By Mary H.J. Farrell
February 11, 1991 12:00 PM

It is a rite of passage in many an upper-class household: seeing the children off to boarding school. And for the Prince and Princess of Wales, as for many others in Britain, it was enacted as a family. On Sept. 10 they glided in a Bentley up the drive of Ludgrove School, 25 miles west of London, with Prince William, 8, in tow. After meeting the headmaster and touring the dorm, Dad and Mom bid the lad adieu.

A touching scene of familial togetherness? Not exactly. What the world did not know is that the threesome came together only that morning. The Bentley had whisked Charles from Highgrove, the Waleses’ country estate, to Ludgrove, while Princess Diana had motored from London with Wills in her Jaguar. Only at the foot of the school drive was there a rendezvous, with Di and Wills climbing into the Bentley. And after Wills was settled—and the well-staged family appearance had been recorded by photographers—Charles headed back to Highgrove, while Di returned to Kensington Palace.

That meeting—30 minutes in total—would mark the last time they would see each other for 39 days.

Once, such remoteness seemed impossible. Ten years ago this month, when Charles, then 32, and Diana, 19, announced their engagement, their marital future seemed as rosy as Di’s glowing face. Delighted by the pairing, the world’s media eagerly projected the golden images: shy Di and sophisticated Charles courting; blushing Di and handsome Charles exchanging vows; adoring Di and smitten Charles honeymooning. No one, it seemed, could get enough of the happy couple—or the fairy-tale romance that appeared to be unfolding around the usually stolid Windsors.

A decade later, the scenes from this marriage are startlingly different. While amiable if separate arrangements prevail among many in their upper-crust set, Charles and Diana seem to have the separation without the amiability. Even in their sporadic public appearances together, they often seem to be cool and distant. At a December charity event, the Diamond Ball, the two avoided dancing with each other (though Charles did take to the floor with a former girlfriend, Dale “Kanga” Tryon, 43, and Di asked for a twirl with British TV personality Robert Kilroy-Silk). On a gray January day, Charles, alone and resolute, was seen on horseback galloping through the mist of the Windsors’ Sandringham estate; Diana appeared taking a solitary stroll on a windswept Norfolk beach. This fairy tale had suddenly gone gothic.

In fact, these days when observers discuss the happiness of Charles and Diana, they usually mean with other people. While whispers of Di’s flirtation with one of her male bridge partners circulate, stronger reports focus on Charles, who has recently been seeing a lot of old flame Camilla Parker Bowles, 43 (see page 77). “I believe that the marriage is stone dead,” says a Palace source. “I don’t think there is animosity between them, it’s worse than that. They just don’t care anymore. It’s just indifference.”

After almost four decades on tiptoe as heir to the throne, the increasingly enigmatic Prince seemed to have achieved, if not happiness, at least a sense of peace about his ill-defined position. But when he toppled from his polo pony and sustained a badly broken right arm during a match at Cirencester last June 28, all pretenses of contentment dropped with him. Until that day, much of the frustration Charles felt over his stalled advancement and troubled marriage had been sublimated into polo. Losing that outlet, he seemed to abandon control of everything else. “It seemed just like another fall,” said Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine. “But for a man who once said that polo is what keeps him sane, it was much more than that.”

Diana’s reaction to the accident was telling. The Princess, who had planned to attend Puccini’s La Bohéme at the Royal Opera House in London that evening, stoutly went to the opera, not to her husband, and didn’t appear at his sickbed until the performance was over, seven hours after his admission to Cirencester Hospital. Although she would retrieve him from the hospital on July 1, her 29th birthday, the pattern of maintaining unquiveringly stiff upper lips was pointedly reinforced.

The Cirencester accident could have brought some couples closer together. Instead, after her husband took his header, Di went so far as to confide to friends her belief that Charles had a “death wish.” One intimate adds that Charles, depressed before the mishap about his life “having no purpose,” wallowed further in self-pity during convalescence because the accident also curtailed his solitary pursuits of fly-fishing, painting and shooting. Equerries dispatched to see him at Highgrove brought back embarrassing accounts of the Prince “wandering in the garden, mooning around, just opting out.”

After his accident, Charles severely cut back on his official engagements for four months. Serious as the injury to his right arm was—and it required two operations and a bone graft to repair—it didn’t completely explain his convalescent withdrawal. One credible explanation seems to be that, just two years past 40, the always reflective and contemplative Charles had slipped into a full-blown mid-life crisis. “The broken-arm episode has been the most revealing of his adult life. He withdrew from society for an abnormally long time,” says Anthony Holden, who has written two books on Charles and has a third—A Princely Marriage—due in July. “What Charles has done amounts to an indifference to public opinion that I regard as irresponsible. Politicians have lost their careers for less.”

