Talk about fractured fairy tales. In this one, the Princess gets both a Prince who turns into a frog and a wicked stepmother. It was bad enough that our modern-day Cinderella -- the Princess of Wales, of course -- has for years silently suffered the indignity of marriage to a man grown obviously indifferent to her. Now Diana's long-simmering dislike for Raine Spencer, 62, her father's second wife, has erupted into a humiliatingly public tug-of-war over Althorp House, the family's centuries-old ancestral home, and its furnishings.
In one of the feud's most outrageous moments, according to the Daily Express, the future Queen abandoned all royal decorum and joined her brother, Charles, 27, and sisters, Sarah McCorquodale, 36, and Jane Fellowes, 34, in a midnight raid on the 80-room family home to rescue a pile of precious curtains from their stepmother's clutches. Stuffing the heirloom linens into plastic garbage bags, the Spencer children sneaked them out of the house by climbing down a ladder propped against the window of their former nursery.
Certainly Di isn't that desperate for a set of drapes. The drastic measure, the story goes, was intended to thwart Raine -- or Acid Raine, as the brassy Countess's stepchildren call her -- who has been selling off treasures from the family's valuable collection of art and antiques. Already gone are at least 200 pieces, including 11 Van Dycks, that Raine sold -- with Earl Spencer's approval -- for a reported $6 million to help finance what critics decry as garish renovations of the family seat in Northamptonshire, about 80 miles northwest of London.
The private sellathon has proceeded at such a rapid pace that, according to London's Daily Mail, "the family are desperately trying to keep track of what has been sold off and have literally been reduced to scanning antique magazines to find out." Visiting a Scottish museum recently, Sir Robert Fellowes, the Queen's private secretary and husband of Di's sister Jane, was casually shown a chest of drawers that turned out to come from Althorp House. Even the family's christening bowl is now in a private collection in the U.S.
What's worse is that Raine's stepchildren feel the Spencer heritage is bringing little in return. They reportedly see Raine's frenetic and expensive redecorating as a reign of tasteless terror -- a gaudy assault on one of the finer houses in England. Not only has she sold off important paintings, she has then replaced them with undistinguished portraits of herself and her family. Rooms that were once understated and grand are now decorated in bright colors and gilt. Says one family friend: "The children think the house looks like a bordello."
And what does Papa think? To Earl Spencer, everything's right with Raine. "You know, children aren't grateful," the Earl told the Daily Mail. "I think Raine has done a magnificent job. No one could have done it better." As for Diana, he says, "Why she has to make such a fuss I don't know, because she seldom visits, only at Easter and Christmas." Noting that the upkeep of Althorp costs a fortune, he adds, "Diana doesn't understand about money. She's too young."
Despite hard times caused by the recession, critics have little sympathy with what is perceived as unseemly trading on the 500-year-old Spencer name. The Earl and Raine, who dresses in pricey couture by Sir Hardy Amies, have opened the estate to the public, charging $5 admission for a six-room tour, together with a visit to a wine shop, a cafe and a gift shop that sells costume jewelry. Although it is not uncommon for British aristocrats to open their homes to the public, according to one art expert, "There's a feeling that the Spencers -- and particularly Raine -- are pushing themselves forward too much, which is not British, and using the royal connection to make money."
The internal family squabbling reached its highest pitch earlier this summer when Charles Althorp, Diana's brother and the Earl's heir, angrily confronted his father and stepmother about the proposed sale of 40 cottages on the estate's 13,000 acres. "We could hear through the [library] door," said a member of the household staff. "Lord Althorp accused them of destroying 500 years of family heritage." Charles then visited some of the tenants to offer his apologies for the sale. Insiders say it was a carefully placed leak from the children's side soon after this incident that brought the family feud to the attention of the media in the hope that Raine might be shamed into halting further sales.
