Charles and Diana to Divorce

"Off with her head," the Queen of Hearts shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved. "Who cares for you," said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). "You're nothing but a pack of cards.

Charles and Diana to Divorce

"Off with her head," the Queen of Hearts shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved. "Who cares for you," said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). "You're nothing but a pack of cards."

And trumped she was, Britain's self-styled Queen of Hearts - Diana, Princess of Wales. Her suddenly formidable foe was Elizabeth II, who, like Alice waking from her dreamy trip through Wonderland, roused herself at last from the House of Windsor's sleepwalk towards disaster and started lowering the curtain on the royal farce of Charles and Diana. Her pre-Christmas letters, hand-delivered to the pair, suggested (read: commanded) that the Prince and Princess of Wales should divorce. With that, the Queen shifted the main theatre of the Wales's dirty war from the open battlefield to the London offices of their high-priced lawyers.

Divorce may be coming, but it will not come cheaply. Legal experts speculated that Diana's settlement may reach $44 million, and she will likely demand an official title to go with it. Diana herself offered no reaction to the Queen's letter. She spent a quiet Christmas home alone in Kensington Palace, was photographed making a Boxing Day visit to her eating-disorder therapist, then jetted to the Caribbean for a vacation. Meanwhile, Charles continued his inept handling of the troubles. His spokesman first announced that the prince would not remarry, then palace sources quickly retracted the pledge. Last week, the Daily Express newspaper one-upped the other tabloids by suggesting that Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles's longtime mistress, was intent on becoming his bride after his divorce from Diana. There was still great doubt as to whether British public opinion would accept a king and queen who had both divorced and remarried, a prospect that revives memories of King Edward VIII's 1936 abdication to marry Wallis Simpson.

It was fitting that British tabloids continued to drive the story. The unhappy couple's own public confessions have proven that the tabs were right all along about this marital travesty that Buckingham Palace tried to pass off as a fairy-tale love story. A fuming Diana let on to select reporters that she was "devastated that such a private matter had become public," a rich assertion from someone not above the odd press leak herself, and recently seen detailing private tribulations to the world in a TV interview.

But Diana clearly had been outflanked by the Queen. Accustomed to waging war against the fumbling Charles, who is far less popular and cannot match her considerable media skills, the princess was brought to heel by the one royal who retains enough power and credibility to challenge her. Diana had indicated she would not ask for a divorce, her lawyers having counselled that she would receive a better settlement if it was the prince who precipitated an end to the marriage. The Queen's decree, designed to save the Crown from further ridicule, neatly circumvented that strategy, and Charles assented to his mother's suggestion with unsurprising alacrity.

Events had certainly reached a crisis in recent weeks, beginning with Diana's televised confessions on Nov. 20. Not only did she tell of her own bulimia, self-mutilation and adultery, but she also suggested that Charles is ill-suited to be king. She also offered that the monarchy itself could use a bit of a makeover ("more contact with people, more in-depth understanding"). She concluded with the salvo that she wished to be "queen of people's hearts," as well as an ambassador for Britain.

In the six weeks following the interview, while the British Foreign Office, the Tory cabinet and Buckingham Palace tried to figure out how to accommodate her ambitions, Diana hit the hustings. She was photographed at a New York City gala sitting beside an obviously enraptured Henry Kissinger. She made "secret" midnight hospital visits to critically ill patients - then briefed reporters about those missions of mercy. And she strayed onto sensitive turf at home with an openly political speech. "At a time when resources everywhere are stretched as never before," said the princess to the annual meeting of a charity for homeless youth, "we, as part of society, must ensure that young people are given the chance they deserve."

Diana's popularity is such that there were no sneers at the obvious anomaly of a glittering aristocrat, who lives with a cook and maids in a sprawling London palace paid for by taxpayers, lecturing others on the need to open the public purse for the less fortunate. But there were anguished wails from Tory benches that she had agreed to share the stage with Jack Straw, an Opposition Labour politician, who used the platform to savage government housing policy. (Diana's attacks on the royal establishment have made her a darling of the Labour Party, which has always harbored a strong republican streak.) The Queen's demand for a divorce, backed as it was by Church of England officials and Prime Minister John Major, showed just how alarmed the British establishment has become by Diana's behavior. But even the most astute lawyers - and the most generous settlement - are unlikely to make the Queen of Hearts go quietly.

Maclean's January 8, 1996