Comments like that infuriate Charles. Yet in the months after his accident, his arm in a sling and his head who knows where, the Prince increasingly found himself portrayed as a withdrawn eccentric. In mid-August, Charles took off for Majorca, where he was spotted in what at first seemed an overly warm embrace with former girlfriend Penny Romsey. But the raising of eyebrows was followed by the lowering of the boom: Her husband, Lord Romsey, indignantly explained that Charles was just comforting Penny after she’d learned that her 4-year-old daughter, Leonora, had cancer. (Charles was vindicated when the newspaper that published the rumor of romance retracted it.) A month later he was photographed standing unshaven and forlorn at the window of the private villa of the British-born Baroness Louise de Waldner, a longtime friend in her 60s, near Avignon in the south of France. He spent another two weeks holed up at Balmoral, the Windsors’ Scottish country estate, before heading off to Highgrove.

During this time, Charles not only retreated from Diana, he seemed to avoid her at all costs. Fleet Street renewed its public count of the days and weeks of their absences, though tactfully glossed over the Sept. 10 Ludgrove charade that preceded their 39-day separation. When in Scotland, Charles’s companions included Kanga and Camilla—by then dubbed Charlie’s Angels in the press.

While the tabs tittered, Diana held her head high, proceeding unllappably with her official engagements. “It’s ironically all-singing, all-dancing, all-Walkman-wearing Diana who has got her first-class royal act together and proved herself not only the steadier parent, but the better half of our future monarchy,” praised Jean Rook in the Daily Express.

On Oct. 19 Charles did spend a weekend enfamille at Highgrove, but by Monday he’d hightailed it back to Scotland. Increasingly, Diana was left answering the awkward questions. “He’s looking much better,” she told Edith Bamford, 74, a resident of Towyn, North Wales, during a visit to the flood-ravaged village. “He would like to get back on his horse.” And then she added, resignedly, “Like most men, he does what he wants to do. He’s doing what he shouldn’t do half the time.”

Her reply seemed especially poignant as the month wore on. Finally, on Oct. 25, Charles decided to end his convalescence and return to Highgrove. But the estrangement by now seemed etched in iron. “Instead of staging a tender reunion with Di and their sons,” scolded the News of the World, “the Prince nipped off for a chat with former love Camilla Parker Bowles,” who was staying at her family’s farm in Corsham, Wiltshire, with her husband. That chat reportedly took place between 11 P.M. Thursday and the early morning hours of Friday, while Diana was still in London.

Six days later, when the Prince made his first postaccident royal engagement, he was as brusque with his public as he had been with his wife. Asked “How are you feeling, Sir?” by a TV crewman on a visit to the Marylebone Health Center in London, Charles replied testily, “What an original question. If you really want to know, I’m barely alive.”

If any diehard romantics hoped for a reconciliation during the Waleses’ trip to Japan for Emperor Akihito’s Nov. 12 enthronement, it was not to be. Alas, there were no warm words or glances between the couple, and the press was left with little to report other than that they shared a suite at the British Embassy and that Di, as usual, looked “striking.”

Such attention to every nuance of Di’s behavior and attire may be a factor in the couple’s estrangement, suggests Holden. “The insatiable appetite for details of the Princess of Wales’s hair, her clothes, her hats, her tiniest asides, drowns out anything Charles might do or say,” he says. When Diana and Charles were first married and the British press was smitten with his new bride, the Prince seemed to welcome the respite from the spotlight. But as the years went on and the attention to Diana continued unabated, insiders report, he became more and more agitated. “Whatever invitations come into their household—and they come in at the staggering rate of 50,000 a year jointly,” comments Brian Hoey, author of four books on the royal family, “nine times out of 10, if he turns up somewhere without her, there is a lot of disappointment.”

Understandably so. Despite his merits-intelligence, wit and sophistication—Charles does not have Di’s charisma. In recent years, however, that charm seems to be lost on Charles.

Indeed, their paths are now so disparate that American tabloids have started speculating about divorce—a possibility that British experts refuse even to entertain. The very notion, splutters Charles Kidd, editor of Debrett’s Peerage, is “distasteful, damaging, irresponsible and offensive.” Agrees Hoey: “[Divorce] is not going to happen. The Prince of Wales considers himself to be the rightful successor to the Queen—not only as the sovereign of Britain, but also as the head of the Church of England. And as head of the Church of England, he cannot divorce.”

