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This biography of the most famous of the Mitford sisters was published in the same year as her death at the age of 93.
The title – De Courcy uses Diana’s married name rather than the equally famous Mitford – tells the reader a little of her approach to her subject. We don’t know why De Courcy did it as she doesn’t tell us, but the effect is to put some distance between Diana and her Mitford background. The Mitfords were serious young women living in extraordinary times, but their name has associations with debs, coming out balls and all the trappings of high society. De Courcy’s use of Diana’s married name emphasises the political woman, the one who linked her destiny to that of one of the most powerful, high profile politicians of his time. She did it from the tender age of 22, willingly and purposefully and in so doing, she yoked herself, not just with British fascism, but also its much more destructive European cousin and those who espoused it, including Adolf Hitler himself.
De Courcy begins her preface by stressing her abhorrence of Diana’s politics and her refusal to whitewash her, and the use of her subject’s married name is very telling in that regard. She also refuses to patronise her subject. Diana’s behaviour, including her politics was her responsibility alone. Although there is no doubt as to Oswald Mosley’s influence, Diana was too powerful a character in her own right to allow a man to tell her how to act and think. She showed this very clearly indeed when she shook off her first husband, Bryan Guinness, the father of her two small sons, after only four years of marriage. Given their basic incompatibility, the divorce was not a great surprise, but the ruthlessness with which Diana pursued it was striking.
Anne De Courcy’s book is a riveting depiction of a beautiful, intelligent, charming and utterly terrifying woman. While she makes no excuses for her subject, she also refuses to offer the reader a one dimensional villain; Diana’s attachment to fascism and its adherents is repulsive, all the more because Diana herself was not. She was a devoted mother who suffered miserably when she was imprisoned and separated from her children, especially the babies. She could be extremely kind as many of those imprisoned with her could testify, and she had a rich personal and social life, surrounded by the artistic, the beautiful, the great and the good. Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman were both part of her circle. Furthermore, although De Courcy is philosophical about the ostracism the Mosleys experienced after the Second World War, regarding it as just desserts, she is less sanguine about the way the law was used to keep them locked up without trial, at the expense of their health and the well-being of their children. As someone with a background in the law, I found this very relevant to our circumstances today. The Mosleys were a difficult couple and made life for the authorities very hard at a critical time in Britain’s history. They were openly supportive of Germany and of Hitler and they were brutally anti-Semitic. Those things were a good reason to bar them from polite dinner tables. They did not justify keeping them under lock and key without charges or the opportunity to address those charges in a court of law.
It is important to stress that De Courcy’s book isn’t just about politics, but also about two families, the Mitfords and the Mosleys and the times they lived in. Those who have read Nancy Mitford’s novels, especially Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love will recognise much of what she describes; high society, genteel poverty, a father who abominated silly women but didn’t approve of educating girls, and a huge, rambunctious family of overwhelming personalities.
Diana’s relationship with her siblings, especially Jessica and Nancy was complex and often fractious. She never forgave Jessica for her refusal to accept Mosley as part of the family and her interactions with Nancy were complicated by the latter’s depiction of fascism in her writing and by the fact that Diana’s spouse and her sister simply did not like each other. Nonetheless when Nancy was dying of cancer, Diana was with her as much as distance and a demanding spouse would allow her to be.
De Courcy also pays attention to Mosley’s family, in particular, his first wife, Cimmie Curzon and his equally complicated relationships with his sisters-in-law. He was an insatiable, unstoppable philanderer and his appetites extended even to women he was related to. Like Diana, his life was often problematic and also like her, he brought much of it on himself, without excuses or apologies.
It is clear that they had a lot in common, including a refusal to think they might be wrong. But their lack of personal insight also came with a disdain for self-pity and a determination to face the consequences of their actions, without ever recanting. De Courcy’s presentation of this fascinating, appalling couple allows the reader the space for some admiration, without ever excusing them for what they were part of.
De Courcy’s humanity, wit and her refusal to offer easy meat for those looking for simple villainy and evil make the appearance of evil more striking, rather than less. Her willingness to consider the grey areas, without excusing the wickedness her subjects were capable of is one of her strengths as a historian and I shall certainly read more of her work in the future.
Chatto and Windus (2003) London. ISBN 9781448128037. 448pp.
It’s really worth reading “Letters between six sisters” which is a wonderful collection of letters between the Mitford sisters throughout the course of their lives (and a very turbulent century). Fascinating stuff. http://the-bookhound.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/letters-between-six-sisters.html
I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Letters’ as well as Mary Lovell’s book, ‘The Mitford Girls.’ If you are at all interested in the Mitfords and the times they lived in, they are both unmissable and very hard to put down.
For anyone who noticed the comment that had been posted above by Brian Johnston on 19 May 2016, it was Holocaust-denying hate speech, and was deleted. All hate speech comments will be deleted.