Like many people I have had a long fascination with the Mitford sisters and their compelling and complicated lives that contain so many major events and significant people in the mid-twentieth-century. Of all the sisters Diana, the beauty of the family, is perhaps the most complicated and as such she is a difficult and brave choice for a biographer, especially as she was still alive when Jan Dalley wrote Diana Mosley: A Life in 1999.
Diana Mitford was the fourth of seven children of Lord and Lady Redesdale. Their eccentric childhood was well documented, and somewhat exaggerated, by the sisters themselves in Nancy Mitford's novels and Jessica Mitford's Hons & Rebels. The Redesdale's famously kept their daughters at home, refusing to allow them to go to school leaving them resentful for years over their lack of education. Their unorthodox methods of self-education, steeping themselves in their father's library and, as Dalley argues, thereafter throwing in their lot with both a man and a cause, left them prey to the winds of politics that blew about the mid-twentieth century.
Diana is a truly difficult subject. Initially one of the Bright Young Things, with more money than sense, and a beauty and a position that gave her enormous social power, Diana threw it all up for Oswald Mosley then a married man with no intention of leaving his first wife. For years Diana suffered social disgrace and shared Mosley first with his wife Cimmie, and after Cimmie's death with Baba (Lady Alexandra Metcalf) Cimmie's sister with whom Mosley had a long affair. She secretly married Mosley in the Goebbels drawing room with Hitler in attendance just before the war. It is this clash between the private and the public that makes Diana so difficult to assess. As Dalley notes in her introduction, "The backdrop to her life invokes notions of absolute good and evil, and the many shades of compromise in between".
Diana undoubtedly had many positive qualities: she was a loyal and kind sister and friend. Against this has to be balanced her dedication to the the fascists and Moseley and her repellent and unrepentant anti-semiticism. Dalley walks this tightrope well, it seems to me from the outside, being scrupulously fair to her subject without downplaying the nature of her views. She acknowledges that Diana was badly treated during the war and was probably of little national danger, and that in a country that was fighting for freedom Diana's freedom to have her own views was compromised both then and afterwards. She also makes the point that both Mosley's were genuinely motivated by anger at the privations suffered by the working class and that both were undoubted patriots. Dalley however rightly has little time for the Mosleys' self-justification which went something along the lines of we were fascists with no interest in the Jews but because we were fascists the Jews attacked us so in the end we had to attack the Jews. The lameness of this form of argument is self-evident, particularly in the light of Diana's continued regard for Hitler long after the war.
There is much in this biography that I did not know despite having read much Mitordiana including The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell and Charlotte Mosley's Letters Between Six Sisters. The book is light and engaging, without being frivolous, despite the serious political backdrop; these are the Mitfords after all, and I often laughed out loud. A draw back is that it suffers from Diana's refusal to have her and her families unpublished papers quoted from and means that there is an over-reliance on the letters of James Lee Milne the one friend whose unpublished papers were in the academic domain. Also Diana's later life and opinions are dealt with very quickly in two short chapters at the end. That this is brisk is underlined by the fact that her later, post-war, life was nearly 60 years long. There is therefore clearly work still to do on the subject of Diana Mosley. As a biography is strengths are that it does take a long. hard and very clear headed look at this enigmatic woman and does not try to make anachronistic post-modern judgments. Most significantly Dalley can appreciate that "the qualities that made her charming and unforgettable to some were the very traits that made her impenetrable, disturbing or even sinister to others".