Much has been written about and by the Mitford sisters, who variously dazzled and shocked their contemporaries in England and abroad: Nancy, as a celebrated novelist (The Pursuit of Love); Deborah, as Duchess of Devonshire; Unity, famously infatuated with Hitler; Jessica, as a young Communist, and then as the queen of muckrakers (The American Way of Death). But until now there has been no biography of one of the most extraordinary of them, the beautiful and ambitious Diana.
Married at eighteen into the enormously wealthy Guinness family, Diana had it all -- brains, beauty, social position and money. She bore two sons and created a sparkling society circle that included such artists and intellectuals of the interwar years as Cecil Beaton, Lytton Strachey and Evelyn Waugh (who dedicated Vile Bodies to her). But after only three years she was swept up in the love affair that would change her life: with Sir Oswald Mosley, MP, womanizer and charismatic founder of the British Union of Fascists.
Jan Dalley's careful and dedicated research -- which included many interviews and conversations with the subject herself, now nearly ninety and living in France -- enables her to tell Diana Mosley's story in fascinating, and sometimes grim, detail. Growing enthusiasm for the Nazis spurred frequent visits to Germany and meetings with Hitler and other leaders (the Mosleys were actually married in Goebbels's house in 1936); there were struggles to raise money for Mosley's organization and, finally, after war was declared, years of internment in Holloway prison. Yet at the same time there were friendships with people like Winston Churchill (whose affectionate nickname for her was "Dinamite") and, after the war, a comfortable, if controversial, return to respectability.
Hailed on publication in Britain last year as "a triumph: reflective, considered, intelligent," Diana Mosley brings an unforgettable figure to life, and at the same time throws a bright light onto an exceptionally dark episode of British social history.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.68(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.40(d)|
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In the F block of Holloway prison, it was just possible to see out of the high windows, peering between the studded iron bars, by standing on a table or chair pushed against the wall. During the cold nights of the winter of 1940, a group of women was usually there, craning towards the firework display of the Blitz.
It was pitch dark -- while the black-out was in force the prison lights were switched off at the mains at 4:30 in the afternoon, as the sun set. Fifteen hours of complete darkness stretched ahead, the only flickering illumination provided by the German planes which arrived punctually every night. The distant whizz and boom of falling bombs was sometimes varied by the cacophony of an anti-aircraft gun in the prison grounds. Locked in their cells, some of the women became hysterical or suicidal, so the authorities decided that the cell doors should be unlocked as the lights went off. The women could roam the prison corridors, or huddle together for talk and comfort.
There was a special urgency about the watching at the grimy windows, since many of the prisoners came from the narrow streets of the East End of London, which took the brunt of the bombardment. Each night brought an agonising wait: when the East End burned in the air raids, the women had no way of getting immediate news of their children, some of whom had been removed to orphanages, others farmed out to family or neighbours. Most of these women were fascists, or presumed to be: members or wives of members of Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, locked up in Holloway prison in 1940 under Defence Regulation 18b.
This regulation allowed the British government to imprison suspects with no charge, no trial and no time limit. Its powers were hastily expanded in May 1940, as Winston Churchill took over from Neville Chamberlain, Hitler's armies marched across France and the "phoney war" came to an abrupt end. For the first time, invasion by Germany became a serious possibility, and the rumours about "Fifth Columnists," or enemies within, seemed a real threat. The suspension of habeas corpus and the loss of some of the most dearly held tenets of British law apparently troubled only a few liberals -- apart from the fascists themselves. On the day after Oswald Mosley's arrest on 23 May 1940, survey teams from Mass Observation conducted a snap opinion poll. Although some people objected to the idea of imprisoning a man for what he might do, rather than for what he had done, a huge majority approved the arrest -- and most added that it should have been done long before.
It was a raggle-taggle bunch of women who made up that group in Holloway. Those from fascist groups or families had been arrested when their husbands were sent to prison at Brixton or Liverpool, or to the newly devised internment camp on the Isle of Man. But there were also German and Italian women with no political affiliations, who were married to British men or who simply happened to be in the country at the outbreak of war. There was an Italian madam from Shepherd's Market, with flamboyant tastes in clothes and music, and a number of "girls" in the same profession. There was the wife of Admiral Sir Barry Domvile, a former head of British Naval Intelligence, who had founded an extreme right-wing organization called the Link, with the aim of "encouraging friendship" between Britain and Germany in the 1930s. There were women whose poverty, in their life outside, was so extreme that the prison's filth, repulsive food and thin damp mattresses constituted the best living conditions they had ever known.
