Famous Londoners: Diana Mitford - The Bright Young Thing
Rebecca McWattie takes a look at Diana Mitford, the third of the notorious Mitford Sisters, and details her rise to one of London’s notorious bright young things.
My old penguin copy of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate is without doubt the most well thumbed book in my possession. Even before I knew anything about the Mitford Girls it was fairly obvious that the writer was recounting her childhood and giving us hugely unflattering portrayals of eccentric family members. At once you are transported into the lives of six aristocratic girls brought up with only a nursery-room education and the influence of a strong-willed father.
The name Mitford became synonymous with glamour in the early part of the 20th Century. These girls had it all, beauty, money, brains and a dangerous aptitude for adventure. But it was the third daughter Diana who proved most captivating. In 1928, aged eighteen, slim, with blonde hair, and classical features, society fell in love with Diana the moment she was presented to King George V and Queen Mary.
Within weeks the wealthy Bryan Guinness proposed. Diana’s father, on hearing that Bryan was only twenty two, urged the pair to wait. Naturally they did not want to. As a young debutante, Diana must have imagined freedom was in sight, the end of the school room and the constraints placed on her by a controlling father. When she was married she could host her own parties, manage her own home and receive her own callers.
Anti-Feminist it may sound, but youth has a way of making us see other prisons as liberation. Diana married Bryan on 30 January 1929 at St Margaret’s Westminster. The wedding was widely reported on with gushing descriptions of the bride’s dress. Nancy Mitford’s autobiographical novel The Pursuit of Love published in 1945, writes of the young wilful character Linda marrying soon after being presented, ignoring her parents’ advice.
It isn’t hard to see who Linda is a poor disguise of – ‘I think Linda’s marriage was a failure almost from the beginning, but I really never knew much about it. Nobody did. She had married in the face of a good deal of opposition; the opposition being entirely well founded, and Linda, being what she was, maintained, for as long as possible, a perfect shop-front.’
On her return from honeymoon, Diana was determined to be a success. The only way for an upper class young woman to have a ‘career’ was to rule society, and she did. This was the era of Noel Coward and Evelyn Waugh, ‘ringing people up’, playing loud music on gramophones and lots and lots of parties. There were only two options available to you, if you weren’t throwing a fashionable party you had to be attending one.
Fancy dress balls were the novelty of the hour, with themes ranging from childhood, Ancient Greece, and cowboys. The fashion designer Norman Hartnell threw a Circus party. By the age of twenty Diana had become immortalized as part of the Bright Young People in Evelyn Waugh’s book Vile Bodies. Diana helped drive modern ‘celebrity’ culture, suddenly people wanted to know what restaurant she dined at, who she dined with and what she wore.
Tatler would even report on Diana’s latest hair style. This hedonistic lifestyle was simply a blip, a release from the despondency felt after World War I and a temporary pause before World War II. For now The Bright Young People partied on, unsuspecting of the cloud that would soon loom over Europe and the devastating impact it would have on all their lives. In ten years, Diana, the most sought-after woman in London society, would be shunned, publicly humiliated and a national hate figure.
Watch out for part 2 in this series on Diana and her sister Unity