I’ve been reading the letters of the Mitford sisters and finding one of them fascinating. So fascinating that when I got to the last letter in 2003, I looped straight back to the 1920s and started again. The unexpected revelation is the development of the character of Lady Diana Mosley. The story of the “six hooligan girls” is notorious: there was the writer (Nancy), the lesbian (Pam), the fascist (Diana), the nazi (Unity), the communist (Jessica), and the Duchess (Deborah). But it’s a much told tale and I didn’t expect to be surprised.
In her teens, Diana was rich and socially successful, and then she segued into a politically and sexually glamorous femme fatale before turning into a political activist, imprisioned traitor, troubled mother and – finally – she emerges as someone alert to nuance, kind, subtle and gracious. Her letters of the last 50 years show us a patient and wise woman, accepting the difficulties of the path she’d chosen with stoicism and uncomplaining good grace. She is almost humble, as she absorbs a lifetime’s priggish sanctimoniousness from one sister and decades of spiteful jealousy from another. The impossible thing of course is to square these admirable traits with her politics; she was married to Oswald Mosely, founder of the British Union of Fascists. She never recanted, never appeared to regret her quite literal espousal of Fascism, remaining resolutely un-revisionist of her personal and national history until the day she died.
Hers is an extraordinary story. She was an impatient teenager who married a rich man who adored her and by the age of 20 she had borne him two heirs. So far, so conventional. Churchill was a cousin, and Diana Mosley may well have been the only person to know both Churchill and Hitler socially. Hitler was a guest of honour at her small and very private wedding to Oswald Mosley. This is the key to her history. She met Mosley in her early 20s and loved him beyond reason for more than 50 years. Her daughter in law suggests that her loyalty cost her so much that she could not admit the immorality of European Fascism. Her relationship certainly cost her a lot: she was cut off from her younger sisters, her older sister betrayed her, she was imprisoned in Holloway and separated from her children (her youngest son was 11 weeks old and not even weaned when she was arrested).
Judged by his actions, Mosley was a deeply unpleasant man: while his first wife was dying he kept two main mistresses – one was Diana but the other was his wife’s younger sister. He was never faithful to his first wife, and rarely faithful to Diana during the early years. If he was greedy for sexual conquest, he was also greedy for personal power. He was at one time a Labour MP, at another time a Conservative and he founded the British Union of Fascists only when it became obvious that he was not going to achieve office as a Socialist. A woman as intelligent and sensitive as the Diana who emerges from the later letters would not have loved a man who was merely selfish, brutish and greedy. There must have been more to Mosley in person than comes through from a mere list of things he did. There are men who are sexy, charming, clever and deliciously good in bed but so self-directed they simply don’t understand the need for morals or scruples. They used to be called cads or bounders, and the intelligent ones are particularly devastating. It’s clear that Moseley was one of these, and an intelligent woman will fall for a cad far more quickly than she’ll fall for a bore.
As we read the early letters we find her caught up in her love for Mosley and then in its consequences, in particular the separation from her children. The turning point in her letters seems to be the death of her younger sister Unity in 1948. If Diana was swept into Fascism by sexual and romantic love, Unity became a fascist because she needed an outlet for a passionate and fanatical nature. She wanted a cause and a leader, and Fascism gave her both. It was Unity and not Mosley who provided Diana with her entré to the highest levels of the third Reich.
Unity’s blind adoration of Hitler rings out shockingly from her letters. She trembled at the very site of him. No-one helped her meet him, she engineered that on her own when she found a café where his group would often dine, and had lunch there alone again and again until he eventually asked her over to his table. She seems to have been no more than an adoring and pretty acolyte, albeit a remarkably well connected one. Certainly she had none of her sister’s intelligence or acuity. Even so, Hitler paid her medical bills when she attempted suicide on the day the war broke out and he arranged for her to be transferred to neutral Switzerland. She survived another 9 years with the mental capacity of a 12 year old and the emotional stability of a toddler. All the Mitford sisters loved the pre-war Unity for herself, no matter how much they deplored her politics and Diana of course did not deplore her politics. So who knows what her reaction was when Unity died unexpectedly aged 33 when an infection flared up in the bullet wound.
Compare Diana’s tactful letter to Nancy with Nancy’s insouciant, almost defiant, reply.
… it seems that Muv has got an idea that you think she oughtn’t ever to have taken Boud [Unity] away from Prof Cairns [her neurologist] – of course I knew this had never crossed your mind but if you could write and put something comforting about how wonderful it was that Birdie [Unity] was able to go about … and not be a hospital case all those years – or you will think of something much cleverer than that …
… not only never did such an idea cross my mind, but I couldn’t imagine that anybody could think such a thing. I vaguely remember that under the stress of great emotion & after that dreadful journey (I was really ill with it you know) I said ‘Oh but didn’t you send for Cairns’ which I now see was very tactless – but like that & no more than that.
Perhaps the key to the sensitive, patient, accepting woman who emerges after Unity’s death is summed up in the last line of her letter to Nancy:
… the fact is all deaths bring remorse, isn’t it odd.
But it seems slick to assume that it wass simple and obvious as that, and certainly those traits could not have come to the fore if they’d not been there all along. So maybe the question is not so much why did they emerge as why were they hidden? And there is no way of knowing the answer to that one.