The prisoners' records at Holloway, brief as they are, tell bitter stories of the kind that wars produce. One woman who spoke no English ("Nationality: Unknown") had been picked up half-dead from exposure and exhaustion on the east coast of England, having crossed the Channel alone in a tiny boat; another was a German who had been in the concentration camp at Dachau before the war for her left-wing views: fleeing Hitler to England, she was locked up in Holloway as an "enemy alien." She thought Holloway much dirtier than Dachau.
Among them, but a creature apart, was Diana Mosley, wife of the fascist leader. She was thirty, a brilliant blonde with porcelain skin and bright blue eyes, and an acknowledged society beauty. She seemed to have lived a whole life already. Married at eighteen to Bryan Guinness, one of the richest young men in England, she had become the centre of an artistic and social set that included writers, painters and thinkers as well as pleasure-seekers. But in 1933, contravening all the dictates of the time, she had left her husband for Oswald Mosley, who had a wife, a family, and a risky political future. Like everything she did, she made this scandalous move with apparently unshakeable self-confidence.
Diana was arrested suddenly on 29 June 1940, and obliged to leave behind her ten-week-old baby -- whom she was breastfeeding -- and a toddler of eighteen months, as well as her two older boys. She was told that it was "for the weekend"; in fact, she did not see her baby again for ten months, and it was to be three and a half years before she was properly reunited with her children. For anybody in that position, let alone a fashionable young woman used to a pampered life, that first cell -- it had no bed or chair, just a thin mattress on a flooded stone floor -- would have seemed hard.
Diana quickly became the leader of that small pack of prisoners, taking her place at the head of the table at which the British Union women ate their meals, acting as an organizer and comforter to the others. Although these women were wives of her husband's supporters and lieutenants, or members of the BU's Women's Section, none of them knew her. While Mosley was building his movement, she had stood back from his day-to-day political activities, well protected from the rough-house, choosing to spend a good deal of time in Germany, enjoying her friendship with Hitler and Goebbels and other senior Nazis, and working on a commercial project that was supposed to secure Mosley's political funding. For many of her fellow prisoners, in the fiercer, class divisions of those days, she was a figure from a world they had only dreamt about. One devoted supporter said simply, "I had never seen anyone like her."
She made herself popular in prison. When Winston Churchill tried to intervene to improve her conditions, asking that she should be allowed a bath every day, Diana declined this special treatment -- there was only enough water in the whole prison system for four baths a day, and each prisoner was lucky to bathe once a week. She felt protective about her fellow inmates, some of them pitifully young, with shabby clothes; she remembered the piebald hair of a convicted woman, with brown roots growing through the crude bleach. In the bleak atmosphere there was at least laughter and talk, and those were Diana's strengths: she remembered that during the freezing nights of the Blitz they would huddle round while the prostitutes entertained them with stories of their customers and the goings-on inside their various establishments. Many years after Diana's release, an acquaintance of hers visited Holloway, where a Miss Davies, a warder who had worked there since the war, told her, "Oh, we've never had such laughs since Lady Mosley left."
The Honourable Diana Freeman-Mitford was born on 10 June 1910, the fourth child of Sydney and David Mitford, who succeeded to his father's title and became Lord Redesdale in 1916. There were seven children in the family. Nancy was born six years before Diana; then came Pam in 1907; and the only boy, Tom, was Diana's senior by a year. After this first foursome came three more daughters: Unity, born in 1914, followed by Jessica (1917) and Deborah (1920). Diana thought her place in the family was "inconspicuous": "my very existence was of interest only to Nanny and to Tom, who was almost my twin," she wrote. The family might easily have remained inconspicuous, leading the predictable country life of many families like them, with "Farve" dedicated to his field sports, looking after his land and occasionally making the journey to London to sit in the House of Lords, "Muv" presiding vaguely over her brood, with their governesses, pets and ponies, until the day when she brought her many girls out and saw them respectably married.
