English author and socialite Diana Mosley (1910–2003) was the third of the famous Mitford sisters, a sextet of British socialites whose romances, political leanings, and literary talents were tabloid fodder for the better part of the 20th century. Once feted as the loveliest among the six, she was virulently condemned for her scandalous affair with Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, whom she married in a secret civil ceremony in Nazi Germany in 1936.
Diana Freeman-Mitford was born on June 17, 1910, at her parents' home, which was then 1 Graham Street in the upscale London enclave of Belgravia. She was the fourth child in a family that would grow to include six daughters as well as Tom, a much-adored brother who would be killed in action during World War II. Mosley's mother was Sydney Bowles, daughter of the writer Thomas Gibson Bowles, who launched Vanity Fair magazine in the 1860s. Her father, David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, was descended from the earls of Beverley and Ashburnham. He unexpectedly inherited the baronetcy conferred upon his father, a prominent diplomat, after the death of his older brother in World War I, and became the Second Baron Redesdale in 1916.
David Freeman-Mitford was a decorated military officer with a combat record in both the Second Boer War and World War I. Something of a dilettante, he was also notoriously eccentric and tempestuous and would be satirized in fiction penned by Mosley's sister Nancy, the oldest of his six daughters. Diana Mosley inspired the fictional character Linda, and would appear in Nancy Mitford's novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, which were published to critical accolades in 1945 and 1949, respectively.
Nancy, Tom, Diana, and the second-oldest Mitford daughter, Pamela, spent their childhood years at the palatial Batsford Park, the first Baron Redesdale's manor home near Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Gloucestershire. The three sisters were close-knit and adored their primary caretaker, a woman they called Nanny Blor. This relationship became especially important to them after their mother Sydney gave birth to a second trio of daughters: Unity, born in 1914; Jessica, who arrived in 1917; and Deborah, who was born in 1920, after the family's move to Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire.
All six of the Mitford girls were educated at home because their father believed that too much formal schooling would diminish their chances of making fortuitous marriages. Indeed, Mosley and her five sisters were cautioned from a young age to either expect to work for a living or marry, because their parents had limited financial resources. The sale of Batsford Park, which contained fireplaces large enough to host a small dinner party, was prompted by their father's need to pay an onerous inheritance tax. Living in Asthall Manor until age 16, Mosley then moved with her family to the newly built Swinbrook House, also in Oxfordshire.
As a young woman, Mosley chafed under the restrictive rules imposed by her parents and made the most of her time in Paris during 1926–27, enrolling in art classes. Because an unmarried young woman of her time was not permitted to travel alone, during one English Channel crossing the husband of her cousin Clementine Ogilvy Spencer-Churchill, future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, accompanied her. The Churchills' son Randolph harbored a longstanding crush on Mosley, but she rejected him as well as the other suitors who squired her to hunt balls and dinner dances during her debutante season in 1928.
Mosley initially spurned Bryan Guinness, heir to the Dublin brewing fortune, when he professed his love to her, but she made an abrupt reversal a day later and the two began dating. The couple were married at St. Margaret's Church in London on January 30, 1929, with 11 bridesmaids attending Mosley. A fellow aristocrat, Guinness was already in possession of a generous income and was set to inherit his father's title as Baron Moyne.
Mosley and Guinness lived in Paris early in their marriage, and they also kept homes in London and Dublin. Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh's 1930 satirical novel about a fast-living group of young Londoners, was dedicated to the couple, who had hosted Waugh during his time in Paris. Their primary residence was a charming villa in Wiltshire known as Biddesden House, and it was here that their first son, Jonathan, was born in March of 1930, followed 18 months later by Desmond.
The Mitford-Mosley affair was scandalous, and it became even more so when Mitford left Guinness to live near Mosley, in a flat on Eaton Square in London. Compounding this daring break from convention was her success in persuading her estranged spouse to agree to divorce her on the grounds that he was the adulterous party in their marriage. Both the Guinness and Mitford-Freeman parents were aghast at Diana's perfidy, and her five sisters ostracized her for a time. The situation was compounded by tragedy in 1933 when Mosley's wife died after surgery to remedy a burst appendix.
