October 17, 1994 12:00 PM

IN MANY WAYS, IT SOUNDS LIKE nothing so much as a Barbara Cart-land bodice ripper. The erotically charged story of a doomed affair between a future queen and a dashing officer who becomes her lover, Princess in Love is the kind of book whose protagonists “feel as though [their] splintered soul[s] had…become one.” Shamelessly florid, it is the sort of tale that would prompt most readers to bail out before the first embrace.

Ironic, then, that all England is in a lather over the tawdry “memoir” that is a collaboration between British journalist Anna Pasternak, 27, and ex-Life Guards officer James Hewitt, 36, who claims to have been Princess Diana’s lover from 1986 until 1991. Never mind that the enterprising Hewitt (who was booted from the army last March after failing to make the rank of major) had shopped his story to the tabloids for months, or that rumors about his involvement with Di had been circulating for years. When Princess in Love was published on Oct. 3, readers didn’t stop to ask whether he was dishing up something new. Inspired by leaks in the London press that Diana’s lover was telling all, Britons rushed to their local bookstores; by lunchtime, the first run of 75,000 was sold out.

In part, the frenzy was whipped up by shrewd publishing tactics. London-based Bloomsbury Publishing, which reportedly offered $4.5 million for the manuscript after four rivals turned it down, is said to have rushed the book into print in an effort to capitalize on Prince Charles’s confession of adultery with Camilla Parker Bowles—and to preempt author Andrew Morton, whose Diana: Her New Life is due next month. Just before the book was ready, booksellers were told to expect delivery of an explosive work on the Windsors but were given no details about its content—a move reportedly calculated to head off a Palace injunction.

Thus, readers who snared the book on Oct. 3 could savor the shockers for the first time. They had never heard Hewitt’s claims that Di had contemplated leaving Charles for him or that the two had sported at Highgrove, the Waleses’ country home, while Princes William, 12, and Harry, 10, were in the next room. They could also marvel over Pasternak’s portrait of Diana as a love-starved bulimic who loves to “let [her] passion rip”—and who dreams about Hewitt’s “strong physique” as she lies in the bath. Alternately fragile and self-confident, she musters the courage to invite Hewitt to Charles’s 40th-birthday ball and to appear at boîtes like San Lorenzo with her lover at her side.

But if booksellers are delighted with Princess in Love, others are appalled. Claiming that both the Waleses are an embarrassment, MPs are calling for a speedy end to the marriage. Said one privy councillor: “I don’t see how this can go on. It is making the royal family a worldwide laughingstock.” A Palace spokesman dismissed the book as “grubby and worthless,” and Diana herself was said to be “bitterly hurt,” in the words of a senior courtier.

Hewitt’s reputation, it seems, has been dealt a mortal blow. An unemployed ladies’ man who lives in Devon with his divorced mother, he was branded an avaricious opportunist by a chorus of critics. Tory MP Sir Nicholas Bonsor declared, “I cannot comprehend how he can still look at himself in the mirror,” while the newspaper Today pegged Hewitt as “a creep.” (Cartland herself, mother of Di’s stepmother, Comtesse Raine de Chambrun, declared, “To behave like this just to make money is abhorrent.”)

But though he was branded a cad, Hewitt was not accused of being a liar—at least not by anyone outside Diana’s camp. As overheated and imprecise as it may be, the book rings true to those who know her: Palace watchers including Brian Hoey, author of six books on the Windsors, say they believe that Hewitt did, indeed, commit adultery with the princess. Bloomsbury, whose authors include Nadine Gordimer and Margaret Atwood, “is one of the most respected and responsible publishers in Britain,” says Hoey. “There is no way they would have gone to print without signed affidavits from Hewitt. Otherwise, they would run the risk of being bankrupted by a libel suit.”

In some ways, Diana, 33, had been prepared for the fact that tale tellers were monitoring her relationship with Hewitt (who volunteered to teach her riding after they met at a 1986 party). In 1991—about five years after Hewitt claims the affair began—his ex-girlfriend Emma Stewardson told the press that she was “torn apart” by his relationship with Di. That same year, The Sun reported that Di and Hewitt had met secretly at a house in London and that he had bragged to a friend about their “physical relationship.” And in September 1992, Hewitt’s groom, Lance Cpl. Malcolm Leete, revealed that he had spied the two in an embrace in the riding-school arena at Windsor in the fall of 1988.

