Charles and Diana: all Britain rejoices

He is lean, earnest, somewhat reserved. His ears are prominent, his complexion ruddy, his suits sober, his ties regimentally striped. When you shake his hand, he seems younger than his 32 years.

She is as tall as he, vigorous and strong. If anything, older than her 19 years. She is a kindergarten helper who did not finish high school and whose home life has shown her sides of the world he has not seen: Her parents are divorced and her step-grandmother, Barbara Cartland, has written more than 170 relentlessly romantic novels.

And when the two young people are married in London on July 29, it will be the biggest royal wedding here for 34 years -- a combination of public holiday, joy in the midst of economic gloom, and a television spectacular to be watched by an estimated 600 million people around the world.

The engagement -- the end of a decade of speculation about who would marry Charles, Prince of Wales, and almost certainly become the next queen -- is an immensely popular event, emphasizing the genuine affection and esteem in which the British peopl hold their royal family.

Britain today is still searching for economic health and well being. The struggle is longer drawn out and just as fundamental, in its way, as World War II. Now, as then, the crown and the warm, dignified, and religiously minded Queen who leads it are symbols of stability and of enduring human values.

Prince Charles strikes those who know him as an ideal heir. Very few here wish him anything but happiness with Lady Diana Spencer: when perennial royal critic Willie hamilton, Labour member of Parliament for the Scottish mining seat of Fife, Central, attacked the engagement announcement as a deliberate effort to distract people's attention from the economy, most of Britain shrugged him off.

"The winter of discontent is now being replaced by the winter of phony romance," said Mr. Hamilton in the House of Commons. He also criticized the Civil List for allegedly providing too much money for the royal family.

But Mr. Hamilton is remarkable for being almost alone.

The prince himself is said to be more than irritated at the way the popular Fleet Street press concentrates on the personal details of his life and the kind of dresses his fiancee wears. But he also is said to understand that some press attention is necessary to maintain the close links between people and crown.

Buckingham Palace says he and Diana chose St. Paul's Cathedral because it can seat several hundred more guests than Westminster Abbey. The wedding is to be celebrated at the high altar with all the glittering ceremony at Britain's command.

Charles will go to the high altar (very likely in naval uniform) as a man who will not become king soon (insiders here expect his mother to reign for two decades or more yet) but who has been groomed for the throne since his birth.

As befits an age of egalitarianism, he has broken new ground all along the way. He went to a tough school in Scotland like his father before him. He went to a colony to school (Australia, in the state of victoria). He returned to take a history degree at Cambridge. he has stood on the bridge of his own naval ship as its captain. He not ony plays polo (a fittingly aristocratic sport), but he has learned to fly jets and helicopters; he has trained in wetsuit, flippers, and goggles as a frogman; he has gone through rugged commando training , and he has jumped from aircraft with a parachute eight times.

Just as boldly, he faced head-on hostility in Wales to his investiture and learned some Welsh.

ANd, as historians point out, he is the first Prince of Wales for two centuries to live a blameless life, free from scandal gossip. "The duty of the Prince of Wales," it has been written, "is to keep out of trouble, and wait."

He himself agrees with that -- while refraining from pointing out that some of his predecessors have been less successful at it than he.

One by one, the girls he dated were found to be unsuitable. In an age of looser public moral standards, many of them were found to have had affairs with other men -- or to have appeared to have had them. For an heir to the throne, that is simply not acceptable. 6

Lady Diana, on the other hand, was only 16 when they first met at a royal deer shoot in the country in 1977 ("in a plowed field"), as Diana recalls.

She struck him as "awfully jolly" -- vivacious and fun. Months later at the royal residence of Sandringham she is said to have taught him to tap dance on a terrace.

Sources have told this correspondent that the Queen Mother took an active interest in the romance, along with the Duke of Edinburgh.

Diana has a background impeccable even by Debrett's standards: Her lineage can be traced back to charles I of Britain (though through several illegitimate offspring along the way). Her father is not only the eighth Earl Spencer but a former equerry to the Queen and to her father, King George VI. The family estate at Althorp, near Northhampton north of London, is ablaze with royal portraits and priceless antiques.

Charles and diana will live at Highgrove, the timbered mansion in Gloucestershire he bought for L900,000 ($1.98 million), which he has been energetically helping to remodel.It is, however, decidedly modest by royal standards (and by Spencers' as well).

It has only 4 reception rooms, 9 bedrooms (a mere 5 of them with their own dressing rooms), no more than 6 bathrooms, a nursery wing, and domestic quarters.

Hardly Buckingham Palace (or Althorp), but it will do.

Diana's parents are delighted with their daughter's choice, despite her youth , and the challenges ahead that even Diana herself describes as "daunting." The Earl Spencer remarrid after his 1969 divorce to Raine McCorquodale, Barbara Cartland's daughter. His new wife had in turn just divorced the ninth Earl of Dartmouth.

Diana's mother, the former Frances Ruth Burke Roche, remarried to a wealthy wallpaper heir, Peter Shand Kydd.

The two sides of the family remain divided, but all are expected to be at the wedding at St. Paul's as Britain forgets its cares for a day and wishes the royal couple every happiness.

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