Controversial opinions and catty humour prevail in aristocrat's writings


BOOK OF THE DAY: CATHERINE HEANEYreviews  The Pursuit of LaughterBy Diana Mosley Edited by Martin Rynja Gibson Square 473pp, €20

THE PUBLISHING industry loves a good revival, and since the publication in 2007 of the wonderful The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, the literary world seems once again to have developed a “pash” on these remarkable women. By editor Martin Rynja’s admission, the letters were what prompted him to compile this volume, a collection of writings by Diana Mosley according to the book jacket, and also the most controversial, thanks to a devotion to fascism and her friendship with Hitler.

Comprising book reviews, profiles, articles and a “diary” (although this is a bit misleading, as it’s not a personal journal, but one she penned for a magazine), it may be a Mitford tome too far for the general reader.

It could also have done with a more vigorous edit, as there is a good deal of repetition – but these concerns aside, it represents the life in writing of a fascinating woman.

Book reviews make up the bulk of the material, and the innate hauteur of the aristocrat is put to good use in them. Mosley could be devastatingly dismissive of anything she considered stupid or, heaven forbid, dull, and she was also capable of being deeply condescending. She never misses an opportunity to rightly rail against imprisonment without trial, having been interned in Britain for three years during the second World War for being married to Oswald Mosley.

Other bêtes noiresinclude inept politicians, modern medicine’s commitment to life support, and books written “in American”.

There are some superbly catty remarks about individuals, with do-gooders coming in for a particular mauling: Eleanor Roosevelt is “a redoubtable prig”, while social reformer Violet Markham is likened to “a large frog in some very small puddle”. Some of her descriptions are cruel, others amusing.

And yet it is impossible not to be dazzled by the life Mosley led and the circles she moved in. She knew everyone from Wallis Simpson to Winston Churchill, Dora Carrington to Evelyn Waugh, and her personal recollections and anecdotes give added piquancy to reviews of the autobiographies and biographies of friends. Furthermore, these writings are testimony to the sheer rigour of her thought and the crispness and elegance of her prose. Many date from the 1990s when she was well into her 80s, but the clarity of her arguments (even when they are disagreeable) and sharpness of her intellect are undiminished.

Her command of history and understanding of the machinations of politics are formidable, and evident in pieces on the Dreyfus affair, Suez crisis and Profumo scandal. There are also frequent references to Ireland, which she knew well from her first marriage to Bryan Guinness. Of a night at the theatre in Dublin, she reports, with classic Mitford ennui, “the Abbey was a repertory theatre, but there was a dread sameness about the plays”.

Perhaps the most appealing writings in this collection, though, are the three portraits in the final section, of her friends Evelyn Waugh, Violet Hammersley and Lytton Strachey. In particular, her account of Hammersley, a dowager family friend (known wickedly as “Wid” among the sisters), is wryly funny and even affectionate – or as close to affectionate as an arch creature like Mosley ever seemed to get.

Just as being boring was unforgivable, so wit was the trait cherished most in friends, and could excuse any monstrous behaviour. There are many references to “shrieking” with laughter, and one suspects the Mitfords shrieked often, and at others’ expense.

Still, she is nothing if not loyal: of her friends, Mosley writes: “What they lack in good nature, they make up for over and over again in the amusement and interest they provide.” It’s a good a way to sum up this book.

  • Catherine Heaney is features editor of The Gloss