Saturday, 16 August 2014

Violet Hammersley by Diana Mosley

--- from Loved Ones, a Book of Pen Portraits 

published 1985







She was rather small and very dark, with black hair and huge dark eyes, and she had an expression of deep gloom. She had a rather low, hollow voice, and although she often laughed it was as if unwillingly…

When I first knew her she was already a widow, and widow’s weeds became her. To the end of her life she was swathed in black scarves and shawls and veils; in later years not exactly in mourning, because many of her clothes were dark brown, but the whole effect had something more Spanish than French about it. Once when she was slightly annoying my sister Nancy, who used the powder and lipstick universal among our generation, by saying: ‘Painters don’t admire makeup at all,’ Nancy retorted: ‘Oh well Mrs Ham you know it’s all very well for you, but we can’t all look like El Greco’s mistress.’ Mrs Hammersley gave her hollow, unwilling laugh.



observations: Mrs Ham is a great feature of the chronicles of the Mitford family – she would surely be all-but-forgotten otherwise, but lives on in their letters, and in the many books about the sisters. She is a splendid character, and whenever she turns up in the canon you can relax, knowing entertainment will follow.

Diana Mosley is of course even more fascinating, as we keep finding on the blog. Her politics were detestable: she was a friend of Hitler, and she was married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley and supported his political views totally. But once you get out of the way, there is still something left. She was a woman of principle and great loyalty, she found it easy to make and keep good friends despite everything (‘everything’ including imprisonment during the WW2 and the whiff – strongly denied - of potential treason). For someone claiming such strange views she had friends of all kinds – including many whom her husband’s desired political system would have condemned as degenerate, or Jewish, or both. There is a way in which she doesn’t add up…

Oswald Mosley was always the most outrageous philanderer, and doesn’t seem to have changed or adapted that at any point during his entire life: this was apparently a sorrow for his wives, but they both lived with it. Rather embarrassingly, Diana compared herself with her sister Nancy Mitford – who also had a great love who was incorrigibly unfaithful – and decided smugly that her Oswald (also known as Kit and Tom, to the confusion of keen readers of the letters) was not as awful as Nancy’s Colonel. Both men sound vile, but Gaston Palewski – the original of Nancy Mitford’s Fabrice in The Pursuit of Love – seems marginally more attractive, if you had to have one of them, and at least was not a fascist friend of Hitler.

Diana Mosley was stepmother to Nicholas Mosley, author of one of the blog’s best books of 2013: they had a very good relationship for many years, but ultimately she accused him of betraying the memory of his father (Nicholas wrote a 2-vol biog of Oswald), and so she refused to speak to him in the years leading up to her death in 2003.

She was simultaneously quite transparent and quite incomprehensible – those who knew her say she had great personal warmth and charm, but some of us (without the advantage of knowing her personally) wonder about the ice in her heart.

The photograph shows Mrs H with Jessica Mitford.

The portrait of her is by Duncan Grant and is in Southampton art gallery.

This week in the excellent #bookadayuk meme on Twitter I picked Diana Mitford as a controversial writer.

22 comments:

  1. Moira - It is so interesting when an author is at least as fascinating as her or his work. Mosley seemed to have almost a dual nature, certainly an inconsistent one. Of course, we humans aren't orthogonal, but still - really interesting stuff. And she paints a vivid portrait of Mrs. Ham, too!

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    1. She certainly could write well Margot, and has a gift for describing people. It's a pity she never tackled a novel, I think.

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  2. Moira, I'm impressed and intrigued by Diana Mosley both as a person and as an author. She sounds like she was a formidable woman.

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    1. 'Formidable' is a great word for her Prashant. From what I could gather, she could be very charming, but also very firm....

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  3. Oy vey! This is my comment on this crazy family: Pamela, an anti-Semite, Tom, a fascist, Diana, well, we know, a fascist, married to a leader, Unity, a bit of a mess.
    So, to me, Nancy and Jessica were the only ones I'd read about.
    But I can understand fascination with this brood and maybe Diana, but I'd run far away from her. Not a nice person, I don't think based on her views.
    Jessica has a memoir: That I'd like to read. The book on The American Way of Death has been well-known for years.

    But it appears the parents were quite Conservative and more so, with the mother supporting the more rightist of her children.

    I'm trying to think if we have a family like this over here. Can't come up with any, but I"ll ponder this question.

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    1. I think they were pretty unusual for over here Kathy - and particularly the range of political views they held. Jessica always sounds the nicest, and not just because she has by far the most sympathetic political opinions in my view. Of course she ended up living in the USA for most of her life.

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  4. What about Nancy? She looks pretty tame.

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    1. I love Nancy as a character, but I think she was quite difficult in real life - she could be very mean. A kind of high school bitch queen I think....

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  5. Moira: Now there is a modest standard for being a boyfriend - not to be a friend of Hitler.

    I consider Diana a good example of why I usually avoid learning about an author's life until I have read at least one of their books. I find myself to susceptible to forming conclusions about an author's writing based on their life rather than their books.

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    1. Good point Bill - at least by the standard of not-a-friend-of-Hitler, most of us have done very well in our life-partner-choices. Yes, life and writing can get very mixed up....

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  6. "high school bitch queen"... I like that. You make a good case for reading about the Mitfords, and I know I would find it interesting, but where is the time? I recently read about The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters. Don't know where or why. It isn't new. Have you included that in your readings?

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    1. Yes I have Tracy, but it is a huge book, and if you don't know much about the sisters then probably you just need to skim it. Too much detail! There are some good biographies - Mary Lovell and Laura Thompson particularly - which might make an easier start. And the Nancy Mitford novels are my favourites.

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  7. Another interesting factoid: Just googled Jessica Mitford and read a brief bio at Wikipedia. Interestingly, J.K. Rowling said the writer who most influenced her was Jessica Mitford and her political boldness; she named her daughter after her.
    See, I never would have even looked up this writer, if it weren't for this blog post.

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    1. Good for JKR! That's a really interesting snippet of information.

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  8. I've just spent awhile reading about Jessica Mitford, who had a good life and made many contributions to progressive, civil rights and civil liberties causes in the U.S. She wrote many more books than I knew, married a labor/civil rights attorney and had a good life except for some tragedies, which she seemed to have weathered.

    And Nancy moved to France, it seems, and wrote a lot of novels. But she also, apparently, told British Intelligence during WWII that her sister, Diana, was a fascist. Good for her.

    What a family. I must read Jessica Mitford's memoirs. And also, one of her children, Constancia Romilly, was involved in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

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    1. I'm dragging you in Kathy! I read anything and everything by or about the Mitfords. Jessica really was admirable.

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  9. And I'm not being dragged in kicking and screaming! Free will here.
    The Internet blogs just open up more topics and ideas -- and, of course, always mean more is added to the staggering, intimidating, falling over TBR list or stacks.

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    1. I love the way the internet has changed my reading - I love the ability to find most things really easily. Even though, as you say, that means there are more and more books piling up....

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  10. My Mitford journey began with the Bio The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary Lovell. It is excellent. And admirable or not...I've always found Jessica to be the most uninteresting of the sisters.

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    1. So which ones do you like? I am fascinated by Nancy, but think I would have feared her meanness.

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  11. Moira, you're incorrigible - what can I do to cure you of your addiction?

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    1. I knew you were missing them. Maybe I'm going to keep on featuring them until you are converted to them?

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