This book is such a strange, unworldly gem of a thing. Diana Manners is living proof that the English upper class might have been odd, chinless and wretched but they were also clever, generous, observant and brave. Manners was one of the bright young things (in fact, a close friend of Waugh, whom she called Mr Stitch, I think) for whom The Great War stuffed up the party forever more. Also gorgeous and and as highly strung as a Red Setter, natch.
It was speculated that she married Duff Cooper because he was the only suitable man left in her circle, but it seems a real love match in this book. Dog-eared, irascible love, with love affairs, long separations and devotions. A child born late and unexpectedly. A successful political career for Duff that takes them in this second volume of autobiography to the brink of war, with him as big brass for the Admiralty, bitching on the telephone with Winston. Chamberlain fires him.
And Diana has her own path which veers from silliness, clinging to admiration and compacts from Cartier for validation, to a horror of sudden death, to working the suburban hustings in elections, throwing parties in Geneva simmering with the tension of war, and entertaining jaunts with the POW and Wallis cruising the Adriatic. There’s also dinner with King George, and everything in between.
She was also a genuine stage star in a play that seems so silly and ponderous that surely we’re ready for a revival of it – The Miracle. She played the Virgin Mary some nights, others the Nun. She looked really hot in a wimple. It must have had something – all the luminaries of silent film from UFA and Germany were in on it’s staging – so it must have been gesturally interesting at least. The Americans adored it. I sniff ham. A lot of ham.
Such an extraordinary biography was enough to make me pick up this dirty old paperback with eye-bleed tiny print, but I wasn’t expecting much. Diana Cooper is an amazing writer – her skills are those of an inveterate letter writer, witty, sotto voce and full of private jokes, asides and codes. Abrupt changes in register only add to the book’s charm. Here are two extracts pages apart. This letter is to Duff, about the party she is planning to give for chums in Geneva during an assembly of the League of Nations – at where? Oh, Byron’s Villa Diodati. A surprise party, catered.
“Just come from visiting Maurice de Rothschild, who used swim with me in Venice covered in blubber. He still had some on his nose and chin today to cure a fast-generating cold. He was quite unselfconscious about it and snatched kisses as he showed me his monstrous chateau stacked with Boldini pictures of fine ladies with feet like submarines. I have to lunch with him and his blood-brother Litvinov tomorrow, in exchange for which supplice he will give all my boys dinner and Chateau Yquem.
On Friday I am throwing my Byronic fete in the empty Villa. The room was decorated by Jean Jaquet in boiserie and busts. The chairs are covered with chintz that Byron himself chose. John Julius and I have collected sixty candelabra from various antiquaires. I’ve ordered the collation – consomme chaud, langoustes, pate de canard de Perigord, entremets, friandises et fruits.”
At home in London the following week, preparing for war:
“I had found daytime occupation at the W.V.S., a body some years old, of voluntary women who give their services to a wide number of causes. Lay Reading, its begetter, had organised her helpers to assemble gas-masks for civilians, so Venetia Montagu and I sat in the Tothill Street workrooms clamping snouts and schnozzles on to rubber masks, parcelling them and distributing them to queues of men and women. Mothers would ask me for small ones for children. There were none as yet. I felt sick all the time, like many others, no doubt. It was a grisly job for a neurotic but better than inaction.”
Oh, to be a celebrity like this. Famous only to other people important to history or talent or breeding. And the rest of the world leaving you alone except for that lovely charge account at Fortnum and Mason and a wonderful tailor. Also a tromphe d’oeil painter for your library. No shit.
The letters between Cooper and her dear friend and “gothic farmer” Conrad Russell are the best thing in the book. Pleasure beyond comprehension. Literally, sometimes. Cooper makes glancing references to so many things that are simply gone from culture, the referents vanished. Made me sad that seventy years could do that – only an English person would be able to explain the things I had missed properly, an Englishwoman of a certain class, old enough to be dead.
I will be reading the other two volumes, and the published letters between her and Mr Stitch. She has bewitched me.