Magazine article The Spectator

Henry James Would Have Passed an Open Verdict on Diana Mosley

Magazine article The Spectator

Henry James Would Have Passed an Open Verdict on Diana Mosley

Article excerpt

What better way for a journalist to start the new millennium than by making a retraction? Some time ago, in a review of a new biography of Diana Mosley, I compared her to Lady Macbeth, thereby suggesting that she was even more of a villain than her fascist husband, Sir Oswald. I did this because of her continuing refusal even to this day to regret, let alone apologise for, her uniquely intimate friendship with and admiration for Adolf Hitler, the ultimate monster about whom even her husband always had reservations. Her insistence that as far as she is concerned Hitler was nothing but kind and witty, I concluded, showed a heart so black as to border on the diabolical.

Even as I wrote these damning words I was aware, not of their unfairness to her that, I am ashamed to say, was not a serious worry - but of their crudeness, their lack of irony, their almost certain failure to do justice to the truth's psychological complexities. Imagine, for example, how Henry James would have written a whole novel about a character like Diana Mosley and still, after 100,000 words or so, left the question of her guilt or innocence very much in the air, At best he would have come to an open verdict of her being innocently guilty or, on the other hand, guiltily innocent. But I was trying so hard - as journalists have to do - to reach a resolution in a thousand words. No time for sitting on the fence when the end of the world (i.e. my deadline) was nigh.

But being now much more of a retired journalist with time for second thoughts as dangerous a freedom for a journalist as it would be for any other kind of executioner - let me indulge my new freedom by approaching the subject, not in the manner of a contemporary journalist who feels in duty bound to diabolise Diana Mosley for her obstinate determination to carry on talking about Hitler as a man rather than a monster, but rather in the manner of a novelist who, having played God by creating someone like Diana Mosley, feels responsible to her as his child, so to speak, rather than as just part of some abstraction called mankind in general. For, apart from God, only a novelist can put into practice the precept 'tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner' and demand for his brainchild, as that most perceptive of critics Michael Wood has written, 'a sympathy that we could not possibly want to extend in real life to real people - to murderers, bores, paedophiles'.

But Diana Mosley, it will be objected, is a real person whose words and actions had and have real consequences, so why should she be accorded the same indulgence as fictional characters whose words and actions are inconsequential? To this I would answer, simply because she is a Mitford; not only a Mitford but, I would argue, the Mitford - the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most bewitching, the bravest and the most spirited of all the five fabulous sisters, the combined exploits of whom do indeed constitute something of a 20thcentury epic. That they were no ordinary family cannot be gainsaid, For not only did the oldest, Nancy, fictionalise her family in a series of bestselling minor classics, but the other siblings themselves went on to live lives, ceaselessly reported in the newspapers, that were much stranger than fiction. So it could indeed be argued plausibly that, having become quite literally a legend in her lifetime, Diana Mosley does deserve to receive from us that enhanced and extended sympathy which it is the main purpose of the novel to arouse. …

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