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Princess Di vs. Wicked Stepmother : Royalty: Countess Spencer is selling off family heirlooms against her stepchildren’s wishes, insiders say. The British are all atwitter over tiff.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been a running story this week calculated to titillate the fancy of the royalty-fixated, tabloid-reading British public and, not incidentally, boost newspaper circulation.

It had all the ingredients:

Aristocracy: Her Royal Highness, Diana, the lovely Princess of Wales; her father, John, Earl Spencer; her sisters, Lady Jane and Lady Sarah, and her brother, Charles, Viscount Althorp.

Castle: Althorp House, the Spencers’ 80-room, 300-year-old ancestral home, set amid 13,000 acres in Northhamptonshire. And Spencer House in London.

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Conflict: Father and children deeply embittered; esteemed family of queen-to-be barely on speaking terms.

Money: The Spencer family fortune is said to run into the millions of dollars, and the story revolves around cash.

Wicked Stepmother: The Countess Spencer, Raine, daughter of the romantic novelist Dame Barbara Cartland and second wife of Earl Spencer.

Plot: Wicked Stepmother accused of selling off family heirlooms to redecorate the castle in a style that offended the Spencer children, who compare the decor to that of a Parisian brothel.

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Raine--who was once the wife of another earl, Lord Dartmouth--has not been popular with her stepchildren since she married John, Earl Spencer, in 1976.

Still, by all accounts she behaved nobly when, two years after their wedding, he had a serious stroke, and she was widely credited with bringing him back to health. At 67, he seems vigorous and deeply in love.

Since then, the elder Spencers have privately sold off valuable pictures, including a dozen Van Dycks, furniture and silver--more than 200 items in all--that eventually fetched a tidy fortune for dealers and auctioneers.

But in her haste to gather cash, the stories say, Countess Spencer, 62, has sold the family possessions at ridiculously low prices, enabling art and antique dealers to make a killing, while leaving gaps on the family walls.

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One picture ended up in the National Portrait Gallery after reportedly being sold for three times the price the Spencers received.

The Spencers also are said to have put up for sale a couple of dozen cottages on their estate, forcing out tenant farmers. In addition, the sales included the Fox and Hounds, the only pub in Great Brington, the village nearest to the estate.

These moves--masterminded by Countess Spencer, according to the accounts--have alienated son and heir Charles, who manages the estate, as well as Princess Diana and her sisters. Charles says he was not apprised of the removal of artworks to London dealers.

So angry is Charles Spencer reported to be that he refuses to set foot inside Althorp House, though he lives in a cottage on the estate.

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According to the Daily Mail, which first reported the story, a household staff member reported that Charles accused his father and stepmother of “destroying 500 years of family heritage.” The newspaper added:

“He said that in the past 15 years more damage had been done than in the last four centuries. He reminded his father that his role should be to look after the house during his lifetime.”

For his part, Earl Spencer, interviewed by a Daily Mail reporter, argued that additional income was needed to keep up Althorp House, which was restored at an estimated cost of $4 million.

“I have told my friends that all children are ungrateful,” he said. “They just don’t seem to understand the responsibilities of this place. It costs a lot of money to run. My father left me this estate, and I decided to sell some things to help pay our way.”

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Lord Spencer also said he had left Princess Diana a sum of more than $1 million, mainly to set up a trust fund for her second son, Prince Harry, since her eldest, Prince William, is expected to become the British monarch one day.

“Diana doesn’t understand about money,” Earl Spencer added. “She’s had no experience of money. She’s too young. I love my children, but they have gone a bit haywire.”

For her part, Countess Spencer said that she only did what she was told by her husband. “I don’t make those decisions to sell paintings or cottages,” she said. “I get my orders from him. He tells me what to do, and I do it. These possessions are his to do what he likes with.”

The countess’s mother, Cartland, remained uncustomarily mum, declaring: “I really cannot say anything, because whatever you say in a family, you say something wrong. I think I’d better keep quiet, or I shall get shot.”

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So far, the moral of the story--as Britain’s tabloid press sees it--is that the rich and famous have their problems too, just like the rest of us. Or almost.


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