Princess Diana’s father, John Spencer — or Johnnie as he was known to friends and family — expected a son and heir. Her mother, Frances, expected to provide one. This all sounds simple and straightforward enough, but, as so often happens in human affairs, there were complications.
To begin with, Sarah Bradford recounts in Diana, Finally the Complete Story, Frances delivered two girls, Sarah in 1955 and Jane in 1957, before she had a boy. When the boy, John, finally arrived, he was born with problems that took his life after only 10 hours in this world. Frances was not even given the opportunity to hold her son, and she never fully recovered from the loss.
Unfortunately, beyond the pain caused by the loss of her child, Frances also had to bear her husband’s accusation that she was somehow at fault for not having a healthy son. Under duress, she underwent gynecological “tests and treatments” that were, Bradford writes, “humiliating.”
Quoting Diana’s younger brother Charles, Bradford writes: “It was a dreadful time for my parents, and probably the root of their divorce because I don’t think they ever got over it.”
When Diana was born, Bradford continues, her parents’ marriage was already far gone. The situation was only worsened by the arrival of one more little girl. Whether anything was ever said to Diana about what a disappointment she was is unclear. But she clearly did get the message.
“Diana convinced herself that she should have been a boy and that, being a girl, she was a disappointment and regarded as a lesser being,” Bradford writes. She quotes “a Spencer relation” on the subject:
“I do know that in the Spencer family the gender issue is a big one and even when there was a son and no pressure to produce an heir, the female children are of less account that the male.”
Apparently, Diana carried this impression of being “second-class” much of her life, long after her parents finally had their son and heir, Charles, who was born in 1964, and eventually divorced.
The cause of that divorce can be attributed as much to boredom as to Johnnie’s temper and Frances’s infidelity. Bradford writes that rumor had it the couple fought, sometimes violently. Johnnie loved his staid and predictable life, but it chafed Frances who, still in her twenties, wanted more excitement.
More on events leading up to Johnnie and Frances Spencer’s divorce in the next post.
Diana, A Celebration, at Union Station Kansas City now through June 12, 2011, offers a look at Diana’s childhood, with home movies shot by Johnnie. It is one part of a much larger exploration of Diana’s life and work.