Hewitt had been comparatively circumspect, however, when the Daily Express paid him $150,000 for his story last spring. In that five-part series, he said only that Di had been so unhappy with Charles that she once collapsed into his arms, sobbing. He also is said to have phoned her to report that, although a book about their affair was in the works, he had had no part in it. But the gentlemanly discretion didn’t last: On Oct. 2, the tabloid News of the World revealed that in August, Hewitt (though stung when he was labeled a rogue after his first “confession”) had tried to peddle a less gallant version of his tale. The paper alleged that, in a meeting with its editors, Hewitt had asked, “HI had slept with [Diana] and was prepared to tell all, what would it be worth? It’s big stuff—the biggest ever, really.”

Coming in the wake of the flap surrounding Di’s alleged nuisance calls to art dealer Oliver Hoare, the latest upheaval is said to have taken a considerable toll on the princess. On the day before the book appeared, a distraught Di is believed to have held a war council with best friend Catherine Soames, a divorced socialite, and the princess’s sometime ally, the Duchess of York, over a two-hour lunch at Fergie’s Surrey home, Romenda Lodge. Although the press has yet to focus on Diana’s part in the affair, friends fear that it will be only a matter of time before she is regarded as a duplicitous adultress who had her own part in destroying the Waleses’ marriage. With further revelations about a married confidant (a man expected to be identified in Morton’s book) said to be looming, Di’s supporters worry that, at the least, she will sink into a depression. “She has never cried so much as she has in recent days,” a friend told Today.

“My own worry is that she is going to crack when she’s on her own at Kensington Palace,” says a reporter who knows her well. “One of her friends tells me, ‘We are extremely worried about her mental state. She’s entering a very difficult period now’ ” (Even Blooms-bury, it seems, was prepared for the worst; some of those involved with Princess in Love were counseled on how to conduct themselves should Di commit suicide.) For all that, the veteran Di watcher doesn’t expect to see her break down in public. “She is a supreme actress and, as a friend of hers told me, ‘She is going to hold her head up high,’ ” he says.

For the moment, Diana’s anguish seems to center on Hewitt’s betrayal. She insists to friends that, although he tried to seduce her, she never had sex with him. As one chum put it to the Daily Mail: “She says [Hewitt] lives in a fantasy world.”

Raised in Kent, the child of a middle-class Marine officer and a housewife, Hewitt—who has two sisters, including a twin—was known for his social ambition: After his parents struggled to send him to Millfield, a costly public school, he graduated from Sandhurst and joined the Life Guards in 1978. Colleagues considered him intoxicated with money and power, and he quickly developed a reputation as a charmer who lived beyond his means; although his salary was just $48,000, he reportedly drove a $30,000 TVR sports car and affected an aristocratic mien that irritated his fellow guardsmen. Proud of his horsemanship, he communed with blue bloods on the polo field, “put[ting] on all sorts of airs and graces,” as an old friend has put it.

Hewitt’s career as a lover was similarly aggressive. “A sucker for blondes,” in his own words, he reportedly told one acquaintance that he had “known 50 women in six years.” (After his alleged involvement with Di ended, he was linked with such women as Sally Faber, a 29-year-old TV weather forecaster whose husband initially named Hewitt as a corespondent in their 1993 divorce.) As one companion put it, “The trouble with him is that, in finding his way through life, he keeps his compass in his trousers.”

Although Hewitt’s account of their alleged affair is vague on dates, he suggests that he and Di became lovers by late 1986—a few months after meeting at a late-summer drinks party in May-fair. Estranged from Charles (who had not stayed under the same roof with her for 39 consecutive nights), Di began meeting with Hewitt at Windsor’s Combermere Barracks, where she unburdened herself during their weekly riding lessons. As Hewitt tells it, she talked about how lonely she was and how torturous her marriage had become. According to the book, he responded to Di’s “cry for help [which was] like the ghostly cry of a wounded animal.” After she touched his hand (in a gesture, he says, that “spoke volumes”), he allegedly told her, “You are not alone. You have me.”

Not surprisingly, Princess in Love portrays Hewitt as a selfless friend who also happened to be a “skilled, adventurous lover.” Di, he claims, was hopelessly smitten. In the book, at least, the two spin fantasies of marriage to each other while lolling by the pool at Highgrove (presumably in Charles’s absence) or dallying in her boudoir at Kensington Palace. And the sex, of course, is sublime; according to Hewitt, the two enjoyed at least seven trysts at locations including Althorp, Di’s ancestral home; a loo at Highgrove; and Hewitt’s mother’s house in Ebford, Devon.

Naturally, Hewitt claims his mission wasn’t limited to sexual healing. In Princess in Love, he supports Diana when she is in the throes of bulimia—searching for information on the disease and encouraging her to keep down healthy meals.

