Raine Spencer is chiefly remembered as “Princess Diana’s ‘wicked stepmother’”, said Marcus Berkmann in the Daily Mail. In the 1980s, she became a “tabloid hate figure”, renowned for her “forbidding manner and enormous hair”.Yet as this “hugely entertaining” biography reveals, such caricatures entirely fail to do justice to a formidable, “fascinating” woman. The only daughter of the romance novelist Barbara Cartland, Raine was raised to entice aristocratic men, and in this she emphatically succeeded: each of her three husbands was either an earl or a count.
(As her friend Julian Fellowes remarked: “Nobody is a countess three times by accident.”). Without skirting over Raine’s “eccentricities and strangenesses”, Tina Gaudoin offers an “admirably fair-minded” portrait of a woman who “operated in a man’s world and obviously flourished there”. Raine was crowned Deb of the Year in 1947, said Melanie Reid in The Times. She then married Gerald Legge – soon to be Earl of Dartmouth – and “dutifully produced four children, all handed to nanny to bring up”. Meanwhile, she “worked the social circuit” and also embarked on a political career, serving as a Tory councillor in south London and chairing the GLC historic buildings board (in which capacity she helped save Covent Garden from development). In this role she met Diana’s father, John Spencer, heir to the grand but “run-down” Althorp estate.
They “couldn’t keep their hands off each other” – his chauffeur-driven Rolls was always stopping in lay-bys – and they married in 1976. She set about renovating Althorp, which required her to sell off many ancestral treasures, said Lynn Barber in The Daily Telegraph. The four Spencer children resented this, and took to calling their stepmother “Acid Raine”. Diana once even pushed her down the stairs, screaming: “I hate you so much.” Evicted from Althorp after John’s death in 1992, Raine married again – this time to a penniless French count – but returned to London when the union failed, and lived out her days as a “merry widow” (she died in 2016). Privileged as she was, Raine exhibited a “gutsy, carpe diem spirit”, said Laura Thompson in the TLS. She emerges from this “shrewd” biography as a likeable, “impressive” figure – and it seems that even her stepdaughter eventually came round to this view. Near the end of Diana’s life, the pair were reconciled, and took to calling each other “darling”.