By People Staff
October 10, 1990 12:00 PM

Who knew? When she was first spied at his side 10 years ago, there was little to suggest that she was not just the latest date du jour of the choosy 31-year-old Charles. And there was no foreshadowing that Lady Diana Spencer, a 19-year-old with a vestige of baby fat, combined the character and cunning of a woman born to be queen. Indeed she looked out of place among the prickly Windsors, like a caramel they might feed to their horses—sweet, and probably soft inside. She may have shown early signs of surefooted-ness—poise before the paparazzi and shrewd image honing in trading her VW for a British Metro. But no one, least of all her glacial husband, expected her to emerge as a mesmerizing figure of world renown. A dainty princess in glass slippers seemed more likely.

If you’re heartbroken that Diana, like Jackie O, hasn’t had the romance of the century, don’t dab your eyes—there are no tears in her teacup. “Most people think that of the two—Charles and Diana—Diana is the one with steel,” asserts Brian Hoey, author of a forthcoming book on the Waleses, The New Court. “She’s her own woman, and she knows exactly what she wants to do, in the same way the Queen Mother did and does. She’s a very tough lady. She’s had to be.”

A decade ago, when the Di Era began in a blaze of strobes and babbling commentators unknown in Britain since the Beatles erupted from Liverpool, the young kindergarten teacher left her flatmates a note: “For God’s sake, ring me up. I’m going to need you.” But apart from newly-wed jitters, she knew exactly what she was about. People marvel at Diana’s bearing, her warm and knowing smile, her aplomb, and they wonder, where does it come from? The answer is simple. It was there all the time, locked away like a kernel, wanting only the sunshine of public adulation for it to unfold.

For Diana is first and foremost a Spencer. That means she is more English than half the royal family, according to a recent genealogical study. Way down yonder in the 21st century, when her son Prince William accedes to the throne, he will have more English blood in him than any monarch since James I, who, though mostly Scottish, was 25 percent English. The source of the infusion? Not Charles and his Germanic Windsor line, but Diana, a blue-blooded Spencer all the way.

Pedigree or no, the Spencers are an ambitious clan. In 1603 they bought their first peerage with a fortune made selling sheep direct, bypassing the London middlemen. For 10 generations they served the Crown in assorted capacities—they just waited a long time to snare an heir. In the early 1700s, the first Lady Diana Spencer was secretly betrothed to a Prince of Wales, only to be jilted in the end. She, too, was tall, lovely and known as Di.

Di II was never cowed by the royal family: She was a neighbor during their January sojourns at Sandringham House. When a reporter once asked her if she had felt “thrown” by the Windsors at first, Diana answered incredulously, “No, why should I?” Explains Lynda Lee-Potter of the Daily Mail: “Diana is possibly the only member of the royal family who doesn’t kowtow the instant she is fixed with one of the Queen’s terrifying Miss Piggy looks.” Diana grasped right away that it was to her advantage to hide her strength under a gauzy veil of innocence. Shy Di? As one source notes of her earlier pretty habit of peeking up through wispy bangs, “It is simply a weapon in her arsenal of charm.”

Settling for a common alliance was never in Diana’s plans. She tipped her hand when she asserted at her sister Sarah’s wedding, “When I get married, it’s going to be at Westminster Abbey.” Diana first took aim at Charles when she was sweet 16, during a pheasant shoot at Sandringham in 1977. She turned the event to her advantage, devotedly serving him his soup and sandwiches. “I believe she set her cap at Charles that day,” says a palace source. “Diana fell in love with the idea of becoming the Princess of Wales.”

She pursued the heir as only a Sloaney English seductress would—disguised in tartans, tweeds, twin-sets and pearls, a cross between Mary Poppins and Mata Hari. And, world knows, she got her man. St. Paul’s Cathedral (bigger than the Abbey), 25-foot bridal train, gilded carriage, the works. So why don’t we hate her for it, the calculating you-know-what?

Well, for one thing, it turned out to be a pretty fractured fairy tale, didn’t it? For another, how can you resent someone as luminous and at the same time as effective as Di? She has single-handedly lent fresh glamour and force to a fairly dowdy dynasty. As Princess of Wales she puts her life and soul into the most wrenching social issues and never flinches. “Against the advice of friends,” adds author Hoey, “she was the first royal to shake hands without a glove with an AIDS patient. She knew that that photograph would help allay fears. It was a very brave thing to do.”

