Scary Mitford's story

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Diana Mosley by Jan Dalley (Faber, £20)

Diana Mosley by Jan Dalley (Faber, £20)

Heaven knows (very likely Hell too) that if anybody alive today deserves a major biography, it is Diana Mosley, nonagenarian widow of Britain's fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley and intimate friend of Hitler and Winston Churchill. In the 1920s, barely out of her teens and already married to Bryan Guinness, this frighteningly beautiful and witty young woman was the acknowledged leader of Britain's Bright Young Things, to whom Evelyn Waugh, then another ardent slave, dedicated Vile Bodies, the novel that made his name. Also, of course, she was one of the Mitford sisters - Nancy, Unity, Jessica, Pam and Debo, whose parents, Lord and Lady Redesdale, were so unfairly satirised in Nancy Mitford's famous novel, The Pursuit of Love.

But if you think, as I rather did, that we have already read more than enough about the Mitford girls, Mosley, the Bright Young Things and even Hitler and Churchill, then think again, since Diana emerges in Jan Dalley's fair and finely fashioned biography for the first time as a formidably fascinating creature in her own right: not so much a victim whose fate it was to live in terrible times but an active player, like Lady Macbeth, on a blood-stained stage.

Let me go straight to the high (or rather low) point - Diana's relations with Hitler. They owed little to Mosley, who hardly knew him, choosing to concentrate instead on Mussolini, and not all that much, either, to her sister Unity, who did little more than introduce them. It was the witty and elegant Diana, rather than foolish and awkward Unity, who made the running and on whom, it seems, Hitler developed a measure of dependence which, on her husband's behalf, Diana exploited determinedly and effectively. It makes an almost incredible story.

In the late 1930s Mosley badly needed money to keep his British Union of Fascists going. His own fortune had run out and a subsidy, previously paid by Mussolini, had been cut off, very likely on the advice of the Italian ambassador in London, Count Grandi, whose mistress - then Mosley's sister-in-law - he had characteristically stolen. To recoup, Mosley came up with the idea of launching a commercial popular music radio station, like Radio Luxembourg, on German soil - as hare-brained an idea in the late 1930s as ever there could be. Undaunted, however, Diana wrote to a friend who was head of German broadcasting, who did his best. But predictably the project was turned down flat, not only by the Wermacht and Luftwaffe, on grounds of national security, but also by Diana's even closer friend Dr Goebbels, the all-powerful Minister of Propaganda, on the grounds that such a station would challenge his own monopoly of the German airwaves. For anybody else that would have been the end of the matter. But not for Diana, who took up residence for long periods in Berlin's Kaiserhof Hotel, to lay siege to the Fuhrer himself. Here let Jan Dalley take up the story.

"These were often boring times for Diana, who spent the days waiting in her hotel room ... On occasional evenings, however, often very late the telephone would ring with a message from Hitler, over the road in the Reichskanzlei ... In a large, rather bare private room, in front of a huge fireplace, Hitler liked to unwind by talking half the night, and he and Diana were often left alone by his weary staff. There was nothing sexual in these encounters, although Diana is eloquent about the power of his charm, and he was obviously enthralled by her wit and beauty: he liked to talk about politics, as ever, and he liked an intelligent listener...

"On the radio discussions, though, progress was slow ... but in October 1937 came a blow that seemed to be final. A letter from Captain Wiedemann, Hitler's adjutant, ran: 'The Fuhrer regrets ... he is not able to agree to your proposal. I am very sorry that I cannot give you any other answer.'" But four months - and many nocturnal sessions later - Wiedemann wrote again, informing Diana that "The Fuhrer's interest was sufficiently rekindled for him to have taken the documents to read, although whether he had got round to reading them in these last few stormy weeks [Hitler was on the point of annexing Austria] I do not know. I would advise you to come to Germany again when things have settled down, and then you can get your decision from the Fuhrer himself." Needless to say, this is what Diana did, finally (against all the opposition) getting his consent - an outcome Jan Dalley justifiably describes as "almost miraculous".

This astonishing coup, which would have indeed made their fortune had not the Second World War intervened to set it at nought, was entirely Diana's achievement, since Hitler had no time for her husband. Sadly for Diana, however, the coup sealed her fate so far as the British Special Branch was concerned. For, having monitored her meetings with Hitler, they decided that her potentiality for war-time mischief was quite as great as her husband's, which is why in 1940 they were both incarcerated. At the time it seemed, to some, a cruel decision. Diana had recently given birth and she was feeding the new baby when the police came to drag her away. In fact, of course, she was always much more than a wife and mother. Indeed, as the biography unfolds, one begins to suspect that in spite of her having little or no interest in politics as such, she had become more like Mosley's evil genius than his stooge or cipher.

Then followed, however, not only Churchill's finest hour, but hers as well, since her conduct in Holloway Prison, particularly during the dreadful nights of the blitz was little short of heroic. Over again to Jan Dalley."Diana quickly became the leader of prisoners, taking her place at the head of the table at which the British Union women ate their meals, acting as an organiser and comforter to the others. She made herself popular in prison. When Winston Churchill tried to intervene to improve her conditions, asking that she should be allowed a bath every day, Diana declined this special treatment - there was only enough water in the whole prison system for four baths a day, and each prisoner was lucky to bathe once a week. She felt protective about her fellow inmates, some of them pitifully young ... and during the freezing nights of the blitz they would huddle around while the prostitutes entertained them with stories of their customers. Many years after Diana's release, an acquaintance of hers visited Holloway, where a Miss Davies, a warder who had worked there since the war, told her 'Oh, we have never had such laughs since Lady Mosley left'."

I can quite believe this. For such was Diana's love for Mosley that she would do anything on his behalf: bear the rigours of Holloway Prison in the blitz as cheerfully as the company of Nazi thugs in pre-war Berlin. How much further would she have gone if asked? Fortunately for her this is an academic question, since by the time the war was over, so were the Mosleys. The rest is not history. It was a pitiful anti-climax. For after a humiliating attempt at a political comeback in London's East End - this time on an anti-black rather than on an anti-Semitic ticket - they ended up licking their wounds in Paris, in the company of the Windsors.

But even after Mosley died in 1980 she steadfastly stood by her man, with never a hint of regret or doubt, always insisting that Mosley's pre-war record could and should be judged in a context entirely unsullied by that horror of horrors, the Holocaust. How could such a brilliant, clear headed woman - about the only person who could debate with Rebecca West and win - fail to make the essential connections?

Jan Dalley gives lots of possible reasons - the blindness of love, political illiteracy - but no excuses, leaving readers to assess her degree of culpability for themselves. On the evidence this magisterial book provides, however, I do not see how any explanation can fail to chill the blood. Either she was and still is a psychopath incapable of telling the difference between right and wrong, or cold bloodedly and clear-headedly ruthless to a degree bordering on the diabolical. Mosley, by comparison, is simple enough to explain. He was arrogant, vain, hot-blooded and brutal, with a muddy mind. In short, Hitler got it right. Diana was the more congenial of the two, the blonde and Aryan soul-mate of his dreams.