May 01, 1988 12:00 PM

The Windsor men may be long on macho antics and boyish charm, but they sometimes seem painfully short on sensitivity to a woman’s emotions. For that, Diana, like women everywhere, relies on others of her sex. Fortunately for her, she married into a family of strong-willed yet understanding females, a formidable clan much like her own. And she has left nothing to chance. As any outsider must, Diana has worked hard to forge the alliances she needs to fit in with her in-laws and to win their respect and affection.

Her natural ally in the House of Windsor is, of course, the rambunctious Fergie, Duchess of York, who is 21 months her senior. By last summer, only one year into Fergie’s marriage to Prince Andrew, the two sisters-in-law had stretched royal decorum almost to the breaking point—giggling in public, raiding Annabel’s in police uniforms, sitting in one another’s laps at Ascot. All this was seen as either innocent fun or a threat to the monarchy. Among those wagging the admonitory finger was one of Prince Charles’s biographers, Penny Junor. “That way,” she declared, referring to the new Windsors’ antics, “lies ruin for the royal family. They have to be seen on a pedestal and they have to be better than the rest of us. The more we see, people are saying, ‘That’s enough.’ ”

Diana has since rehabilitated herself, but Fergie remains a natural maverick. Her mischievous candor in California—where she gleefully revealed that handles on royal loos must be pulled upward to flush—delighted the locals, but had some very proper Britons gearing up to a stroke. In Klosters, less than a week later, when she was four months pregnant, Fergie defied her doctor’s advice to go easy, skied into an icy stream while tackling an expert run, then stayed in the soggy ski suit for the rest of the morning. “Not only foolhardy, but virtually criminal,” fumed Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke’s Peerage. Adds Junor: “Fergie loves playing duchess and doesn’t want to give up anything because of her pregnancy.” Some who were once charmed by her freshness now dismiss her as déclassé. “She’s the new court jester,” says one observer.

Such pronouncements have had little, if any, effect on relations between Diana and Fergie. The two remain as close as ever, though Fergie is not likely to seek Diana’s advice on her pregnancy because, says a friend, “she won’t take any advice from anybody on anything. She’s being very independent.” She is, however, soliciting opinions on which hospital the baby should be born in, and has been noodling over maternity matters with her pal, comedienne and mother-of-two Pamela Stephenson. Rumor has it that if the new York baby is a girl, Fergie wants to call the baby Annabel; Andrew is said to be pushing for Victoria.

In any case, there is plenty of room on the royal stage for both Fergie and Diana, and the only hint of rivalry has come from an intrigue-hungry popular press. Diana herself humorously deflects such talk. Teasing a group of photographers, she once asked with a mock pout, “Oh, you don’t need me anymore now that you’ve got Fergie, do you?”

About her mother-in-law, the Queen, Diana would not speak so playfully. “Diana can never relax when the Queen is around,” says a friend. “But there is never any open conflict between them. They know it would be unproductive.” Fergie, who shares the Queen’s enthusiasm for dogs, horses and the great outdoors, is the Queen’s favorite daughter-in-law, but the monarch is said to appreciate Diana’s professionalism, style and grace. Diana’s nearly flawless public performances have erased the Queen’s early doubts about the ability of a giggly teenager to take on the responsibilities of the Princess of Wales.

The Queen Mother, who helped engineer the Charles-Diana match with the aid of her best friend and lady-in-waiting, Ruth, Lady Fermoy, Diana’s grandmother, never harbored any such doubts. She even allowed the courting couple the use of her country house, Birkhall, to get to know each other better. The Queen Mother, now the Windsors’ elder stateswoman, always understood Diana’s early nervousness about her role and is expert at calming her down. “Diana will go to tea at Clarence House [the Queen Mother’s London home] and just listen to what the Queen Mum says to her,” says a friend.

Sometimes a sympathetic shoulder is even closer to home. Diana’s sister Lady Jane Fellowes, 31, who is married to the deputy private secretary to the Queen, lives on campus at Kensington Palace and is one of Diana’s closest chums. Their children are back and forth for tea, and the Felloweses and the Waleses often dine together. Another palace neighbor, Princess Margaret, 57, is perhaps the only person Diana will dash across the courtyard to coffee klatch with.

Diana’s nearest neighbor, in Apartment 10, is the pushy, self-promoting Princess Michael of Kent, 43, a source of comic fodder for the rest of the clan. (Even the ever-correct Queen once tartly called her “too grand for us.”) Diana and Princess Michael have had a bumpy time of it from the start, and Charles didn’t help in 1981 by echoing his family’s view that Princess Michael was loud and ill-mannered. Surprisingly, though, it was Princess Michael who was of great comfort to Diana when rumors of strife in the Waleses’ marriage began flying last fall.

Diana’s friendship with her elder sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, 33, is complicated slightly by a bit of personal history. Lady Sarah dallied with the prince long before Diana entered the picture, and, says one observer, the idea still niggles at Diana. But Diana invites Sarah to Wimbledon every year and stops by to visit her and her farmer-husband, Neil, when business brings her close to their Lincolnshire home. When Diana visits without Charles, says a friend, “Sarah can be quite naughty. She tries to organize a party or dance for her sister, then encourages mild flirtations by inviting all the most eligible men in the neighborhood. Charles will tell Sarah she is being wicked, encouraging Diana to go astray.”

The one woman Diana trusts completely is her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, 52. The two have always been close, even though Frances left home when Diana was a child to marry businessman Peter Shand Kydd. It was at her mother’s farm in Australia that Diana pondered Charles’s marriage proposal for two weeks in 1981. Frances, who divides her time between Scotland (she owns a card shop in the Highland town of Oban) and Down Under, talks with Diana frequently, advising her on everything from decorating to decorum. By contrast, Diana’s relationship with her stepmother, Raine, the daughter of romance novelist Barbara Cartland, is said to be decidedly chilly. None of the Spencer children has ever been close to Raine, 58, and the story goes that she made matters worse by once forbidding the girls to visit their father in the hospital where he was recovering from a stroke in 1978. Though Diana adores her father, the Earl Spencer (called Johnnie), she rarely visits the family home, Althorp, in Northamptonshire; when her father visits Diana, it is nearly always without his wife.

The relationship that has ripened most surprisingly in the seven years since Diana’s marriage is with her horsey, sober-sided sister-in-law Princess Anne, 37. Anne, who hates shopping and city life, is just beginning to warm up to her sister-in-law, whom she used to call bluntly “the dope.” “What annoyed Anne,” says a knowledgeable neighbor, “is the way Diana gets so much publicity about her clothes and can offer little intellectually. She knows this isn’t Diana’s fault entirely, but it just bugs her.” Tension came to a head when Anne and her husband, Mark Phillips, passed over as godparents, skipped Harry’s christening in favor of a pheasant shoot. No one told the Queen until the last possible moment, realizing she would be highly displeased. She was, and almost immediately arranged a public reconciliation of sorts. At the Christmas Day service at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, Anne and Diana stood side by side to be photographed by the whole of Fleet Street. Later, in a TV interview, Diana praised Anne’s “incredibly hard work” for the Save the Children Fund. These days William and Harry often visit Anne in the country for outdoor barbecues, and lately the Phillipses have been seen more frequently at Highgrove. “Relations have definitely improved,” says a friend. So much so that if Diana should give birth to another child, Anne is in line to become godmother.

Though Diana and, in her own way, Fergie, have put their stamp on the royal image, they must ultimately conform to the roles they have chosen. As one astute observer put it, “They are grafted onto and then absorbed by the institution of the monarchy,” like branches who exist to bear fruit. That doesn’t mean they have to be boring. Diana’s sense of humor has made her a favorite among the Windsor women, who like nothing better than to dish about their mutual friends and relatives and the strange people they meet in the course of their duties. When your life is a goldfish bowl, there are only so many people you can safely gossip with, and in Diana’s case, those people are Windsors. As families go, she could have done worse.

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