But now a certified member of the aristocracy -- Charles Edward Maurice, the 9th Earl Spencer, godson of the queen -- has created a Graceland of his own, a shrine to the dead where mourners by the thousands bring flowers and votive candles amid displays of sparkling diamond jewelry, lavish outfits and hand-painted silken shoes.
The place is formally known as Althorp, but the cheeky British tabloids have come up with a more fitting name: Dianaland.
On the grounds of his sumptuous ancestral estate, Charles Spencer, 34, this month opened a shrine, museum and souvenir stand in memory of his older sister, Princess Diana, a woman who was an obsession for Britons in her lifetime and has been raised to the status of demigod here since her death last Aug. 31.
This is the same Charles Spencer who achieved a flicker of global fame at his sister's funeral, when he unleashed stinging attacks on the press and Britain's royal family. Today, though, it is the earl who is under attack.
Critics say the museum -- with a $16 entrance fee, a restaurant and a shop selling pricey knickknacks -- proves that the earl is cashing in on the "Diana industry" to finance his elegant but idle lifestyle.
Newspapers call his memorial "mawkish" and "vulgar." Monarchists charge that he is trying to drive a wedge between Diana's sons, Princes William and Harry, and their father, Prince Charles. And the nation's leading clergy have complained about efforts to create a "cult of Diana."
The Diana memorial, charged the Rev. David Hope, second-ranking archbishop in the Church of England, is "the last thing she would have wanted."
"We need to begin to move on," the archbishop said, "and part of that moving on is the letting go. . . . There is some element of wallowing in the death."
A week after its July 1 opening, a visit to the new museum at the Spencer estate, Althorp -- the earl pronounces this "Ahl-trup" -- suggests there is some ground for each of these accusations.
Althorp is a spectacular example of what the English call a "stately home."
It stands on the outskirts of this tidy English village where the houses have names rather than street numbers ("Heathbank," "Hedgerows") and the pub is called the "Fox and Hounds." It is a 500-year-old mansion in the Palladian style with 10 bedrooms, several dozen fireplaces and a 40-foot-long dining room with a 30-foot-long rosewood table. The surrounding "park," a lush greensward where fat sheep loll on rolling hills, is larger than Monaco.
The family has a burial plot in the village, but Spencer decided last September that his sister should have her eternal rest on a thickly wooded island at the center of a small lagoon on the estate grounds.
Last week, a former governess -- one of the countless people with some tangential tie to Diana who have cashed in since she died -- revealed to a London tabloid that this island was actually the cemetery for the family hunting dogs. That caused a furor in the press here but does not seem to bother visitors to the estate.
"I don't have any problem if they bury her on Dog Island," said Mike Rondo, a nurse from Manchester who was among the thousands of mourners to come this week. "Better to lie with the hounds than with that lot in the royal cemetery."
The burial site now centers the spiritual section of the Diana memorial. Visitors don't get access to the island, so they pay their respects on the shore of the lagoon at a yellow shrine that the earl calls "The Temple."
If there is a "cult of Diana," this is its cathedral. On top, the Temple has a large cross and a single word: DIANA. Inside, where the altar would be, is a marble silhouette of the late princess and a stone slab etched with a quotation of hers that reads like something from the New Testament: "Whoever is in distress can call on me."
After leaving their flowers and candles at the shrine, visitors walk through wooded grounds to the "stable" -- just an ordinary stable, if your idea of a stable is a sandstone Palladian castle with 24-foot Corinthian columns supporting massive balustrades on all four sides.
The Spencer horses have been evicted and the stable converted to a museum. It features Diana Spencer's childhood, her royal wedding, her world travels and her funeral. But mainly, it's about her jewelry and clothes.
The famous wedding gown, with its 25-foot train, gets more display space and description than all of Diana's charitable work. There's an exhibit for her wedding slippers, with "nearly 150 pearls and over 500 sequins," and a floral pattern hand painted on the soles.
There are movie screens everywhere showing the princess getting out of limousines in fabulous gowns. The centerpiece of the museum is a long exhibit hall with mannequins wearing 28 of her favorite outfits, each with extensive written descriptions, plus a video sampler of 20 more.
Here can be seen the "Scarlet evening dress with organza and vermicelli beading" that Diana wore in Washington last year for an American Red Cross gala to benefit land mine victims at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. There's a "Silk and gold cocktail dress, embroidered with gold and silver beads and sequins" that she wore to the ballet in 1995, plus the "Plum evening dress with matching bolero, silk taffeta and velvet" that she wore to the London premiere of "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" in 1983.
Like much else in the Spencer memorial, this exhibit has a subtext: that Diana felt constricted in her royal marriage. When she was a young bride, the explanatory material says, "the princess supported the British fashion industry." But "after her divorce, the princess no longer felt it necessary to wear exclusively British designers." She then graduated to the Versace, Valentino and Lacroix creations on display.
