Home to Roost and Other Peckings, By Deborah Devonshire
The Pursuit of Laughter: Essays, Reviews and Diary, By Diana Mosley
More 'Mitford-alia' to delight the gossips
Sunday 07 June 2009
If the 1930s were the Mitfords' heyday, the Noughties have been the equivalent for their devotees. Biographies, letters, anthologies: the past few years have brought masses of new material, coming to a head with last year's excellent collected letters between the six sisters. But if the war brought a decisive end to the gaiety of Nancy, Diana et al, there seems to be no end in sight to the Mitford-alia publishers can find, even if the material is beginning to run a bit thin.
This month brings two new volumes, both anthologies of articles and essays, one by Diana, the other by Deborah ("Debo") – or, in Mitford short-hand, by the Nazi and the Duchess. New is perhaps not quite the right word, as almost all of the material has been published somewhere before, in the case of The Pursuit of Laughter, only a few months ago in hardback. But the paperback is a vast improvement, thanks to the addition of two portraits, one of Lord Berners, the painter and composer, the other of Oswald Mosley (her husband); and the inclusion of a brilliant interview with Diana by Duncan Fallowell.
Fallowell visited Diana on several occasions in Paris, just before her death in 2003, and despite his being gay and her being a supporter of Hitler, the two hit it off famously. She was quite deaf by then, leading to some occasional confusion. "'Did you ever have a black shirt?', 'Did I ever have a black child?' 'Shirt!' Gales of laughter."
Actually, Diana had lots of gay friends before the war, including Lytton Strachey and Gerald Berners, about both of whom she writes in illuminating detail, but for some reason she could never equate Hitler with the concentration camps, as she reveals when probed by Fallowell: "I had a complete revulsion against the people who did it but I could never efface from my memory ' the man I had actually experienced before the war. A very complicated feeling. I can't really relate those things to each other."
In the end, her association with Hitler pretty much ruined her life, and even now the Mosleys are suffering. She spent much of the war in prison, where upper-class resolve came in useful: "[We] made a marvellous garden and grew fraises du bois which do very well in soot".
Gardening is one of Debo's themes, although, like Diana, she is best when writing about people. Even for those who don't fall for the clipped Mitford humour, nobody with an interest in the past century could fail to be interested in the gossip, which extends to just about everyone of interest. Debo even had a ringside seat at JF Kennedy's inauguration – she danced with him in London before the war when his father was US ambassador, although she'd been reluctant to go, as it meant missing the last shoot of the season. When the new president caught sight of her in the crowd he climbed over seven rows of seats to say goodbye, "to the utter astonishment of people sitting either side of us". Poignantly she would be back two years later for Kennedy's funeral, which generates one of the better anecdotes in the book. Flying back late at night with Alec Douglas-Home, the then-prime minister, their plane was diverted to Manchester, so she invited the party to stay the night at Chatsworth. "Sir Alec said if he crept into bed and lay very still we would not have to change the sheets for Princess Margaret who was coming the next day."
Debo is frequently underwhelmed by her grand acquaintances. When reminiscing about visits to Ditchley Park, a neighbouring house to her family home in Oxfordshire, she writes: "When Winston Churchill used the house for weekends away from the bombing in London, I was delighted by [the racehorse trainer] Jeremy Tree's yawns and sighs and evident longing to go to bed when the PM started – and went on – talking till the early hours. (My own children did just the same years later when Harold Macmillan came to Chatsworth and talked till the cows came home)."
For those unfamiliar with the Mitfords, neither of these books is necessarily the best place to start, but there is plenty of worthwhile material for those who already know the old jokes.
Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins gives rare glimpse of sensitive side with heartfelt open letter to her children penned in case she dies from epilepsy
- 2 Rihanna's Met Gala dress took one Chinese woman 2 years to make, was reduced to omelette meme in 2 seconds
- 3 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
- 4 Frankie Boyle on Scottish independence: 'In the Interests of Unity, F**k Off'
- 5 Florida couple forced to register as sex offenders for having sex on public beach
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: It is still gloriously silly
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
Eurovision 2015: What date and time is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
How the Other Half Eat, Channel 4 - TV review: Swapping food trolleys shows how food and class are closely connected
Noel Gallagher 'cannot wait' to hear Oasis-inspired One Direction album but rants about 'pointless' Tidal and Spotify
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: Post-election 'shambles' looms as 70 per cent of voters say SNP 'should not be able to veto UK government policies'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils