Sunday, 23 January 2011

Remarkable Women: Diana Mosley

The second of my remarkable women blogs concerns Diana Mosley. She was born Diana Mitford, on 17 June 1910. She was the third of the Mitford sisters, a subject of fascination, and latterly scandal and hatred. A figure mired in controversy, with distasteful, even dangerous politics, she is nevertheless a figure of popular historical interest and remarkable in her own way.
Her aristocratic origins were far from luxurious. She, her five sisters and one brother were brought up in a draughty country pile by parents who did not believe in education for girls or in anything as modern as central heating or even hospitals, with Diana famously undergoing a childhood appendectomy on the spare bedroom table.

Subject to parenting which vacillated between disinterest and authoritarianism, the Mitford children relied on each other for entertainment, with eldest sister Nancy being a merciless wit and tease, and Diana filling the role of the beauty.

By the age of 18 Diana was chafing to escape from her restrictive upbringing and meeting Bryan Guinness, an Irish aristocrat and heir to the Guinness fortune, was a welcome escape route. Despite parental objection based upon their young age, they quickly became engaged and married when Diana was only 19. At the time she was feted as one of the most beautiful and glamorous women of the age, and the union was the society wedding of the year.

Diana and Bryan lived a glittering life of parties and society events. Evelyn Waugh dedicated his novel Vile Bodies to the couple having been inspired by one of their raucous parties. They mixed with the main figures from theatre, literature, art, politics and society and existed within a gilded cage of luxury and glamour which was not curtailed when two sons came along in quick succession.

However the bubble was shortly to burst when after only three years of marriage Diana met Oswald Mosley. A swarthy, fiercely passionate man, he was born to a Baronet, had been a conservative MP at the age of 21 and then served as a minister in a Labour Government. Having become disillusioned with the available party politics he had set up his own political party and over time had become fascinated by the various fascist leaders springing up in Europe. He founded the British Union of Fascists in 1931 (also known as the Blackshirts) with the Daily Mail being one of his early supporters.

Mosley was also married to Cimmie, the daughter of the Indian Viceroy with whom he had three children. No stranger to infidelity Mosley had an extended affair with Cimmie's younger sister amongst many others, however his affair with Diana resulted in her quickly leaving her husband and children to be Mosley's mistress. Bryan behaved in an impeccably gentlemanly manner over the matter by producing fake evidence to allow Diana to divorce him on the grounds of his adultery instead of the other way around. (Bryan went on to have a second happy marriage which produced nine children.)

Cimmie was aware of the affair between Diana and her husband, however Mosley was committed to his wife and their three children and would not leave her. This situation changed dramatically in 1935 when Cimmie died of peritonitis at the age of 35 leaving the way clear for Diana and Mosley to be together.

Diana was entirely seduced by Mosley's fascist politics, and indeed many aristocrats of the time admired the Nazi movement, including the then Prince of Wales, the future Edward Viii. Diana's sister Unity became obsessed with Hitler and the two of them attended the Nuremberg rallies in 1934. They went on to meet and indeed become friends with Hitler.

When Diana and Mosley eventually married in October 1936 it was in the house of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and Hitler was one of the guests. Another two sons were born; Alexander in 1938 and Max in 1940 (who has of course recently been the subject of much salacious reporting as regards his alleged predilection for ladies dressed in Nazi uniforms).

By the time of Max's birth public opinion as regards the Mosley's both personally and politically was poisonous. When Max was only 11 weeks old Diana and Mosley were arrested and imprisoned without charge or trial. After a personal intervention by Diana's close relative, Winston Churchill, the pair were allowed to live together in a cottage in the grounds of Holloway prison. There they were allowed to garden, employed neighbouring sex offenders as domestics and used the time to read extensively. They were eventually released after three years imprisonment to much public disapproval, and were placed under house arrest until the end of the war.

Following the war Mosley tried to re-start his political career forming 'The Union Movement' and calling for a European single nation state, but he faced too much opposition and disillusioned the Mosley's left England to reside mostly in Ireland and France. Mosley did periodically try for re-election to the British parliament, usually on an anti-immigration stance, but without any success. He died of natural causes in 1980 and Diana mourned him for the rest of her life. All else aside there is no doubt that she deeply, passionately loved her husband from the moment she met him, at the expense perhaps of her own morality and certainly of her public and social standing

In later life Diana remained ambiguous as to whether she regretted her political views and infuriated many by refusing to repent for her views and actions. A many times published author she wrote in her 1977 autobiography 'A Life of Contrasts'; "I didn't love Hitler any more than I did Winston. I can't regret it, it was so interesting". A view I'm sure was shared much more discretely by many other high profile figures of her era.

Diana died in Paris aged 93. She left her four surviving sons, a large extended family including her model granddaughter and grand-niece Jasmine Guinness and Stella Tennant, and the sole surviving Mitford sibling; Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire.

Journalist and author India Knight described Diana as "Briefly sinister but also clever, kind and fatally loyal to her Blackshirt husband, Oswald Mosley". She was certainly a woman I find intriguing, though far from admirable, whose life touched and was touched by many of the major figures and events of her day.