London — The next Queen of England is already one of the most imitated trend-setters in the world. Tall, striking, blonde, cool, reserved, nonintellectual, well-mannered, and well accustomed to being around royalty, she has emerged as a popular, and in many ways, ideal future wife for Prince Charles.
"I don't envy her, really I don't," commented a salesgirl the other day. "Her life won't be her own, will it? And she's so young to be taking it all on. . . ."
She gives every indication, however, that she has thought long and hard, and has decided that Charles is the man for her. She has been close to the daily round of court life and public appearances all her life: Her father, the Earl Spencer, was an equerry to George V from 1950 to 1952. After George's death, he continued in the same capacity to Queen Elizabeth for another two years.
Lady Diana's ancestry is less illustrious than her fiance's (whose isn't?). But not much so. She is, it is said, an 11th cousin, once removed, of her future husband. She is descended from Charles I, Charles II, and Mary Queen of Scots.
In person, those who know her say, she is older than her 20 years, just as Charles appears younger than his 32.
During the months she was dogged by the Fleet Street and international press as a potential fiancee, she showed considerable poise. Once the press even slipped her a note after one raucous session in which she was almost reduced to tears by a hail of questions, the flashing of cameras, and the swaying crowd of people around her. "Sorry," the note said, "we didn't mean it."
She has a sense of humor, and the self-assurance of one raised in one of the most aristocratic and wealthy families in the country. Her father's estate at Althorp, in Northamptonshire, has been in the family since 1506. The Jacobean mansion has one of the finest collection of oil paintings of royalty in the country.
By comparison, Highgrove, the house she will share with Charles in Gloucestershire, is a country cottage. Highgrove, bought for a minuscule L900, 000 ($1.8 million), has only nine bedrooms (a mere five with dressing rooms), six bathrooms, and four reception rooms. It does, however, also have a nursery wing, a feature that has not escaped those who look to the future of the throne.
Diana has already shown a skilled hand at holding babies, shaking hands, appearing at charity concerts, even at fishing in knee-high boots and watching Charles horse-racing. She is said to be a particular favorite of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, with whom she stayed for a while at Clarence House, and with whom she and her family have much in common.
It is even said that the Queen Mother helped push the romance along by arranging occasions for Charles and Diana to be together during their courtship.
Diana has not had the same kind of family life Charles has enjoyed. The divorce between her father and her mother, now married to wallpaper heir Peter Shand-Kydd, is said to have been acrimonious. Her father remarried Raine McCorquodale, daughter of novelist Barbara Cartland.
Miss Cartland, a vigorous woman in her 80s, has written almost 300 books, a good number of which are romantic novels: Her daughter Raine, Diana's stepmother , has an energy and a drive that have caused others to dub her one of the most "controversial" members of the aristocracy.
Lady Diana attended private schools until she was 16. Without gaining any O-levels (the English equivalent of a high school diploma) she went to a Swiss finishing school after her parents' divorce. Homesick, she returned a year later. In 1978 a friend offered her a job teaching part-time at a kindergarten in London's Pimlico. Her father bought her a large city home and furnished it.
Three school friends shared it with her, and there she lived and worked until Prince Charles proposed on the eve of a long trip she and her mother took to Australia.
Diana said later she said "yes" right away. "I know what I want," she said, making it clear she loves the Prince despite what she concedes are daunting duties ahead of her.
But a good part of Diana's emerging popularity in the press and the country as a whole is that she is essentially British. British people seem intensely aware that it is the first time for 300 years that the heir to the throne has married a British subject.
The last British bride to an heir to the throne came when James, brother of Charles II and later himself James II, married Lady Anne Hyde in 1659.
(In 1785, the then Prince of Wales [later George IV] secretly married widow Mary Anne Weld Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic, but because marriage to a Catholic meant giving up his right to the throne [and still does], the marriage was declared invalid. George later married Caroline of Brunswick.)
The July 29 wedding will also give Britain its first Princess of Wales in 60 years -- since Mary, wife of the man who became George V, became Queen Mary in 1910.
Diana has made the transition from obscurity to one of the country's most famous figures with considerable style. Her youthful sense of fashion, her public poise, her quick smile, and her Englishness seem to have overcome some early doubts about her tender years.