During these difficult years, Mosley became close to her next-youngest sister, Unity, who was intrigued by fascist political movements and seized the chance to ally with Diana and break free from her father's strict rules. Their brother Tom had strong connections to Germany through his university studies and travels, and these three Mitfords visited that country regularly. Given favorable treatment as members of the British peerage, they attended the massive Nuremberg rallies held annually in celebration of the Nazi Party's consolidation of power under Chancellor Adolf Hitler. They were also guests at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, and Unity eventually convinced her parents to let her live in Munich, where she became enamored of Hitler and spent increasingly scandalous amounts of time inside his inner circle. In 1935, the eldest Mitford sister, Nancy, satirized her sisters' political leanings in a scabrous novel, Wigs on the Green.
Mitford and Mosley were secretly married on October 6, 1936, in a civil ceremony hosted at the home of Germany's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda. Hitler was a guest at the reception and ordered that the official record be sealed to protect the couple's privacy. British newspapers had already mounted a fulsome campaign against Mosley, who had led supporters of his British Union of Fascists (BUF) on a march through a predominantly Jewish section of London just two days before his marriage. They also disparaged Unity, who made openly anti-Semitic remarks in the German media and wore a Nazi Party badge while attending a political demonstration in London's Hyde Park.
Mitford's marriage to Mosley drew scorn when it was made public shortly before the birth of their first son in late 1938. In the summer of 1939, while she was visiting Unity in Germany, Hitler warned them that war was imminent and that they should return to Britain. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Mosley had already returned to England, but Unity was so distraught over the declaration of hostilities between Britain and Germany that she attempted suicide. Mosley's mother and youngest sister Deborah now retrieved Unity from a clinic in Switzerland, where doctors had judged the attempt to surgically remove the bullet lodged in her skull as too risky. She would eventually succumb to meningitis related to her head injury and die in May of 1948.
Pregnant once again by early 1940, Diana was shocked when Mosley was rounded up, along with some 700 other BUF members, under the terms of Defense Regulation 18, a special wartime measure invoked under the Wartime Powers Act to help counter the threat of a German invasion of Britain. The regulation was expanded shortly after Winston Churchill was sworn in as prime minister in May of 1940. Mosley was especially aggrieved by the public outcry for her detention and included her sister Nancy and ex-father-in-law, Lord Moyne. In late June of 1940, 11 weeks after giving birth to her son Max, she was apprehended and confined to Holloway Prison. Eighteen months later, Churchill relented and allowed Mosley to join her there, where the couple remained until November of 1943. After that, they were subject to house arrest until the end of the war. Meanwhile, Mosley's brother Tom was killed in action in Burma in May of 1945.
Mosley and Diana lived in Wiltshire in the late 1940s, as he attempted to resurrect his political career. They moved to Ireland for a time before settling near Paris, in a spectacular villa built in 1801 and called Le Temple de la Gloire. Their close friends included another infamous couple, the former King Edward VIII and his American-born wife Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. Diana worked with Mosley on a magazine they founded in the 1950s and titled The European, and she later wrote a column for the British society magazine Tatler.
Mosley completed a biography of Simpson, who was widowed in 1972, and it was published in 1980, three years after Mosley's own autobiography, A Life of Contrasts. “It is best to say at the outset that Lady Mosley is capable of arguing that what happened to the Jews under Hitler was largely the fault of world Jewry, in not giving them somewhere else to go,” remarked Anne Duchêne in appraising the memoir for the Times Literary Supplement. Her review typified the lingering animosity many Britons still felt toward Mosley and her unapologetic stance regarding the Holocaust. “Everything else may be read in this appalling light,” Duch€ne added.
Late in her life, Mosley attained a rapprochement with her first two sons, as well as with her sisters. Deborah, who became the duchess of Devonshire, cared for her at Chatsworth, the ducal seat and one of England's most spectacular manor homes, after Mosley underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in 1981. Only months before, in December of 1980, Oswald Mosley had died. An unrepentant fascist, he had been banned from the airwaves of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for decades, and his wife's 1989 appearance on Desert Island Discs became one of the most controversial episodes in the history of the weekly radio program. It even incited a formal declaration of contempt by a faction in the British House of Commons.
Mosley, Lady Diana (Mitford), A Life of Contrasts: The Autobiography of Diana Mosley, Hamish Hamilton, 1977.
Spence, Lyndsy, Mrs. Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, the Thirties Socialite, History Press, 2015.
Independent on Sunday (London, England), July 13, 2003, Duncan Fallowell, “A Life in Full,” p. 8.
Times (London, England), August 13, 2003, “The Hon Lady Mosley; Obituary,” p. 26.
Times Literary Supplement, April 15, 1977, Anne Duchêne, “The Lady Varnishes,” p. 449.□