Painfully shy, chubby-cheeked, and with, in her own words, “a brain the size of a pea”, young Diana Spencer did not seem destined for great things.
But the beautiful third daughter of Viscount John Althorp, the 8th Earl Spencer, and Viscountess Frances Althorp did boast a pedigree befitting a future princess.
Her father John, who was desperate for a son and heir, was a direct descendant of King Charles II, while the scandalous 18th-century socialite Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, was a distant ancestor.
Diana was born on July 1, 1961, at beautiful Park House on the royal estate of Sandringham. She grew up playing with her future brothers-in-law, Princes Andrew and Edward.
It was an aristocratic, privileged life for a little girl, who had a governess from the age of 4. But Diana’s safe world was torn apart by her parents’ acrimonious split when she was only 6.
While Earl Spencer was reportedly fond of outdoor pursuits, Frances found rural life a bit dull – a trait inherited by Diana – and longed for her London-based lover, dashing Peter Shand Kydd.
The warring couple’s ceaseless quest for an heir was finally achieved in 1964 with the birth of their fourth child, Charles. Another son, John, had been born in 1960, a year before Diana, but tragically died 10 hours after his birth.
Sadly, Charles’ arrival did little to repair the Spencers’ marriage. Young Diana often watched her parents argue and sometimes worried if their quarrelling was her fault.
Although Diana claimed to have happy childhood memories, the divorce undoubtedly damaged her emotionally. As did the resulting custody battle, which concluded with a court ruling that the four Spencer siblings would live with their dull and distant father, rather than their runaway mother.
A steady stream of nannies and servants helped to care for the kids, but the atmosphere had changed irrevocably.
Diana was said to have felt abandoned, taking comfort in her surrogate family of 20 stuffed toy animals.
Charles, in particular, really missed his mother and little Diana began to ‘mother’ him in her own way, even cooking him treats – bread and butter pudding was a specialty – and ironing his clothes as she grew older.
At 9, Lady Diana was sent away to Riddlesworth Hall, a boarding school in Norfolk.
She won all the swimming and diving cups, plus ‘nice-girl’ prizes for helpfulness and best-kept guinea pig!
Not an academic, Diana loved tennis, hockey, and ballet, and preferred to read romance novels rather than study history, maths, and geography.
Coincidentally, her “wicked stepmother” Raine – who married Earl Spencer in 1976 – was the daughter of Britain’s leading romance writer, Barbara Cartland, a fact that failed to endear her to Diana.
Later, at West Heath boarding school in Kent, Diana was popular and won praise for being “awfully sweet” to her pet hamsters, Little Black Muff and Little Black Puff.
But she failed her O-Level exams twice before leaving at the age of 16, spending several homesick months at finishing school in Switzerland.
Her older, sharper sisters, Sarah and Jane, always slightly patronised Diana, leaving the future Princess of Wales with an enduring complex about being “as thick as two short planks”.
Sarah even employed her as a cleaner for a time, paying Diana a pound an hour to scrub and tidy her shared apartment.
Other ‘Sloane Ranger’ jobs – time-fillers before marriage to someone suitable – included part-time cook and nursery school assistant, which Diana particularly loved, before her royal destiny came calling.