Her Secret Pain

updated 04/17/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/17/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ON THE FACE OF IT, PRINCESS Diana's brother Charles Spencer and his wife, Victoria, would seem to be a charmed couple: Young, titled and attractive, they live in magnificent Althorp House, the 121-room Georgian mansion in Northamp-tonshire that Charles, 30, inherited in 1992. Last year, Victoria, 29, gave birth to Louis Frederick, the longed-for son who will inherit the Spencer title and fortune. And the Oxford-educated Charles has been working since November on a documentary about stately homes for NBC's European Super Channel—the perfect job for an ambitious aristocrat bored with country life.

Last week, however, the British public learned that the Spencers' marriage, like the Waleses', is a painful charade. Struggling with anorexia and alcoholism, the countess was tracked by the News of the World to the $300-a-night Farm Place clinic in Surrey, where she is expected to complete a three-month stay on June 12. Other newspapers noted that Charles had spent just eight nights at Althorp since Jan. 15—sleeping instead in a leased London townhouse. For the first time, friends conceded that the couple are at odds. According to the Daily Mirror, Charles—who became the ninth Earl Spencer when his father died—told a friend his wife has "changed so much, I hardly know her."

The published reports prompted a swift counterattack from Spencer. Like his sister, he is skilled at using the press for his own purposes—inviting a slick weekly to photograph him with his family at Althorp, which is open to paying visitors, and attacking journalists who are unkind to Di. Charging that reporters with "sick minds" had harassed Victoria and posed as friends or prospective patients to gain access to the clinic, he lodged a protest with the Press Complaints Commission, which could censure the offending papers. At the same time, he managed to present his wife as a severely troubled woman. "My wife would be happy to tell you that she's had a problem with addictions and eating disorders for 10 years," he told a reporter for the ITN-TV news service on April 3. "This is the first chance that I've had to persuade her to go in for proper treatment for serious psychological problems." The press intrusions, he said darkly, "have severely undermined the chances of her ever getting better."

The severity of Victoria's problems may have shocked the public, but friends claim the crisis was inevitable. Raised in London by Jean, a magistrate, and John, a prosperous executive in the Civil Aviation Authority, Victoria Lockwood was an emotionally frail anorexic whose social circle included heroin addicts when she met Charles at a London party in 1989. Ten days later, the two were engaged. According to one royal watcher, Charles was besotted with Victoria (then a model) in the beginning, but his ardor quickly faded. Six months after their September 1989 wedding, he had a fling with society journalist Sally Ann Lasson, who described their torrid coupling to the tabloids. With Di (who has known the pain of both eating disorders and marital discord) acting as a sounding board, the Spencers patched things up, but family friends noted that Victoria remained "insecure and out of her depth." Says one: "She was scruffy-looking and thin as a waif."

By all accounts, the pressure to bear a son didn't help. "Her raison d'être was to produce an heir," says the Spencer intimate. Three girls—Kitty, now 4, and twins Katya and Eliza, 2—were born in quick succession before Louis arrived, and "it was exhausting for her," says one palace watcher. Living in isolation on the Althorp estate also took its toll on the countess. With Charles often in London, "it must have been like being exiled to Siberia," says the family friend.

Of late, the strain between the Spencers has been difficult to ignore. In a speech at his birthday party last May, the earl announced that his father (who divorced Charles's mother in 1969) had advised him to look for a wife "who would stick by me through thick and thin. Well," he continued, "those of you who know Victoria know that she's thick—and she certainly is thin." The countess's friends gasped.

For the moment, Spencer's fragile wife remains at secluded Farm Place, a converted 17th-century mansion where she receives individual counseling, attends twice-daily group therapy and goes for the occasional stroll. As insiders see it, a separation is almost inevitable. According to one friend, the earl is an emotionally distant sort who has grown weary of his wife's problems. Now that they have an heir, claims the chum, her services are no longer needed. Adds Lady Colin Campbell, author of Diana, the Princess Nobody Knows: "I think he's realized that the marriage is untenable. Like many men in his position, he's trying to assuage his own guilt. 'Pity me,' he seems to be saying. 'I can't carry the wounded forever.' "


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