If divorce is not a solution—and by all accounts Diana, even if she were to fall head over heels in love with another, would never risk losing access to her children by causing a national scandal—then what pattern will the Waleses’ future follow? When it comes to marital bliss, Diana and Charles have few shining role models—and plenty of bad examples. Diana’s parents parted ways when she was 6, and her mother divorced for a second time last year. Charles’s aunt Princess Margaret split from Lord Snowdon in 1978 after 18 years of marriage; the divorce of his sister, Anne, from Mark Phillips is expected to become final next year (see page 75). His own parents’ 43-year marriage has long been one of polite distance and European tolerance.

It is this model, perhaps, that Charles would like to follow. “Legal and ethical questions aside,” continues Hoey, “I don’t think he wants a divorce. The couple have reached an accommodation. Their affection now is channeled through their children. What a lot of people in America don’t realize is that many people in this country of a certain class, the aristocracy, live the sort of lives the Waleses live. They have long and frequent separations. They do occupy separate bedrooms. And Americans do find it very strange.”

Strange and sad. Although she has blossomed from a 19-year-old kindergarten assistant to a 29-year-old royal performer, Di often appears, even in Britain, as an almost noble figure. “While Charles sits brooding on a mountaintop in Scotland, Diana is visiting AIDS clinics and leper colonies, bravely embracing the victims,” Seward recently pointed out. “She is also a devoted mother—and sometimes, given Charles’s increasingly frequent absences, a surrogate father. All that is missing from her life is the passion of a husband’s love.”

A royal intimate put it more bluntly: “Diana is just kidding herself if she thinks she can go on and on without love and affection. That emotional void will have to be filled at some point, or she’ll crack.”

Of course, Diana does have the love of her children, Wills and 6-year-old Harry, whom she dotes on and so. most intimates say, does Charles. Although public displays of affection aren’t part of his royal rectitude, the Prince appears to be taking more of an interest in his sons as they become old enough for the tramping and horsing pastimes that are so much a part of his own life. Over the New Year’s holiday, he was seen riding with Harry and Wills at Sandringham and even took a playful ride with the boys in his Land Rover with Harry (on his lap) at the wheel. “He’s an enormously keen father in spurts,” says Hoey. (Will Harry and Wills ever get a sibling? “You’ll have to ask my husband,” Diana answered a well-wisher during an appearance in Peterborough last month.)

Despite their intermittently heavy public agendas, the Waleses have weeks of unscheduled time in which they could arrange to be together if they chose. Apparently they don’t. While Diana makes sure she is available to take Harry to and from Wetherby School, she doesn’t count on seeing Charles daily, and they rarely share a meal or a bed. Between his first bath—and shower—at 7 A.M. and his second bath after 6 P.M., the Prince eats a hearty breakfast, exercises and conducts some business in his office in St. James’s Palace. When in London, Charles gives dinner parties twice a week at Kensington Palace, which Diana seldom if ever attends. Instead of dining with the likes of opera diva Kiri Te Kanawa and Sir Hugh Casson, former president of the Royal Academy, Diana prefers to go to the ballet or opera or to play bridge with her own friends. Before retiring at midnight, Charles often retreats to his soundproof study to listen to classical music. Unless she is out for the evening, Di is tucked in by 10:30 P.M.

Shades of the old Charles—the enthusiastic, concerned Prince who stood in the middle of the night chatting with the homeless street dwellers of London—emerged three days before Christmas, when the Prince made a morale-boosting trip to the British troops stationed in Saudia Arabia. Mingling with the squaddies on the front lines, the onetime Royal Action Man appeared to be back in gear when he gamely went for a spin on the turret of a 62-ton tank affectionately called Churchill. Even his self-effacing sense of humor returned. When asked if he wanted to take the tank’s controls, he declined, then replied, “At least I managed to climb up on it without breaking my other arm.”

Such chummy moments heartened royal watchers who next look to the Waleses’ scheduled trips to Brazil in April and Czechoslovakia in May (unless prolongation of the gulf war torpedoes these plans).

But with every appearance, together or apart, the question remains: Can this marriage be made to work before Charles claims the throne? The sad fact is that it may not matter. Charles and Diana are now firmly fixed in the pattern of their carefully plotted separate lives. It does not please the public, but it clearly suits the Waleses. Given Charles’s increasingly quizzical behavior, perhaps Diana is the one storybook princess who will settle for half a loaf of romance. In place of living happily ever after, the best she and he may hope for is simply together ever after.

—Mary H.J. Farrell, Terry Smith and the London bureau