One scene of The Natural in action: This past summer, Di, as patron of the British Sports Association for the Disabled, appeared at a wheelchair basketball clinic at a recreation center in the London suburb of Brentford. She looked great, from her small twinkling diamond posts to the red tips of her white spectators. You could see her across the gym, being shown around by the trim T-shirted young coaches from the BSAD. Di listened, smiling, nodding, making remarks. Graceful, unstudied. The coaches chatted with her, looking loose where moments before they had been milling about awkwardly. Everyone suddenly laughing. The kids in their wheelchairs clustering around her, Di crouching, asking questions. The coral hem of her suit snugly encircling her folded legs just above the knees. (Fergie, take note.)

A scrimmage begins. A loose ball rolls toward her. She directs it back with a little kick. Is that a giggle? She’s smooth as cream, yet a girlish verve breaks through. She tells one of the organizers, “I’ll do anything you want me to do as long as you don’t make me run up and down the court in this tight skirt.” But standing near the top of the key, she tosses up the ball for the tip-off, then, enthusiastic dancer that she is, steps back nimbly, laughing, eyes flashing fun.

So who can resist?

And who can fail to feel sympathy for the beautiful working mom—a superb mother—whose husband seems not to notice her? As one observer remarks, “Charles must be the only man in London not in love with her.”

One scene from a marriage: In March 1988, Charles and Diana and friends went skiing at Klosters in Switzerland. One of the couples, Nicholas “Fatty” Soames, a member of Parliament and a close crony of Charles’s, and Soames’s wife, Catherine, had not been getting along. During the holiday Catherine suddenly ran off with a four-times-married antiques dealer named Piers von Westenholz. When Diana backed Catherine, Charles was reportedly incensed. It was during this weekend that Charles, ignoring warnings, recklessly led his party down an off-trail slope and into an avalanche, costing the life of another of his dear friends, Maj. Hugh Lindsay. An onlooker says that when Charles returned to the chalet after the disaster, an ashen-faced Diana rushed to embrace him and was coldly pushed aside.

On the Waleses’ ninth anniversary this past July, someone wondered aloud how the Prince would pass the day. “Not that it would make any difference to him,” remarked the wife of one of his polo chums.

It is not quite the epic tragedy it may seem. The trade-off, passion for position, is one that more than a few women have made work—particularly in the British upper class. “Diana knows no different,” explains a friend. “Certainly, she and Charles sleep in different rooms, let alone different beds. But so does everyone else she knows. The Queen sleeps in a different room from Philip. Diana’s father has a different bed from Raine [her stepmother, Barbara Cartland’s daughter]. Prince Andrew and Sarah have different bedrooms at Sunninghill. As for selfishness among men like this, Diana has been brought up with it. I don’t think it hugely worries her.”

A future queen has one overriding duty—to produce an heir, preferably a male. Failure to do so has cost several earlier royal women their lives. But Diana was fortunate. Within two years she had produced the two towheads known as the heir and the spare. She has said she would like to have more—though she resents public pressure. When, in Hungary recently, a British mum urgently hoped Diana would have a little girl, the Princess responded a tad testily, “I’m not a production machine—I’ve got years, plenty of time.”

In another decade Diana will be but 39, still gloriously in her prime, perhaps seeking new challenges, even conquests. Possibly she will be tempted to stray. But it is not a course she will pursue lightly. Her own mother was a “bolter”—Frances ran off with wallpaper tycoon Peter Shand Kydd and lost custody of her children in the bitter fight that followed. Diana is all too aware of the price her mother paid. She would not want to risk losing her children, as surely she would. It would also go against all her breeding. “The Spencers support the Crown,” says a palace source. “They don’t undermine it. She flirts blatantly but charmingly with everyone. Don’t make too much of it.”

As Oscar Wilde once observed, “Englishwomen conceal their feelings till after they are married. They show them then.” Diana, the dainty dish, has turned out to be one tough cookie.