Instead, the Mitfords became famous, or infamous, through the various talents and adventures of their children. The least known of the seven was Pamela, the "quiet" one, devoted to country life after her fifteen-year marriage to Derek Jackson, a brilliant physicist, until her death in 1996. Tom was also less disposed to make headlines than most of his sisters. He was a barrister and a musician, a Germanophile and fascist sympathizer who was killed fighting in Burma in 1945 at the age of thirty-six. The other five, however, each found the limelight early, and each in her own way. Nancy (who died in 1973) was a prolific author and wit who wrote one of the best-known and best-loved comic novels of English life, The Pursuit of Love. Unity aroused persistent press attention during her short life, as a convinced Nazi and a member of Hitler's close circle; in Germany at the outbreak of war she shot herself, unsuccessfully, but lived on until 1948. Jessica became a committed communist, ran away to Spain at eighteen with her first husband, Esmond Romilly, and later settled in America where, until her death in 1997, she was a well-known writer, journalist and civil-rights activist. Deborah, now the Duchess of Devonshire, runs her house and farms at Chatsworth as well as writing books on the house, the garden and the family history.
Their contemporaries recognized how unusual they were. John Betjeman, a friend of Diana and her first husband, Bryan Guinness, and an admirer of Pam, is credited with the first use of the phrase "the Mitford Girls" in 1931. In a piece of verse made up for a friend's album, he wrote:The Mitford Girls, the Mitford Girls I love them for their sins,
The younger ones like Cavalcade,
The old like Maskelyn's.*
Sophistication, blessed Dame,
Sure they have heard thy call,
Yes, even gentle Pamela,
Most rural of them all.
Though the first few years of Diana's childhood were relatively uneventful, the Mitfords soon became well known in their own circle and then beyond it, through society pages and gossip columns, and the publication of Nancy's early novels. No less than her brother and sisters, Diana had heard the call of sophistication, as Betjeman put it, and by the end of her teens she was already used to the glare of flashbulbs. She called her memoirs A Life of Contrasts, and it was an apt title. The backdrop to her teenage years was a counterpoint between the traditional rhythms of the landed gentry and the shrill iconoclasm of the Roaring Twenties: a defining theme of that decade. Her next ten years were lived in the cross-currents which ran between the artistic, intellectual and social élites and the dark creed of fascism -- a defining element, again, in that era. Hers was a life of the times.
She was also a traditional woman of her time, in that she chose to make her impact on the world through her men, her family and her circle. Nobody who knew her doubted the strength of her personality or her intellect, but after she joined her life to Mosley it is impossible to separate exactly which were her own achievements, which entirely his, and which were fuelled by their mutually reinforcing partnership. How much did she influence him? What part did she play in his ambitions, the development of his thinking, the course of his fate? These things cannot be quantified with precision, but the logic of their joint story suggests a number of answers. It also determines the need for including here much about Mosley's life, about the strong impulses of Diana's family and forebears, and about the significant political and social currents that moved around them all.
Diana was one of very few people who knew both Churchill and Hitler well. As a link between Britain and Germany in the 1930s she occupied a strange and perhaps unique position; she was a sharp-eyed onlooker, and sometimes a participant, at a crucial historical moment. Her life spanned what Eric Hobsbawm called the "Age of Ideology" -- roughly speaking, from the First World War to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the chaos after 1918, unemployment and poverty became so acute that many people believed capitalism had collapsed and democracy was failing. They looked for alternatives, searching for belief, direction and certainty in one global theory or another. Communism was the most durable and, to many intellectuals, the most attractive; another, apparently viable, alternative was fascism.
Since the Holocaust the very word has been indissolubly linked with genocide, but in the early 1930s that shadow had not yet descended on fascism. It offered a rapid cure for intractable social ills, and the early successes of Hitler and Mussolini seemed to show that it worked. It was a radical ideology, and at the time an individual with a social conscience, tired of entrenched values, could turn to fascism for radical solutions. To realize that requires an imaginative leap for post-war generations looking back to the 1930s, Auden's "low, dishonest decade," across this century's great divide -- the Holocaust.
This book does not touch on that huge subject. Diana's life brought her close to the process which produced the tragedy, and close to some of the people who determined its course. The backdrop to her life invokes notions of absolute good and evil, and the many shades of human compromise which lie between. But in her personal story there is an almost eerie absence of the horrors that underlie all our thinking about fascism, Nazism and the Second World War. Whether this was pure luck or wilful disassociation, historical irony or culpable failure to make the essential connections -- these are things the reader can decide. When a biographer wants to examine a life, and what that life says about its times, she must seek out the reasons for her subject's behaviour, predilections and choices. But there is an essential difference between reasons and excuses. This book tries to provide reasons, but offers no excuses.