The room dealing with Diana's childhood shows the rarefied privilege that was hers long before she married a prince. There are pictures and home movies of the spunky blond girl playing and swimming at various castles and palatial homes. There's a film of Diana's pine "tuck box" being loaded into the family Bentley for the trip back to her exclusive boarding school, Riddlesworth Hall. A leather-bound diary on display is open to Dec. 28, 1979, when the 18-year-old Diana listed her Christmas gifts: "from Daddy, Diamond brooch . . . from Staff, chocolates."
The next display hall, dealing with the storybook royal wedding on July 29, 1981, is dominated by the wedding gown, the train and those shoes with hand-painted soles. But it also has some wonderful letters in which Diana relates how Prince Charles, the most eligible bachelor on Earth, used to drop by Althorp to visit her older sister but ended up spending most of his time staring at teenage Diana.
The exhibit of Diana's charity work offers brief, news-flash style accounts of her work for AIDS relief, children's hospitals, ballet companies and the anti-land mine campaign.
There is a small, understated exhibit on the princess's funeral, with the official program open to the lyrics of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind." This leads to the most touching part of the whole museum: a collection of leather-bound "condolence books," hundreds of them, with signatures and farewell greetings from the people of tiny villages all over the United Kingdom and big cities around the world.
The people visiting "Dianaland" seem of two minds about all this. Many are clearly moved by the experience; at the yellow shrine near the grave site, they bow their heads and wipe away tears. Others conclude -- as did a visitor this week, Alice Rondo -- that "it proves the toffs with money can be as tacky as anybody else."
If that point is clear, one other question about the whole Diana memorial is not so obvious: What's it doing at Althorp?
The estate here was the home of Diana's father. She rarely lived at Althorp, spending most of her childhood at boarding schools or other family homes. When her parents divorced and she had to move here, she described the experience as "a terrible wrench."
Many years later, though, after her divorce, Diana decided to move back to Althorp, thinking it would provide isolation from a prying world. She asked her brother -- who had inherited the $240 million property from the 8th earl -- to let her live in one of the many houses on the grounds.
But Spencer refused. He felt having the famously photogenic princess around would destroy his privacy. Diana was crushed, and rarely spoke to her brother thereafter.
Why, then, has Spencer brought her back home in death?
One reason, the British observers all agree, is money. The trouble with inheriting a "stately home," with its huge staff and grounds and heating bills, is that you have to pay for the thing somehow. Few of the Spencer earls have held jobs. For generations now, they have been selling paintings, furniture and other items from the family collection to stay afloat. "Over the years," Spencer put it delicately, "many pictures have left my family's ownership."
Like other baronial scions, the 9th earl had opened Althorp to tourists two months each year. But this did not begin to pay the freight. Only 10,000 people annually bought the $9 admission tickets.
But now, with Diana present, Althorp is the hottest tourist attraction in the British Isles. This summer 152,000 tickets will be sold, at $16 each. Nearly all of the visitors can be expected to stop for tea and scones in the restaurant and to order from the souvenir catalogue, titled "Althorp Product Guide."
The earl is offering a hand-painted enamel pill box ($120), a collection of lavender-scented cosmetics ($26) and assorted pens, picture frames and tumblers. Diana's name and face do not appear on these goods; most souvenirs simply say "Althorp." For those who fail to bring their own, the shop also offers a variety of votive candles priced around $10.
Spencer says he will donate "a substantial portion" of the earnings from all this to Diana's memorial charity. In an indignant television interview last month, he said he "would never profit" from his sister's memory. But then, he does not need to profit. He already has a home and a lifestyle that Bill Gates might envy. All he has to do is pay the costs of it. And the new memorial seems likely to do so.
Another theory about the 9th earl's new memorial is that "Dianaland" marks the boldest assault yet in his campaign to "de-Windsorize" his late sister -- break her ties with Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family.
In this view, Spencer's speech at the funeral was the first shot of that war, when he declared that Diana's "blood family" should be the caretakers of her memory and her children.
If the British press are right, however, Diana's two sons have shown little inclination to move toward the Spencer side of the divide. They have reportedly visited Althorp only once since their mother's death.
In any case, Prince Charles and the rest of the Windsor family are virtually invisible at the museum here.
If Prince Charles is a minimal presence at Dianaland, another Charles is ubiquitous. It is clear Charles Spencer feels that his day in the eye of the world, at the funeral in Westminster Abbey, was a moment of great import. There are snatches of "Earl Spencer's Funeral Speech" in every corner of the memorial.
In case people want to take home a memory of this historic address, the earl has provided several opportunities at the souvenir stand. For $25, you can buy a quotation from the funeral oration framed in sterling. There are also coffee mugs with the speech, note pads, post cards, crystal tumblers and an enameled jewelry box.
And there are, of course, the votive candles, for the mourners who want to light a flame to the memory of "the Princess." They are not unlike the candles that Americans light in Memphis to the memory of "the King."
Not that the 9th Earl Spencer would relish the comparison. He is one of the people here who seem to enjoy denouncing Americans and their trashy ways.
Discussing his plans for Althorp in May, Spencer was scathing on the point.
"It must never become," he said, in a voice laced with scorn, "Britain's answer to Graceland."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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