The Pursuit of Laughter: Essays, Articles and Reviews Diana Mitford, edited by Deborah Devonshire

Gibson Square, pp.416, 20

The Pursuit of Laughter: Essays, Articles and Reviews, by Diana Mitford, edited by Deborah Devonshire

Nancy was the only one of the six Mitford sisters who, throughout her life, bitterly complained of the fact that she had not been sent to school. Her younger sister, Diana, on the other hand, dreaded the very thought of school, and when they were children it was one of Nancy’s favourite teases to pretend she had overheard their parents planning to pack Diana off. ‘I was talking about you to Muv and Farve,’ Nancy would begin, a wicked gleam in her eye. ‘We were saying how good it would be for you to go away to school.’

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Luckily Diana was allowed to remain at home, where she received a first-rate education, mainly by reading widely in her father’s library. The reading habit stayed with her for life. She read for hours a day in English, French and German, and when in Holloway during the war it was the scarcity of printed matter that she found one of the most painful deprivations. As she describes in The Pursuit of Laughter, a wardress occasionally did the rounds carrying a tray of books, those bound in red by far the most popular as the women prisoners used the dye as lipstick. From time to time Lord Berners and other kind friends would send her their latest publications, but most of these were ‘distressingly short; a prisoner wants to look up from a book and discover that several hours have gone by unnoticed’.

During her long widowhood Diana Mosley became a regular reviewer for Books & Bookmen and the Evening Standard, and a selection of her reviews are included here. If most are too short and too ephemeral to make much impact now, they do demonstrate an impressively wide range, with articles on history and politics, on society and literary memoirs, and even on the occasional novel. There are dozens of very brief sketches of fascinating figures, from Cecil Beaton and the Duchess of Windsor to Putzi Hanfstaengl, Hitler of course, and Dr Goebbels. She is at her most entertaining, however, when having a go at one of her old enemies, Winston Churchill, who put her in jail, Duff Cooper and Harold Macmillan, with the most concentrated venom, curiously, reserved for that busy do-gooder, Violet Markham.

Longer, and therefore more rewarding, are the three pen-portraits reprinted here, of Evelyn Waugh, of Diana’s second husband, Sir Oswald Mosley, and of Violet Hammersley, an old friend of her mother’s. The material on Waugh and Mosley has been reproduced and incorporated many times elsewhere, but ‘Mrs Ham’ is a real curiosity. An elderly woman of strong character and great charm, Violet Hammersley was the wife of a rich banker, most of whose fortune had been lost soon after his death, leaving Mrs Ham to struggle on in a rather more modest way of life than that to which she had been accustomed. Much given to shameless self-pity, her low, hollow laugh and prophecies of doom were turned by the Mitfords into endless entertainment, magicked into a source of delight as much to her as to themselves.

Even more eccentric was Diana’s first mother-in-law. In 1929 Diana at the age of 18 married Bryan Guinness and quickly became fascinated by Lady Evelyn Guinness, with whom she used to be taken to stay at Bailiffscourt, a hideous farmhouse on the Sussex coast. Lady Evelyn was blond and blue-eyed, very pretty with an unusually tiny voice, ‘not exactly soft … more like a miniature hard voice, scarcely audible’. Sometimes she would take her house-party for a picnic on the downs:

When we reached the chosen spot the drivers of the cars unpacked a huge tea, a frying pan, a pat of butter, and eggs. ‘Diana’s so clever, Mummy, she can cook,’ said Bryan, bursting with pride. ‘I’ve never heard of such a thing, it’s too clever,’ said Lady Evelyn in her whispery little voice.

In conversation Diana Mosley was spell-binding, with her wit and charm, her powerful intelligence and blazing instinct for the truth. Yet unlike her author-sisters she falls slightly flat on the page. While Nancy and Deborah are natural writers, and Jessica’s coarse energy fuels her work with a bumptious humour, Diana’s style is strangely muted, only sparking into life sporadically. Her perceptions are so extraordinarily acute, however, and her personal history so fascinating that the book has plenty to offer both to Mitford fans and to students of the period.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Biography, Essays, Non-fiction