By 1989, when her phone conversation with close friend James Gilbey was secretly recorded, Di was speaking about Hewitt in a decidedly intimate manner. “Entirely dressed him from head to foot, that man. Cost me quite a bit,” she confided to Gilbey. Later, it was reported she had presented Hewitt with expensive shirts from Harvey Nichols, Savile Row suits and a diamond-studded tie pin—expensive booty that baffled colleagues who knew little of his relationship with Di.

Hewitt concedes that by 1989, when he was dispatched to Germany, Di’s ardor began to cool—reportedly because she interpreted his following orders as a rejection. Still, she is said to have anxiously followed his movements when he was sent to the Persian Gulf with a tank company in 1991. As Lady Colin Campbell reported in 1992’s Diana in Private: The Princess Nobody Knows, she was “frantic for any news…about the conflict, and when he led his men into battle against the Iraqi army, she could not contain her anxiety. This manifested itself in sleepless nights and constant viewing of the television for reassurances of his…safety.” By Hewitt’s account, she also wrote him steamy billets-doux signed “Dibbs”—letters that are not quoted in Princess in Love, but that he claims as evidence to support his case.

According to Pasternak (the great-niece of Dr. Zhivago author Boris), it was those letters that convinced her that Hewitt’s story is true. On the day the book was published she told a TV interviewer that she had read “extracts [of the letters] which showed me that this love really did take place,” and added that the story of the relationship was “too beautiful to remain secret.”

In fact, the relationship between Pasternak and Hewitt is another intriguing aspect of the scandal. After meeting at a 1992 cocktail party, the two became friends—and, by some accounts, lovers. It was Pasternak, an Oxford-educated journalist who has written for papers including The Times, who ghosted the watered-down “tell-all” that Hewitt sold to the Daily Express last spring, and who injected her own Slavic romanticism into the book. “Poor Hewitt,” said a former flame of Pasternak’s who described her to the Evening Standard as a “love addict” sexually besotted with Di’s ex. “I can just see her teasing the story out of him. He’ll say something like ‘I put her at the jumps and she was a goer,’ and Anna will turn it into…’His manly form trembled with a desire he had never known.’ ”

Not that Hewitt doesn’t have his own melodramatic streak. While London was still swooning over his revelations, he excitedly observed to a reporter that, according to the Treason Act, he (like anyone convicted of adultery with the spouse of a monarch-to-be) could be “sent straight to the Tower.”

That, of course, seems unlikely. In the short run, Hewitt seems to have got what he wanted: Even if no one believes Pasternak’s portrait of him as a knight in shining armor, he has undoubtedly knocked Diana from her pedestal forever—payback, it seems, for her turning her back on him after his return from the Persian Gulf. With readers still stampeding the stores, it was reported that he had bought Eversfield Manor, a $450,000 house near Dartmoor, before heading to Argentina to cool off. ”James has a very clear idea of himself as a country squire and now he’s going to act it out,” said a family member.

If so, he may find himself without an audience; according to former chums, he is now a pariah. “His name will ‘go on the gate,’ which means he will be persona non grata to any Life Guard,” says one ex-colleague. “He will be frozen out completely.”

For Di, the fallout could be just as dire. After Princess in Love, it will be difficult to maintain her stance as a wronged innocent. As Evening Standard columnist John Casey put it, “If Hewitt is telling the truth, then Diana betrayed her husband just as surely as he is accused of betraying her.” In fact, Charles’s camp is thrilled about the book: “They are really elated that this has let him off the hook in a very big way,” says Campbell.

By all accounts, Di will find herself a divorced woman sooner, rather than later. “This has paved the way and made it easier for a divorce to be accepted,” says Hoey. “Now people will see that if they got back together, it would be a total sham.” When the end does come, he adds, Di will find that Hewitt hasn’t helped her bargaining position. Hoey predicts that the Queen will strip her of her title, and others believe her settlement may be reduced. “She has lost out totally,” he says.

For all that, Diana seems determined not to behave like a woman defeated. Accustomed by now to smiling through a scandal, she laughed and joked her way through her first public engagement after the release of Princess in Love. On Oct. 4, she greeted 25 soldiers from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, which is bound for Kenya, at Kensington Palace. Wearing a jaunty scarlet jacket and short skirt, she looked every inch the plucky heroine—the sort of woman who may be down in Chapter 10, but who triumphs by novel’s end. This time, however, most of her audience realized that her performance was just that—an increasingly desperate act calculated to throw off those who say she cannot survive.