MARY Rhys-Jones used to take in typing at #3 an hour to put daughter Sophie through Dulwich College prep school and Kent College School for Girls in Pembury.

Had she upped her charges a little, she could have sent Sophie to Gordonstoun, where she would have taken to the life like a duck to cold showers. There is no mystery why Sophie Rhys-Jones has been accepted into the inner sanctum of the royal family.

She has all the spunky sporting attributes which Prince Phillip admires. She is the Royal Marine he never had. And to date, she has shown a respectable discretion which should please the Queen.

Now that the miserable embarrassment of the divorces of his three siblings is out of the way, Prince Edward has a clear pathway down the aisle, and he would be a complete cad and a bounder if he did not set the date for a wedding march with Miss Rhys-Jones, with whom he has been conducting what in the 1960s was quaintly known as a ``trial marriage'' behind the porticos of Buckingham Palace.

Having just closed the door firmly on two daughters-in-law, and less recently a son-in-law, who were all commoners, what would the Queen be gaining if she loses her youngest son to this most common of all contenders for a place in the Royal Box at the London Palladium? Miss Rhys-Jones may have a hyphen to her handle and be the sixth cousin once removed of the First Viscount Molesworth, a relative of Princess Diana, but she could not be more middle-class English if she tried.

Her grandfather, Theo, returned from Borneo to Britain in the mid-1930s to be headmaster of a Devon preparatory school. Her father, Christopher, born in Sarawak, was educated at a minor Somerset public school, and grew up to be a shootin', fishin' type of chap who headed off to Africa in his twenties to see the world. He met the girl who became his wife, Mary O'Sullivan, en passant in Gibraltar. She was a secretary from South Kensington and they were married just months after they met, and settled in Oxfordshire. It was there that son David was born in 1963, and two years later, daughter Sophie arrived on January 20. She is nine months younger than Prince Edward.

Miss Rhys-Jones was not an academic child, although she did do better at school that Princess Diana, leaving with eight O-levels, including art, history, and French. Royal biographer Andrew Morton has quoted her as saying that she regrets not having studied English harder, and that if she had her time again, she would go to university. She was, however, too busy acquiring other attributes which would stand her in good stead in a family whose paternal head believes youngsters thrive best brought up on runs before breakfast, preferably in the snow in singlet and shorts.

She played netball and hockey, was a member of the athletics and swimming teams, and - especially useful when one will have so much curtseying to do - was a keen ballet student. She skis, sails, surfs, and has bungee jumped in Australia, where she also back-packed in the Outback.

Miss Rhys-Jones is no good-time girl, however. Realising the financial strain she was putting on her parents, particularly on the mother who was typing her fingers to the bone to keep her at a good school, she won a place at the West Kent College of Further Education in Tonbridge, where she took a secretarial course and studied English and law at A-level, earning pocket money by working part-time in the local pub.

Boyfriends have played their roles in broadening Miss Rhys-Jones's horizons. David Kinder encouraged her dramatic talents when she joined the Cranbrook Operatic and Dramatic Society. John Blackman clubbed together with other friends to give her a ski-ing holiday to celebrate her 21st birthday, and she lived with his parents when she got her first job in PR with the Quentin Bell company.

Jeremy Barkley gave her the 1967 Morris Minor which made her so easily identifiable when she drove through the Buckingham Palace gates in the early days of her relationship with Prince Edward. Michael O'Neill was instrumental in her going to Australia and getting involved in all those dare-devil stunts, although their romance was short-lived.

It was her public relations career which brought her to the attention of Prince Edward. She had worked with Capital Radio, where she was popular with the DJs when she organised their publicity events, and after returning from time-out in the Alps as a ski resort rep and the Australian episode, where she overstayed her welcome so long that she was threatened with a jail sentence by the immigration authorities, she returned to work for ex-Scottish Television man Brian MacLaurin, who runs the media management firm MCM. MacLaurin had a contract to promote Prince Edward's real tennis tournaments. Miss Rhys-Jones was roped in one August morning in 1993, to attend a photocall at Queen's Club in west London.

She was impressed with the prince, telling her friends that whatever the papers said, this man was definitely not gay. He suggested they have a game of tennis, following through with a dinner invitation. Miss Rhys-Jones' Morris Minor was waved through security at the palace and she was ushered up to Prince Edward's apartment, where a buffet supper was served. The relationship took a significant leap forward when she asked the prince how she should address him, and he told her to call him Edward. Diana Spencer had called Prince Charles ``Sir'' until the eve of their engagement.

She found the anticipation of meeting other members of the royal family more nerve-wracking than the actuality, and found herself fairly early on in the relationship having an intimate meal with the Queen. Her spunky spirit got her over the hurdles of massed ranks of heavily monogrammed cutlery, serving herself from salvers proffered by flunkies, and the crystal bowl of water into which many guests of the royal family have placed their fresh fruit and tried to attack it there rather than using a plate and reserving the water for washing fingers afterwards.

She has been to Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral, no doubt realising that each invitation was a test of stamina, fortitude, and adaptability. When she joined the royal party in August last year, she was relegated to the staff bus on the journey from Aberdeen airport to Balmoral, while Prince Edward travelled the 50 miles in a limousine with his parents and room for a little one. She was, however, allowed to join the family at worship in Crathie Church along with that other commoner spouse, Captain Tim Laurence.

Anyone expecting the announcement of an engagement then was sadly disappointed, but Andrew Morton suggests that because she was born on the cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius, star signs associated with qualities of prudence, off-beat humour and self-discipline, Miss Rhys-Jones herself would not have been discouraged by the delays which have continued to put off the naming of a wedding day.

The fact that she was moved from her tiny London flat into the Palace and that the Queen has told her courtiers to groom Miss Rhys-Jones for a royal lifestyle must give her cause to be confident they will eventually exchange vows.

Last month she was invited to Royal Ascot, although Edward stayed away and she was not asked to join the nine senior royals who arrived in horse-drawn carriages. She has changed her dress style, her job - she now earns #20,000 a year as PR with Hollander Communications and is producing a magazine for the Duke of Edinburgh's Awards Scheme two days a week in Windsor - and her way of life to prepare herself for being a royal. She has weathered the storms of press harrassment, Princess Diana being scathing about her apparent copycat haircut, and the trauma of looking like a potential princess without the wherewithal to fund it.

She has also allied herself to a number of charities, and having a hands-on knowledge of organising charity events from a stint as a #12,000-a-year assistant to the promotions manager of the Cancer Relief Macmillan Fund, she could become a Queen of Hearts without even trying. A red carpet visit may not be enough for the future daughter-in-law of the Queen; she will arrange the sponsorship, call the tombola, and roll up her sleeves to do the washing up afterwards. All of which is well in keeping with the new, frugal royal court.

Miss Rhys-Jones is said to be fun, gregarious, and easy to get on with. Her only angst to date, apart from coping with paparazzi and making her parents keep her romance a secret for many months, was being bullied as a small schoolgirl. No hint of colonic irrigation has raised its neurotic head.