NEVER MIND THAT HER MOTHER IS ROMANCE-NOVEL auteur Dame Barbara Cartland, or that she is stepmother to Princess Diana; Elaine, Countess Spencer, is not a woman to be upstaged—or underestimated. Just 15 months after burying Earl Spencer, her husband of 16 years—and, not incidentally, being hustled out of his ancestral home by his children—the grande dame was (lashing an enormous sapphire engagement ring presented to her by Jean François de Chambrun. On July 10. when she walks down the aisle at Cold Ashton parish church near Bath, I out London will be deconstructing the alliance. The question on everyone's lips: How did a matron with a surreal bouffant, steamroller personality and the reputation of a wicked stepmother snare an aristocratic bon vivant?

In fact, gossips have been working overtime since May 9, when the Countess, 63, announced her engagement to Chambrun, 56. It seems that not only did Maine's suitor, a divorced Frenchman who owns a water filtration company, ask for her hand 33 days after they met, but that he has a reputation for being an impulsive romantic. Put that together with his alleged financial troubles, add the fact that the ambitious Raine reportedly is worth at least $8 million, toss in a bit of controversy about the groom's renting his threadbare castle near Cannes to a porn-film crew, add some dramatic tension in the form of Di and her sibs' icy relationship with Raine, and you have a juicy tale indeed.

Both Spencer and Chambrun claim that they weren't in the mood for love when they met at an April dinner party given by a mutual friend in Monte Carlo. Although seldom without a man since the age of 19, when she wed the Earl of Dartmouth (from whom she was divorced in 1976). Raine insists that she was "resolutely not looking for romance." Chambrun, divorced in 1989 from American heiress Josalee Douglas (mother of their daughters Elizabeth, 23, and Ariane, 20), has said that he "was enjoying [his] freedom, peace and solitude."

That, however, was before the two "talked all the other guests under the table," as Chambrun has put it. Smitten, he flew to England soon afterward, inspected Elaine's $2.5 million house in Mayfair and swept her off for a week at the Ritz in Paris. When he proposed on May 1, "I accepted immediately for fear he would change his mind," she admitted.

As the wedding plans were firmed up, however, skeletons began tumbling from his closets: On May 13, Princess Angela von Hohenzollern, 52, told the London Daily Express that in 1991, Chambrun had asked her to marry him on their third dale. One month later, French divorcee Nicole Bruggemann, 48, told the press that Chambrun was vowing he still loved her; he had proposed to Raine, she hinted, only to solve his financial problems. (Claiming (hat their affair ended in October, Chambrun dismissed her as a woman scorned.)

Scenting blood, London tabloids reported that his castle was acquired during his divorce settlement, and that although known as a count, he is a second son who has no title. Businessman Jacques Audier came forward in mid-June and claimed that Chambrun and his brother had neglected to pay him in full when the bought his swimming-pool company in 1978. and asked him for the $540,000 balance. On June 18, a bailiff entered Chambrun's 85 million château. drew up a list of contents and gave him 30 days to pay or see the lot go for auction. (On June 28, Chambrun reportedly paid Audier $180,000 and promised another check by July 8.)

It was the filming of Erotic Dreams II, however, that proved the biggest embarrassment: Late in May, Château Garibondy (which is rented for part of the year to visitors) was let to producers of a porn movie. In a spool of a Hello! magazine story featuring Raine and Chambrun, erotic scenes were staged in the spots where the couple had been photographed.

For his part, Chambrun declared himself "not al all upset" about the publicity. In a brief interview in which he suggested that PEOPLE underwrite the redecoration of his dining room, he said that the inquiries into his affairs were "totally inappropriate" and added, ' "rimes are very difficult. It costs $150,000 a year to run this place."

Raine's family seems to have supported her choice: Prince Charles lunched with the two in May, and Diana (who has recently reached a detente with her) sent flowers. Only Cartland has admitted to having doubts. "I am very anxious about her,"" she has said. "Experience proves that if you try to dissuade people...from marrying someone, it only tends to harden their re-solve....I pray she'll be happy."

Even in her rush to the altar. Raine has overlooked no detail: In an interview in Paris, she described her Ungaro wedding gown and the while silk dress she plans to wear at the London civil marriage ceremony on July 8. She also told a reporter that she expects to move into the peeling château, which she plans to refurbish. "I had promised myself I would never live in an old house again," she said. "I had had quite enough of leaky roofs and massive maintenance bills. Yet here I am doing it all over again. It must be love!"

MICHELLE GREEN
HELEN GIBSON in London

  • Contributors:
  • Helen Gibson.