either the mother or the reputation of the monarchy would survive that gambit.

Despite the common impression, a divorce would not interfere with Charles' future position as head of the Church of England -- even if the church's critics accuse it of "moving the goalposts" to keep the monarchy and its own traditions alive. The deterrents, however, are formidable. Philip Ziegler observes that if the couple were to divorce, "it would be damaging, and a great asset to the royal family would be lost or eliminated." For the moment there remains some effort at peacemaking. After her return from South Korea, Diana released a statement aimed at Morton's new chapter, saying that the Queen and Prince Philip had always supported her -- which was read as confirmation that the circumstances of her marriage required some support.

Whatever accommodation the prince and princess reach, their travails have raised concerns that touch the rest of the family, and the image of the monarchy itself. Most serious is the new focus on what is coming to be considered as the royals' free ride. The Queen pays no tax on her personal fortune. The active members of her family receive nearly $15 million annually, which is used to support their public duties. As palace spokesmen point out, most of this goes for employee salaries, as does 75% of the Queen's annual $12 million.

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