Fleeing Fleet Street
04/01/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
IT HAS BEEN A MONTH OF UNDOINGS for the Spencer clan. Just days after Princess Diana announced that she had agreed to a royal divorce, the other Charles in her life, her 31-year-old brother, Earl Spencer, was likewise playing taps for his marriage. "We're not planning on getting back together again," Charles told a London TV reporter last week, referring to his estranged wife, Victoria, 30, a recovering alcoholic and anorexic from whom he separated 11 months ago after six years of marriage. "But at the same time, I am fully supportive of her attempts to get mentally strong and physically strong."
He wasn't exaggerating. While Di has, as usual, played her hand publicly, Charles, in a bid to shield his fragile wife and family from prying paparazzi, moved out of Althorp, the 121-room Spencer family mansion in Northamptonshire, just before Christmas, relocating with Victoria and their four children—Kitty, 5, twins Katya and Eliza, 3, and Louis, 2—6,000 miles away in Cape Town. There, Victoria and the kids have settled into a $228-a-day villa in the exclusive suburb of Constantia (neighbors include Margaret Thatcher's son Mark and his wife, Diane, who recently bought a $765,000 home there), while Charles resides in a house a 5-minute drive away. It's a change he recommends—even to his embattled sister. "I think that going away from your home environment does give you a chance to look at things," he said. "But it is not a cure—it's a way of getting things in proportion."
For Victoria, a former model who reportedly told friends she and Charles made the move "to start afresh and find peace and tranquillity," it may be both. "Physically, I'm told that she's put on weight," says Brian Hoey, author of a dozen books on the royal family. "But she certainly looked like she was dying on her feet." Charles blames her slow recovery on the media. During Victoria's several-month stay in a Surrey, England, rehabilitation clinic last year, photographers sneaked onto the grounds and shot pictures as she walked around. Charles said the intrusions "severely undermined the chances of her ever getting better."
As a result, the Spencers have told Cape Town acquaintances that anyone who talks to the press will be banished from their social circle. Although reporters at first staked out the couple's new sanctuaries, the warning appears to have worked: Neighbors eager to win their friendship are keeping quiet.
Their privacy seemingly restored, the Spencers have settled into a routine. Kitty is enrolled in school, and Victoria has been seen shopping for fabric and having breakfast in a popular local coffee shop. Charles has been busy checking out opportunities for investing part of his $122.4 million inheritance, says Hoey, and the entire family has been spotted dining out at a trendy fish restaurant, Mariner's Wharf. Charles says he doesn't know how long his family will stay abroad, but, he says, he doubts that "my wife will ever live in England again."
Hoey says it's unlikely that her brother's move will have any effect on Diana. Royal watchers say she has no plans to follow him abroad because that would mean losing contact with her sons. In fact, though the princess and her brother once were close, they have had little contact in recent months. Charles hates the media attention Di generates and has become "very disenchanted with the way his sister has behaved," says Lady Colin Campbell, author of Diana in Private, the Princess Nobody Knows. In public he has kept mum on her troubles, focusing instead on putting the best face on his own. "We're the greatest of friends," he said last week of Victoria, "and we will always remain so."
JOANNE FOWLER in London and ALAN DUGGAN in Cape Town