So bitter has the dispute become that Charles, who lives in the Falconry, a cottage on the estate, now refuses to enter his father's home, and his wife, Victoria, 26, reportedly objects to letting Raine hold their 9-month-old daughter, Kitty. And they may not be welcome. "That man is out. I'm not having him back again," a servant overheard Raine telling her husband. Friends say Di hasn't spoken to her father since July, and the Earl has stopped visiting grandsons William, 9, and Harry, 6, when he's in London. The Earl's relationship with his other two daughters, Sarah and Jane, who both live in London, is equally cool.
Bad blood between second spouses and their stepchildren is older than the crown, but rarely are the players so visible or the stakes so high. Distant cousins of the late Sir Winston Churchill and descendants of the first Duchess of Marlborough, the Spencers were one of the foremost families in England even before Diana married the future king. Accumulated over five centuries, the family's holdings in property, art and furnishings are estimated at $250 million.
The relationship between Raine and her stepchildren began badly and got worse. Raine -- a divorced mother of four and the daughter of flamboyant romance novelist Barbara Cartland -- wasn't exactly the kind of nurturing mum the kids might have warmed to after their father won a prolonged custody battle following his 1969 divorce from their mother, Frances. "The Spencer children's loathing for Raine was unanimous and instant the moment she entered their father's life," says one source close to the royal family. "Raine was everything their mother wasn't. She's bossy, showy, brassy. She's businesslike and unsympathetic."
Two years after Raine's 1976 marriage to Spencer, he suffered a massive stroke that resulted in some loss of mobility and slurred speech. While Raine is given credit for nursing him back to health, it is also said that she takes advantage of his enfeebled state. "She totally manipulates him," says a royal-watcher. "Although superficially he answers for himself, it is after Raine has implanted ideas in his mind."
Not so, says Raine. "I don't make those decisions to sell paintings or cottages. I get my orders from him. He tells me what to do and I do it," she told the Daily Mail. "Do you think that for one minute if I didn't love Lord Spencer that I would put up with all the hassle? I don't need it. I have money, all the money I'll ever need. People are so ungrateful. Don't you find that?"
Raine also has her defenders outside the family. "The place had been badly managed and was falling to pieces," says Brian Hoey, author of three books on the royal family. "If Raine hadn't taken over, it would now be bankrupt."
Still, some question Raine's business sense, since it appears she hasn't been getting the best prices in her piecemeal sales of the family treasures. In 1982, Raine sold The Witches Sabbath, a 17th-century painting by Salvator Rosa, to the Bond Street gallery Wildenstein for $87,500; two years later Wildenstein sold it to Britain's National Gallery for $612,500. Also at issue are two gold ice pails created in the late 1600s for the first Duke of Marlborough. The family considers the pails irreplaceable family heirlooms, but Raine sold them to the British Museum for $1.75 million.
Earl Spencer waves away speculation that his family is being royally ripped off. "Some of the paintings were just canvas really, with hardly any paint left on them," he told the Daily Mail. "All this talk is simply driving a wedge between me and my children. This was my boyhood home, remember. And one day I intend to hand it to my children. I love my children, but they have gone a bit haywire."
Their ire is not likely to diminish when the Earl and Countess Spencer visit Japan next month for the dedication of the so-called Royal Spencer Golf Club in Kushiro on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. The Spencers are reportedly being paid $140,000 for use of the family crest. In another merchandising scheme, they have also granted a Japanese company the right to sell knockoff versions of both Diana's and Victoria's wedding gowns. Diana's reaction to this latest money-making plan is not known, but David Emanuel, the codesigner of her dress, is "looking into it."
For the past 10 years, Diana has gracefully continued her royal rounds no matter how upsetting the day's headlines might be. But a speech she gave to the European Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry earlier this month highlighted her own feelings about the importance of family. "Parents sometimes desert families, leaving their children bewildered and bereft with no explanation, let alone the opportunity or encouragement to express their feelings," said Diana. "I do not believe emotions are necessarily nuisances which need to be suppressed or concealed. Hugs can do great amounts of good -- especially for children."
The next day the Daily Mirror made a plea to the Princess: "OK Di, now take your own advice. Give Dad a hug."