Supping with monsters

Diana Mosley: A Biography

Jan Dalley <em>Faber & Faber, 320pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0571144489

Beauty, privilege and disgrace are the most obvious themes of Diana Mosley's life. A heady mix, and justification for Jan Dalley's skilful account of a life that sometimes reads like a modern fairy tale, where Diana plays both the part of princess and wicked witch. Our heroine was born with every blessing of beauty and brains into a large aristocratic family of unconventional behaviour, although not as amusing or unconventional as her sister Nancy Mitford described it in Hons and Rebels. Growing up clever but uneducated - a dangerous cocktail - Diana's glorious looks soon made her the toast of the Bright Young Things.

The first prince to come into her life was Brian Guinness. Seriously rich, clever and very nice, he proposed a few weeks after her 18th birthday. By the time Diana was 21, she had two sons and an even more dazzling social life, here represented by lists of the subsequently famous, which may antagonise the socially squeamish.

Into this idyll entered the demon prince, alias Sir Oswald Mosley, aristocrat, charismatic politician, himself married, also with two sons and a philanderer of Don Juan proportions. Diana fell in love but with no hope of marriage. Mosley had other important mistresses (including his sister-in-law) and, besides, loved his first wife. When she died of peritonitis he built a pink marble mausoleum engraved with "Cynthia Mosley - my beloved". Diana abandoned her good husband and took a flat in London, some way below her usual grandeur. There was not, for example, a room big enough to hold a dance. So far it is a story of uncompromising passion and might well have been nothing else without the intervention of those two ugly sisters, Mussolini and Hitler.

Mosley deeply admired Mussolini and based his fascist principles on his idol. He based his infamous blackshirts on him, too, and on his swashbuckling approach to gaining an audience for the British Union of Fascists. Mosley saw himself as the only true patriot and Diana was happy enough to go along with that, always denying that anti-Semitism was a fundamental part of his aim.

Obsessive dedication to a person or a cause was one of the traits shared by several of the Mitford sisters. While Diana fell in love with Mosley, Unity Mitford went one better and became besotted with Hitler (her story ended tragically when she put a bullet in her brain after the declaration of war between Britain and Germany). Through Unity, Hitler and his colleagues entered Diana's life; the Fuhrer and the English lady spent many a cosy evening a deux. When she and Mosley were looking for somewhere to marry where the press wouldn't find them, they picked Goebbels' drawing-room, with Hitler as honoured guest.

It is a strange blip of history, and Dalley points out that the English upper classes had always spent time in Germany, as they did in Italy, and felt emotionally at home there. In the same spirit, she describes Mosley's violent rallies with as much emphasis on the provocation organised by communist groups as the violent reaction from the fascists. My father, then Frank Pakenham and a don at Oxford (now Lord Longford), was present at the famous punch-up when academics found themselves between the communist busmen swinging their belts and the fascists swinging their truncheons. He ended up with a concussion and, despite being congratulated by Philip Toynbee on becoming "one of us", ie, a communist, he joined the Labour Party shortly afterwards.

Once Britain was at war it was perfectly clear that the demon prince would be shut up in prison. What was less obvious was that his beautiful princess would find herself incarcerated in a dungeon, too. She was separated from her 10-week-old baby, whom she had been breast-feeding. Staunch wife as ever, her only real plea was that they should be imprisoned together; after nearly a year, Mosley became the single male prisoner to inhabit Holloway. It was only on Churchill's personal intervention (an old friend of the Mitford family) and when Mosley was seriously ill that they were eventually released after three years.

The political career of the high-flyer who had once been tipped for prime minister was effectively over. Despite the downfall of her hero, Diana did not ever see herself as a victim. Nor was she ever regretful or repentant. She made lovely homes for her family (in her favourite colours of pink, blue and gold) in England, Ireland and France. She became close friends with the other grand pariahs of exiles, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. After their deaths, she wrote a biography of the duchess.

Disgrace never affected her beauty or her privilege. A couple of years ago, I met her in Paris and was duly stunned by the clear blue eyes and the slender model's finger. Her friends regaled me with stories of her bravery and her wit, particularly when making fun of the absurd, yet real, privations of the prison years. Yet, despite Jan Dalley's new interviews and intelligent use of existing material, the fairy princess remains an odd sort of heroine, her motives and motor curiously unexplained. It is as if somewhere at her heart a thin splinter of ice has allowed her to sup with monsters and not regret it.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Will Peter secure peace in Ireland?